Friday, October 14, 2016

The Three Body Problem ~ Liu Cixin

**Warning – Spoilers!**

I love Science Fiction but I don’t read it very often – it’s so hard to find one that does not have those ‘Mad Max’ elements of silliness that really irritate me.  However, after Googling something inspiring to read in the vein of The Martian (which I absolutely loved) I came across a recommendation for the Chinese novelist Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem.  The recommendation states it is a cross between The Martian and Contact, however it is nothing like these two novels. But, it is different and I enjoyed it so much that I have just started The Dark Forest being the second book in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy.

The Three Body Problem is set along several time lines.  It opens with the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, and a young women called Ye Wenjie who witnesses the murder of her father.  Her younger sister and Mother have joined the Red Guards and Ye Wenjie is imprisoned for something she has not done. All these events compound in causing her to lose faith in humanity.  When she is finally released from prison, being an Astrophysicist, she starts work at the secretive Red Coast Base (similar to S.E.T.I.).

In the present day Wang Miao, a nanomaterials specialist, is plagued by the image of a countdown.  What is this the countdown for?  He is directed to a scientist who plays the video game The Three Body Problem created by the mysterious E.T.O. She tells Wang to stop working on his latest project and it will stop. Wang has also been commissioned by the police to investigate the E.T.O.  He sees the name of the game on her PC and decides to check it out further.  It’s a very unusual game where the people of a planet called Trisolaris must endure chaotic eras in between stable eras.  The chaotic eras bring immense heat or biting cold.  The Trisolarans must dehydrate their bodies and have them stored in order to survive.  Each level of the game is a different civilization as it progresses through eons of time, and the game itself only appeals to a certain type of person.  When this person is identified by the E.T.O. they receive an invite to a 'meet-up' of the Earth-Trisolaran Organisation.

On the planet Trisolaris (named due to its three suns) a signal has been received from Earth.  The signal is received by a 'listener' who sends a message back advising Earth not to respond, if it does then the Trisolarans will be able to pin point its location and they will come and they will invade.  They will not be friendly.

Ye Wenjie receives this warning at the Red Coast Base and answers back that humanity has lost its way – please come.

It will take the Solarans 450 years to reach earth, and based on mankind’s ever rapid advances from Stone Age to Steam Age, from Steam Age to the Technological Age, and then to the Information Age, they fear that by the time they arrive mankind’s science will have far surpassed their own.  The Solarans create a supercomputer called a Sophon that can interrupt scientific research on Earth and send out false results, effectively bringing scientific progress to an end.

Back on Earth scientists are committing suicide.  All that they know, all laws of physics, no longer apply or make sense.  The now retired Ye Wenjie’s own daughter commits suicide and Wang visits Ye to see if she needs any help.  It is via Ye that he finds out about the Red Coast Base and that the Solarans are a reality.

I loved the weirdness of the video game, the discussions on evolution and man’s progression through time.  I even understood some of the physics (something I failed at miserably in high school, and what my own sister lectures in at University in the UK.)

What surprised me was the graphic account of Ye’s father’s murder during the Cultural Revolution.  Being a Chinese novel I would have thought that this may have been censored, but I'm so pleased it was not, as it gives a very authentic background to Ye Wenjie's coldness and detachment from humanity.

This is my first novel by a Chinese author, and I did struggle a bit remembering the names and who the characters were but you do get used to them.  I’m not sure how the translation stands up to the Chinese language, but I do know that I want to find out if mankind will survive the Solarans!!


Friday, February 5, 2016

Ulysses ~ James Joyce

Words cannot explain how much I loved this amazing piece of work by Joyce!  I was astounded and flabbergasted by his knowledge and use of language. 

The structure of Ulysses is based on Homer’s The Odyssey, which I did read first, however without my study guide I would have missed an awful lot of the references, some of which were so clever that they were hilarious.  It is definitely beneficial to read The Odyssey first to fully appreciate the skill involved in creating the structure for Ulysses.

It is also beneficial to read A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man to understand the character of Stephen Dedalus.  This I also did, and loved it, although it was heartbreaking in places.

Ulysses is set in Dublin and is basically one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew (this in itself has many connotations which I won’t go into as the Study Guides describe it so much better than I).  Bloom is a bit of a loner, he’s on the outside of his group of friends, and he’s a cuckold.  He is however a very caring and gentle man, who dearly misses his son Rudy who died in infancy.  During the course of the day he finds himself concerned about Stephen Dedalus and tries to be a father figure to him, and after a challenging evening keeps him out of trouble.

