The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

Keep reading this book: the first three-quarters seem aimless, and I gave up. What’s at stake? Who gives a damn about this video game? (I also have an anti-video-game prejudice.) But enough people I admire recommended the book that I kept going, and I’m glad I did.

And after The Three-Body Problem, I read the next two which are in some ways structured similarly: somewhat meandering first halves followed by shocking reversals and revelations, culminating in a work of deep time that does not seem to break special or general relativity but does work with them.

The real terror here is not the many monsters of fairy tales, whether ancient or modern, but knowledge itself: “If even an extremely simple arrangement like the three-body system is unpredictable chaos, how can we have any faith in discovering the laws of a complicated universe?” Wang asks about two-thirds through the novel. I will not offer the answer, but I did read Martin Rees’s essay “Is There a Limit to Scientific Understanding?” just before re-starting The Three-Body Problem. One hopes there is no limit to scientific understanding, but that is a hope, not a guarantee.

In the “game” Wang plays in The Three-Body Problem, a civilization keeps being destroyed by perturbations in the orbit of three suns around a planet (hence the title). Each time he enters the world, he needs to observe or solve a problem in order for the civilization to advance—it’s a bit like the computer game Civilization or Age of Empires. Except this game seems to have unnerving, mysterious consequences in the real world.

Not much is explained, and it’s hard to identify the “missing” information pieces in the novel; The Three-Body Problem doesn’t seem to have rules, as other novels do. In a mystery novel, the implicit rules are there, and the killer is human, with human motives and values. He (usually a he, but not always) cannot destroy humanity itself. A mystery novel is like a war using conventional weapons. Unpleasant and miserable, perhaps, but unlikely to be existentially destructive. Nuclear weapons are different: they could be existentially destructive, and war with them is different. Some novels seem to have no internal rules and no guarantee that the good guys will win, or even that any guys will survive. These novels are existentially unsettling, and they tend to be classified as SF; Three-Body is one of them (Blindsight is another).

Initially the novel starts in China’s Cultural Revolution: “During those years, everyone had a special sensitivity for their own political situation. The sense was especially acute in Ye Wenjie. She felt the world around her closing in like a sack being drawn shut, and everything press in on her.” We may think the novel is about politics, and it often is, but science is its bedrock, for reasons I don’t want to elaborate here but that will become apparent over the trilogy’s course. The novel’s world depends on science, but also on the fear of contact with a more technologically advanced society. In Three-Body, Wang finds that “This civilization seems to have developed to a very advanced state.” The implication being, of course, that it may soon be destroyed.

Some spoilers follow. In later books, the possibility of civilization extinction is explored and occurs. The third book in the series, Dearth’s End, finds that one threat had, from humanity’s perspective, “lasted close to three centuries [. . .] yet what took its place was an even crueler universe.” People—in the broadest sense possible—who don’t struggle and win, die. There is no long-term respite from competition.

We don’t often see modern fiction imply this. A nonfiction book like Zero to One may, but most who read Zero to One aren’t seeking its darker depths. Perhaps we should go there.

If you read The Three-Body Problem, don’t give up halfway through, as I did. Often, when the book (and not just the first one) seems like it’s at best dully meandering, something shocking happens. That sense of complacency and direction shattered happens again and again, perhaps as a metaphor for life. I don’t fully understand the extensive metaphoric readings the books could be given, and that’s good news: they’re rich enough for re-readings and many readings, in a way many books aren’t. There are also many sub-genres of science fiction stashed in it, ranging from first contact to deep space exploration to the many-worlds theory.

Some things remain strangely absent—we don’t get AI centuries from now?—but they can be ignored because there’s so much on the page.

Briefly noted: Nexus – Ramez Naam

Read Nexus for the plot rather than the sentences; I’m looking for an evocative sentence to quote by way of example and not finding any, while banal sentences are everywhere. In this world, Nexus is a drug or treatment or process (the “right” word doesn’t exist) can link people’s minds directly together, allowing people to experience what another person experiences—or to invade and control another person’s mind. The protagonist is a grad student who figures out the next technical step in the Nexus process.

