Cixin Liu’s THE THREE BODY PROBLEM

51kxQMvzMeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When this book came out, I read the description and was like, “Huh? I don’t get it? What’s it about?” And there was a good reason for that. It’s because this book is completely bananas.

The short answer is that it’s about aliens who’re planning on invading the earth. But the way they do it is so strange and surreal. They start infiltrating the world’s scientific establishment and getting the scientists to play this weird propagandistic video game that serves as a primer on alien history and biology. The book has a very murky, sluggish atmosphere. Everyone moves slowly. Everyone seems confused and trapped and hapless.

The book was translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu, which is strange for me, since I know that Ken Liu can form beautiful sentences, since he composes critically acclaimed English language speculative fiction, whereas the writing in this book, particularly the dialogue, is odd and stilted. For example, take the following passage:

Wang turned around and walked back to Shi. Forcing his anger down, Wang said, “The way you speak is not appropriate for a good police officer.”

“Who said I’m a good cop?”

“We don’t know why these researchers killed themselves, but you shouldn’t speak of them so contemptuously. Their minds have made irreplaceable contributions to humanity.”

“You’re saying they’re better than me?” Still seated, Shi lifted his eyes to meet Wang’s. “At least I wouldn’t kill myself just because someone told me some bullshit.”

“You think I would?”

“I have to be concerned about your safety.” That trademark smirk again.

 

Most of the awkwardness seems, to me, to lie in the transitions. A line of dialogue like “You think I would?” is alright, but it doesn’t flow naturally into “I have to be concerned about your safety.” It feels maybe a little too choppy to me. Obviously, it’s possible to translate that dialogue in a way that sounds more natural, so I can only assume that the awkwardness is an intentional choice on the translator’s part. In fact, in his afterward, Ken Liu writes:

The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.

Which is something that bears thinking about. I feel this most often in the Japanese fiction I read. I recently read a number of Kawabata and Tanizaki novels, and they don’t sound or feel like any kind of English-language fiction. They too have something of the same stilted formality as this novel, but in the case of those novels, the dialogue was much more arch and indirect. Here it seems like the dialogue might be a bit bogged down by the need to convey information. For instance, I felt like the first section of the novel, which takes place during the Cultural Revolution, didn’t contain nearly as much awkwardness. It didn’t read naturally, necessarily, but it wasn’t hard to read. It was only  when we reached the science-fictional part of the narrative that the writing became more difficult.

In any case, my ear eventually adjusted to the writing style, and I’m glad I persevered. I’m legitimately interested to see what’s going to happen and to learn more about the book’s ideas. And I’m actually sad that the second and third book in the trilogy aren’t yet out.

Four pretty good short stories that were published last month

Longtime blog readers may perhaps remember that in December 2010, I promised that I was going to read the top online SF/F markets every month and find nice things to say about at least three stories (in order to combat the pernicious feelings of envy that had been [and still are] assailing me). Well….my bad. I only did it once. Okay, but now it’s a new year, and I’m trying again.

I just finished reading the combined output January 2012 output of Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex, and Strange Horizons….err…except for the reprints*. I chose four stories this month, and they are below.

“Scattered Along The River Of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld) – This story is simultaneously about a woman leading a rebellion against an interstellar colonizer and about her granddaughter coming to an exile community to witness her heroic grandmother’s funeral. While I was reading this story, I thought, “Hmm, this is pretty good…but I’m not sure it’s going to be one of the ones that I blog about.” The story is beautifully written, and there is something very delicate about the very carefully calibrated narrative distance from which it’s told. However, the plot seemed banal. And then I got to the end. It has a great ending. A perfect ending. The ending ties up every strand in the story in one arresting image, and manages to comment powerfully on exile and assimilation.

“How Many Miles To Babylon?” by Megan Arkenberg (Lightspeed) – Okay, so sometimes I read a story, and even though it seems pretty good, I keep thinking, “What’s the point of this story? Why does it exist? What makes this story original?” and then, other times, I read a story and I think, “Holy crap, this story is awesome”. This story is one of the latter ones. It’s a man and a woman driving across a perpetually-darkened Earth, and perpetually under attack from these devilish pseudo-Biblical creatures. It’s full of arresting images: a civilization subsumed by rotting, leafless trees; a town on fire, with skeletal figures writing in the sky above…

But, do you see the problem? None of that stuff is exactly new. The hellish landscape is a mélange of Hieronymous Bosch, Hellboy, South Park, and everyone else who’s ever treated the subject. And the central plot of two survivors making a line-drive through a hostile environment to the supposed safety of some last redoubt has also been done a large number of times. And yet, I don’t care. I still really like this story. It’s weird biblical-horror tone and intense pace was enough for me. This makes me wonder whether I actually dislike stories for their unoriginality or whether I find them unoriginal because I dislike them.

“The Five Elements Of The Heart Mind” by Ken Liu (Lightspeed) – Sometimes I forget that there is such a thing as a science fiction story which hinges upon some interesting scientific concept. Most SF stories don’t have too much to do with science. They’re either about playing around with mythopeic tropes (aliens, robots, generation ships, immortality, etc) or they’re about gadgetry and futurismic speculation. This story is about an interstellar traveler who is marooned on a planet that happens to contain a long-lost colony that has regressed, technologically, into the Iron Age. There, she falls in love with a local villager. Now, that would be a pretty dull story (although it is very engagingly written), if it didn’t have a super amazing scientific speculation at its heart. I don’t even want to tell you what the speculation is, for fear that it will ruin the story. And what’s more impressive, the scientific speculation provides new vigor to the castaway plot. The whole thing really works. I was very impressed.

“The Chastisement Of Your Peace” by Tracy Canfield (Strange Horizons) – Okay, so this one is pure jealousy. Astute fans of mine might perhaps have noticed that doubling is one of my themes. I’ve written about office-slave clones (“Ted Agonistes”); a British Navy staffed entirely by parallel universe versions of Admiral Nelson (“Death’s Flag Is Never At Half-Mast”); a society created by the discarded nanotech replicas of one man (“The Association Of The Dead”); and a tiny cockroach that gives birth to replicas of itself (“What Everyone Remembers”). I don’t know why, okay. I just love doubles. And I have so many more unpublished stories and story ideas that involve doubles. If I published them all, I could literally populate a whole collection of doubles stories. And when I read Tracy’s story about a world populated entirely by parallel universe versions of Jenny Sirico (just one random woman), I thought, “Damn, I wish I’d witten this one.” It’s not only an idea that I love, but it’s treated in exactly the manner that I love. It’s full of all these fun little flourishes that give the Jenny-world the illusion of being as rigorously logical as (we hope) the real world is. And I like the direction that the actual story went, too. Everything about the story really clicks. It feels like, given this setting, the story used the exact right character and told the exact right story.

*I’m sure that some people enjoy reading the reprints, but I am not one of those people. I kind of feel like the only reason to read a monthly fiction magazine is to get a glimpse of what’s new…these stories are literally the latest thing that is happening in the SF/F world. The reprints are probably pretty good, but they’re just not new, and hence they’re hard for me to get excited about. Whenever I want to read reprinted short stories, I prefer to read them in a Year’s Best or single-author collection.