Molly Bloom is Leopold’s voluptuous operatic wife, who is having an affair with the director of her theatre group.  The affair is no secret, and on the day that she is expecting her lover Leopold ensures that he fills his day and evening away from home. 

The events are mundane in themselves, a funeral, a visit to the newspaper office, a trip to the pub, a walk on the beach (where Leopold undertakes a lewd act), a visit to the ‘red light’ district (keeping an eye on Stephen) and eventually home again into the bed which is still warm from Molly’s antics.

The wonderful thing about this work is how it is presented.  First of all there are so many things that need to be kept track of (ie the lemon scented soap in Bloom’s trouser pocket which he buys in the morning, the outcome of the local horse race, and the various people he interacts with) as they crop up throughout the novel.  By various devices we learn about the history of Dublin and Ireland, its notorious figures (real and fictional) and politicians, along with the general mood of the day towards current events and Ireland’s stance with England.

The novel is written in many styles which, if read without a study guide, would be an impossible task to understand.  Once you realise what Joyce is trying to achieve within the style you marvel at his cleverness and revel in the words.  Such styles include one section which demonstrates the evolution of the English language from stylised Latin to Dublin slang.  Truly amazing! One part is written in the style of various prose such a newspaper accounts, diarists, sensationalist novelists, romantic novelists etc and another section is written like a play (the events in Night Town) etc. 

But, for me the most beautiful sections of Ulysses were those written as a stream of consciousness.  They were incredible, and made me think about the way that my own thought processes work and yes, like in the book, they do jump around and are unfinished. 

The last section is written as Molly’s stream of consciousness so that we finally get to see her point of view and why she is having an affair.  At first she seems to despise Leopold, but by the end you realise she does love him dearly and that realisation is the most beautifully written passage in the whole novel.

Ulysses is without doubt the most challenging book I’ve read since Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.  It took me a good five months to complete with the assistance of a study guide, reading half an hour each morning before work when I could guarantee no interruptions and no danger of falling asleep which always happens when I read in bed! I finished it late last year but I have been ruminating on it ever since, still trying to get my head around what I have experienced, and I know that I will never read anything like it ever again.


Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Harp In The South ~ Ruth Park

Set in the slums of Surry Hills in Sydney, during the Depression, The Harp in the South follows the misfortunes of the Darcy’s, a working poor Irish Catholic family.  It doesn’t matter where it is set, as this story can relate to any family living below the breadline.  The daily struggles become the norm, and there’s plenty of families with a father like Hughie – easily led when it comes to the drink and a few pounds in his pocket, and a daughter like Roie (Rowena) - too innocent when it comes to the boys.

'Mumma’ Darcy battles daily to make ends meet.  Two growing daughters, a husband who’s generally M.I.A. at the pub on pay day, an elderly mother, two eccentric tenants (not forgetting to mention Puffing Billy the temperamental coal stove), and all living in a rundown cramped terraced house among many other struggling families.

There is plenty of humour, but there’s horror too – the flushing out and killing of the bed bugs, a seedy abortion house, and the ever present memory of Thady, the six year old son who went missing whilst playing outside.  Mumma is constantly haunted by what could have happened to him, what he would look like growing up, and this comes to a head towards the end of the novel.

On top of everything else, there’s the sheer lack of privacy in the Darcy’s lives.  Everyone ends up knowing their business, and paper thin walls don’t help.  Mumma is constantly worried about what the neighbours will think, which clouds her judgement when Roie is assaulted and she stumbles upon Roie's terrible secret which must be kept from the neighbours at all costs.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald (in twelve daily installments in 1947) The Harp in the South is the second part of Park's trilogy, though it was written first.  It is nostalgic in the telling, which at times tends to gloss over the sheer awfulness of the Darcy’s lives, but it also makes you realise that if you have your family around you then you can pretty much face anything.  

Although I did read Missus first, The Harp in the South can be read as a standalone novel – but as I want to know how it all ends up I am currently reading Poor Man’s Orange too.

The Harp in the South was our six monthly ‘buddy’ read discussed via Twitter for January. (Follow @CaffeineChapter, @johnson_mjj, @JudyAuthor, @TomJohnson_Art, @Italiankiwiblog if you would like to join us for our next 'buddy' read!).