One could say that the Nexus drug / treatment will radically increase empathy, with unexpected or unforeseen results. In-group empathy seems to have been important to the evolution of human cooperation, so artificially further increasing empathy could have unpredictable outcomes, just like no one foresaw Facebook as being a central part of the Internet experience for most people. Making empathy radically common could decrease some kinds of violence. But it can also leave people susceptible to predation. But as one character observes, “If Nexus 5 ever gets out, it’ll spread like wildfire. Permanent integration means a user only ever needs to procure a single dose for a lifetime effect. You can’t fight that on the supply side.” He’s right about the supply side, as we’ve seen from the supposed “war on drugs,” and he’s right that people will likely want a drug that leads to unbelievable euphoria, sex, and knowledge—but note too that the character resorts to cliché: “it’ll spread like wildfire.” Do things spread in some other fashion? Can we fine something better here?

No:

Kim and William furiously hit keys [. . .]

Sam took her time in replying. “I’m human, Kade”.

Does a person take time “in replying” or “to reply?” And is just saying “paused” easier? These kinds of language infelicities can be called minor but when they recur throughout the novel they become major.

Still, properly read, Nexus may be about the dangers of dual-use technology: “They’d built Nexus OS to give people new freedoms, new ways to connect, new ways to learn. Not to use it as a tool for control or assassination.” The Internet was arguably invented in part for new ways to connect and learn, and now it’s used for virtue signaling, character assassination, and petty rivalry blown up to the world stage. Things have not gone as I once imagined they would. I used to be an Internet utopian. No more. Yet maybe Nexus would be different, though Nexus also raises the essential philosophical question: “What is real?” If another person can reach into your mind and rearrange it, what stops them from planting whatever memories or preferences they want? What, in this scenario, makes an individual an individual? “Nothing” seems to be the answer to that last question.

In Nexus, as you can likely tell from what I’ve written so far, the ideas seem more important than the words expressing them, which may say something about the underlying work. The book seems destined for TV, where the quality of its sentences won’t matter. I’m not unhappy to have read the book, but if you’ve not read Blindsight and like SF, start there. Still, I’ll read the next Naam novel after the Nexus trilogy.

Briefly noted: The Magicians, re-read, and the TV show

The Magicians holds up well (and the link goes to my original review). What stands out still is the relentless focus of Quentin on happiness: I’d guess that the word appears at last a dozen times, and maybe more, in the novel—too often for anyone who is actually happy to think about it. Quentin’s melancholia is a sort that, if it can be cured, cannot be cured in the ways in which he is attempting to cure it. Don’t be fooled by the magical trappings: the novel is still primarily psychological.

Between now and then The Magicians has been made into a disappointing TV show; that show has high points and funny moments but it cannot overcome a fundamental problem that is illustrative for other writers: it advances all of the characters’ ages by five to ten years, which defeats much of the point and pleasure of the book. The book is about coming of age. It is stuffed with references like this one, from late in it, when (I don’t think this gives anything away) most of the main characters make it to Fillory: “For all the glory of their high and noble purpose, it felt like they were going on a summer-camp nature hike, or a junior high field trip, with the kids goofing on and the two counselors looking dour and superior and grown-up and glaring them back into life when they strayed too far” (one decent definition of being grown-up is that you are no longer concerned with appearing grown up (or not)). It is hard to feel glorious and “noble” when you are being supervised by adults who’ve really seen the world, as Dint and Fen (their guides) have, or apparently have.

Characters who are in the 22 – 30 age range are less likely to analogize their lives to summer camps or junior high field trips. This may seem like a minor point at first. In the show, the characters are still angsty, but at their age their style of angst no longer makes any sense, as they ought to have decently developed, decently resilient personalities by then. That they do not is the flaw the show never manages to overcome.

To be sure, The Magicians tv show does have excellent individual moments, but they don’t add up to much. The actor who plays Penny in particular is a standout (unfortunately, there is something off about the one who plays Quentin). Mostly, the show is an exercise in showing why HBO is so good at its shows and the SyFy channel is so not good at its shows. The Magicians as a TV show is a weak show with a strong one lurking obviously within it, which may be the most frustrating kind. The ones that are transparently bad are just passing phenomena. The ones that are transparently good offer their pleasures. The ones that could be good pain.

Briefly noted: Leviathan Wakes — James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is defiantly, definitely okay; the biggest problem with it isn’t the novel itself but having already read Blindsight, which its some similar notes but is just a much, much better novel.

Leviathan Wakes is big on game theory, empathy, and political questions. They start early—”The temptation to have an unexplained comm failure, erase the logs, and let the great god Darwin have his way was always there” happens on page 14—and don’t really relent. Still, I dislike the implication that “the great god Darwin” thinks that individuals and small groups are inwardly selfish; evolution has also endowed us with the ability to cooperate, and humans are super-cooperators, alone among animals.

Leviathan_WakesBut the divisions among people may change shape and form, but they always remain, at least as long as we live in a world of economic scarcity. In Leviathan Wakes, Earthers, Martians, and Belters (those who grow up and/or live in the Asteroid Belt) are the primary divisions. I write this in 2016, and in the current European and American political systems there are spasms around divisions that, viewed from the proper perspective, will seem trivial. The other day I heard someone say that Trump has a point about immigrants. I agreed and amplified, suggesting that he do something about the filthy, lazy Irish and Italians, with their Papist ways and mooching dispositions. The guy I was talking to didn’t know what to do with that; the Know Nothing Party may be gone, but its ideas live on for as long as humans have a powerful psychological need to divide ourselves into tribes.

In Leviathan Wakes some descriptions are good (on a space station, “The air smelled beery with old protein yeast and mushrooms” or “The circle of life on Ceres was so small you could see the curve”), but the text can usually be described as nondescript. It’s rarely bad but rarely stellar. For example, the sentence after the one about the circle of life on Ceres is “He liked it that way,” which is representative of the novel’s language.

The sense of mystery is strong, though, and mostly excuses the sentences. You’ve read worse. You’ve read better. The plot gets sillier as the novel progresses.

What else? There is a convenient magic drive that gets people from place to place relatively rapidly. It’s hard to imagine that genetic engineering won’t have re-made the human species by the time we develop advanced space stations with room for millions of people. Did people in 1750 imagine that in 2000 we’d still be riding horses and firing muskets? Because imagining 2250 without substantial genetic engineering is hard (unless there’s an apocalypse in the meantime, which is also possible).

Leviathan Wakes is guilty of many of Charlie Stross’s space opera clichés, but I mostly forgive it. I just can’t imagine wanting to re-read it.

My Amazon review of Peter Watts’s Blindsight

People read Amazon reviews and Watts reads his, so I left this one.

Listen to the positive reviews: Blindsight is one of the most stunning and incredible novels I’ve read, ever, and that’s among all novels, not just SF. To describe Blindsight is not to do it justice: Like Ulysses, the plot can be summarized but the texture of it cannot really be conveyed save through the reading itself. Ulysses might be summarized as, “Neurotic man wanders through Dublin, gets stuck in his own head.” In that sense, Blindsight might be summarized as “The link between humans and post-humans encounters aliens, and nothing will ever be the same.

BlindsightBlindsight is on my mind because I just finished Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey. It’s a competent, fun novel. It’s even good at times. But it covers territory similar to Blindsight’s, only less mind-blowing. It’s less developed. One can have literary blind sight and enjoyable read Leviathan Wakes, as I did, but reading them next to each other will show that something is missing from Leviathan Wakes. One needs total vision and a third eye to get Blindsight. To be sure, most people never reach enlightenment. But without reading it, you’ll never know if you can get there, or if you’ll be left at the foothills like most of us are.

The world is very different from ours in key ways but doesn’t yet have AI; before Firefall, Siri Keeton, narrator, who is supposed to have no feelings and only observation, is doing this:

I’d been liaising for a team at the Kurzweil Institute, a fractured group of cutting-edge savants convinced they were on the verge of solving the quantum-glial paradox. That particular log-jam had stalled AI for decades; once broken, the experts promised we’d be eighteen months away from the first personality upload and only two years from reliable Human-consciousness emulation in a software environment. It would spell the end of corporeal history, usher in a Singularity that had been waiting impatiently in the wings for nigh on fifty years.

But it hasn’t arrived. Not yet. Not in Blindsight’s world, which is also Siri’s world. To us it’s an odd one:

You hire people like me; the crossbred progeny of profilers and proof assistants and information theorists.

In formal settings you’d call me Synthesist. On the street you call me jargonaut or poppy. If you’re one of those savants whose hard-won truths are being bastardized and lobotomized for powerful know-nothings interested only in market share, you might call me a mole or a chaperone.

He works in “the rotational topology of information and the irrelevance of semantic comprehension.” Oddly, that may be what a lot of us do: understanding surfaces without understanding depth, if “surface” and “depth” have any meaning at all. That’s one of the (many) question Blindsight asks (Leviathan Wakes asks political economy and cooperation questions). To restate many of them would take many thousands of words. That is another way the novel is like Ulysses.

Echopraxia — Peter Watts

Echopraxia is among the best books I’ve read, ever, and is as weird and good as its predecessor, Blindsight. If you haven’t read Blindsight start with it.

Like Blindsight, I had only some idea about what was happening throughout the first read and less about why. Why that is is itself an interesting: The characters in many books about “smart” people—let’s take Harry Potter as an example—seem like dumb people’s ideas of what smart people are like. In Science Fiction that’s often less true, and in Echopraxia it isn’t true at all. The novel is a smart person’s idea of what intelligence beyond human comprehension but still observable might be like. Too few novels have characters who feel intelligently intelligent, as opposed (possibly) to emotionally intelligent, or simply unintelligent. In many thrillers and detective novels characters are cartoonishly intelligent, through unearned insight; in this respect they have more in common with characters in, say, romance novels than with those in Echopraxia. That is a less popular subject than who is doing what to whom. References in Echopraxia range from Plato’s cave to Dawkins to imaginary future scientists. Minds are often analogized to computers, as in this moment the start of the novel, when vampires rebel against their jailers and creators:

She towered over Sachie like an insectile statue, motionless, even her breathing imperceptible. Moments from death and with nothing better to do, some subroutine in Sachie’s head ticked off the morphometrics: such inhumanly long limbs, the attenuate heat-dissipating allometry of a metabolic engine running hot.

echopraxia_coverWhat is “better to do” moments from death? And are subroutines the right metaphor for the brain? I don’t know, but Echopraxia asks what, if anything, is essential for “humans” (or whether “humans” are essential). The novel takes place fourteen years after the Firefall from Blindsight, but “Fourteen years is a long time for a species raised on instant gratification.” In this world zombies are real, some viral and some surgical: every consciousness is trying to get on top of and sometimes overwhelm another consciousness. Watts is fond of the third-person plural “they” without distinguishing who “they” are in a given moment or situation.

The form of the narrative mirrors the mental state of Brüks—that is, characters are continually having epiphanies that the readers must catch up with later, if we ever do (Why exactly is the Bicameral order being attacked, again, and, more importantly, by who? I think I can answer but am not entirely sure). This is disorienting and at least for me doesn’t stop being disorienting throughout the novel. Was it equally disorienting to write Echopraxia, I have to wonder?

The lack of pronoun referents goes deeper than an observation. One could see Watt’s novels as an extreme version of a theory from the introduction of Umberto Eco’s The Open Work:

[Modern open work] through its lack of conventional sense and order [. . .] represents by analogy the feeling of senselessness, disorder, “discontinuity” that the modern world generates in all of us. Thus, although open works are not the only kind of art to be produced in our time, they are the only kind that is appropriate to it; the conventional sense and order of traditional art reflects an experience of the world wholly different from ours, and deceive ourselves if we try to make this sense and order our own. (xiv)

In Echopraxia the structure of the book is not precisely shocking—it proceeds more or less chronologically through time, and its narrator is not as far as I can tell trying to be deceptive. But if the present has increased “the feeling of senseless, disorder, ‘discontinuity,'” then the post-human and fast-paced technological future will increase that sense further and faster, especially if and when humans create beings (I use the word because I lack a better one) incomprehensible to humans. The future’s experience in this reading will be a “world wholly different from ours,” and imaginative art is one way to prepare for the possibility of that future. For much of human history technology has been a positive force (though anyone caught in the battle of the Somme, or by Russia’s secret police, or by Agent Orange will have reason to disagree), but past returns are no guarantee of future returns.

Technology, Echopraxia implies, can turn myth or nightmare into fact. I did not catch any references to Pandora’s Box, perhaps because such a mythic allusion is too obvious in a book that eschews obviousness at virtually every level, but the applicability is obvious. In The Open Work, Echo writes that “Art knows the world through its own formative structures.” So does consciousness. But what if consciousness is in turn limited by its own formative structures? Verbal and written expression are already tremendously limited, which is part of what gives both, and especially written language, their powers. Addressing those limits in words themselves is a serious and perhaps impossible challenge.

Still, some points recur. The word “gut” appears at least three times that I counted, and maybe more. There is much discussion of “the species” and what traits or habits maintained it in the past but might not be useful in the distant future. There is no such thing as “nature” or “natural life,” and there are no guarantees that humanity as we know it will survive. That there is no real fundamental “you” or “me” is an ancient fear, and Echopraxia terrifies and confuses by saying: “Maybe this fear will yet come to pass.” One reading of the novel is as a description of the transition point from human to non-human. Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles engages similar themes but without overt death, and without the psychological manipulations of Watts. The Elementary Particles does not have the same kind of biohacking and especially viral biohacking. Echopraxia feels more about emergent phenomena and how difficult they are to control—which may explain why Jim Moore’s son Siri Keaton needed, for reasons essential to the story, to experience what he did.

Eco also says that “nowadays, in our technological civilization, objects have become so pervasive, so sophisticated, so autonomous that we feel threatened by them.” The distinction between “objects,” “life,” and “humans” is slowly breaking down. To take one personal example, I, like millions of other humans, have a piece of plastic inserted in my body. In my case, that plastic mimics bone. What happens when it mimics brain? What happens when the greatest threat from pervasive objects is not visible? The answers may be a long time coming and may not involves aliens or vampires.

Science fiction is different from most fiction in that most plots in most fiction devolve to posturing for wealth, sex, status, or political positioning. Echopraxia is particularly different, because it imagines a world so far from our own, and it imagines what a transition point from humans to non-humans might look like, both from the humans’s perspective and, to the extent possible, from the perspective of non- or trans-humans who wish to explain themselves, to the extent they can, to humans. Language is a funny thing; it relies on some level of shared referents in order to work, and trans-humans may come to utterly lack shared referents. Humans may bootstrap trans-humans into being—both because humans want to, and, as Echopraxia and Blindsight imply, because perhaps we must: we must keep advancing in order to try to save ourselves from ourselves.

There is much else to write about Watts. If a novel is a machine for generating interpretations, Echopraxia and Blindsight generate more than most. They are also beautiful, weird, and like no other books I’ve ever read.


Here is The LA Review of Books. Here is Watts on Reddit. Here is a Locus Online review. I don’t remember who first inspired me to read Watts but if I did I’d thank them.

Shaping Things and Bruce Sterling’s technoculture

Design is hard to do. Design is not art. But design has some of the requirements of art. The achievement of greatness in art or design requires passionate virtuosity. VIRTUOSITY means thorough mastery of craft. PASSION is required to focus human effort to a level that transcends the norm. Some guitarists have passion, especially young ones. Some have virtuosity, especially old ones. Some few have both at once, and during some mortal window of superb achievement, they are great guitarists.

That’s from Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, and I admire the distinction between design and art, which overlap to some extent but not totally; his point about “passionate virtuosity” is one I’ve seen elsewhere but is worth repeating, because it seems like so many seemingly different fields require the same thing. Certainly writing does, and one sees too many people with the passion or the virtuosity but not both.

Another sample:

I do write a great deal about technology. That became my theme as an artist. The human reaction to technological change—nothing interests me more. I want and need to know all about it. I want to plumb its every aspect. I even want to find new words for aspects of it that haven’t as yet been described.

I would guess artists, especially of narrative arts, are going to have to pay steadily more attention to technology: it informs too many lives too much to ignore, and people have as many disparate response “to technological change” as they do to love.

The book itself—Shaping Things—is interesting without being captivating. It needs more examples and case studies, and fewer grand pronouncements; it resembles a lot of literary theory in this way. If you get a physical copy, you’ll also find terrible design, with all kinds of doodads, weird fonts, random backgrounds, and so forth, all of which distract from readability in the name of being weird (those capitalizations in the blockquote above are in the text). It’s a kind of anti-Apple product.

The book’s design is distinctive, but distinctive is automatically good, and as a mechanism for transferring ideas via text Shaping Things isn’t optimal because of those distractions. Nonetheless, the idea density is high, and I’m going to keep my copy, at least for the time being. Like Sterling, I’ve become steadily more interested in design and what design says about people and culture. I’m not sure how that’ll work into my fiction, but long-simmering ideas and interests tend to emerge in unpredictable ways. For example: I’ve thought about a novel in which a camera shows an emotionally stunted photographer—along the Conrad and Houllebecq lines—who thinks in the language of photography itself what the photographer takes to be the future. Or is it? Photographers have a rich array of metaphors to draw on, and they have to be attuned to light, shapes, and the interplay of things and colors. Cameras themselves are technologies, and in the last 15 years they’ve become computers, with rapid advancements from year to year and all of the technolust that implies.

I don’t know where this idea might go, or if it will go at all, but I’ve been mulling it for a long time. A character like the one or ones I’m imagine would be reacting to technological change. I won’t say “nothing interests me more,” as Sterling does, but human reaction to technology is certainly up there, as I increasingly think it has to be, for people in virtually any field, if one wants any real shot at understanding what’s going on.

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