Review of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End

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Death’s End

Cixin Liu

London: Head of Zeus Ltd., 2016

ISBN: 9781784971649

604 pp.

Translated by Ken Liu

Death’s End is the final part of Cixin Liu’s extraordinary trilogy that began with The Three Body Problem and continued with The Dark Forest. There are some spoilers in this review of these earlier books.

Humanity was challenged by the Trisolarans, whose fleet of seemingly all-powerful spaceships are inexorably speeding through the night towards earth. Advanced technology meant that a Trisolaran presence already existed and it was able to prevent humanity making any new scientific breakthroughs. To keep the alien enemies at bay, those few individuals chosen to lead the defence of their people make public the desperate danger of the Dark Forest – any species that demonstrates the ability to travel in space and allows its location to be broadcast will be destroyed by unknown aliens. It may take some time for the final strike to be made and it may be possible to make some preparations but it does appear that resistance is, ultimately, futile.

This is the situation at the beginning of Death’s End – a tense stand-off with the Trisolarans over an enormous expanse of space. One person has been designated as the Swordholder and he is the one responsible for triggering the death of the enemy’s home planet if their ships stray beyond the agreed limits. However, the Swordholder is just one person and he cannot live forever – he spends his entire life staring at the wall on which the Trisolaran ships are portrayed being ready to pull the trigger at any moment and knowing that his every moment is under scrutiny from afar. Would the next Swordholder prove to be as steadfast?

It is in this way that Cixin Liu injects humanity into the larger philosophical issues in which he seems to be so interested. This involves the comparison between what appears to be required and what the individual can provide. Of course, some part of what constitutes the individual human character depends on the experiences that person has undergone and, hence, it is necessary to show some parts of that experience. This is a slightly roundabout way of saying that this is primarily a science fiction novel of ideas in which human characters are required to tell the story but who are, otherwise, not of much interest. Readers interested in character development, insightful dialogue and so forth are likely to be somewhat disappointed. To some extent, this might be an artefact of translating Chinese into English – Ken Liu does a fine job in providing a lucid, readable text but there are so many cultural and social intonations which are difficult to get across without intrusive footnotes or other explanations that some of that content has had to be omitted. This is something of a pity but it is the action that grips on the macro-level rather than what is going to happen to individuals on the micro-level.

In fact, the initial deadlock is quite quickly resolved and the book goes on in several subsequent sections to investigate additional phases of the story. It is not giving much away to say that the narrative graduates towards the far future and includes some startling observations about the universe – not the least is the source of all the dark matter and dark energy that constitutes the cosmos but what about which we know so little. Despite this, the sense of awe and wonder that readers might have does not fade. There are still plenty of mysteries to consider.

As a trilogy, these books represent an extraordinary journey from the initially fairly small-scale issue of the nature of a bizarre and somewhat threatening video game to the conclusion so far away. While the books do hold together in a sufficiently coherent way, it is tempting to think that the author worked on the series one step at a time and did not, necessarily, have the full vision in his mind as he wrote. If this is the case, then it does not really matter since people write in different ways and the best-laid plans gang aft agley, after all. Besides which, there are such things as editors to take care of any inconsistencies and infelicities. This is terrific stuff.

Review of Anne Rice’s Of Love and Evil

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Of Love and Evil: The Songs of the Seraphim

Anne Rice

London: Arrow Books, 2011

ISBN: 9780099556985

176 pp.

In the first book of this series, Angel Time, which I have not read but which seems to be perfectly well summarised in this one, Toby O’Dare has been plucked from his life of government assassin, a soulless terrorist, by a real life angel named Malchiah. The angel sees a better future for Toby, saving lives rather than taking them and things seem to have worked out pretty well for both of them. At the beginning of this book, Toby is in the presence of angels: “I felt love around me in this vast and seamless realm of sound and light. I felt intimately and completely known. I felt beloved and held and part of all I saw and heard. And yet I knew I deserved nothing of it, nothing. And something akin to sadness swept me up and mingled my very essence with the voices who sang, because the voices were singing of me (p.3).”

It is easy to have some sympathy with this point of view: why has Toby, of all people, been given this opportunity? Are there no more or less virtuous people who might have had the chance? Are there to be no punishments for vice and no rewards for virtue? The answer to this, I am going to suggest, is Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism. In this Buddhist tradition, enlightenment (i.e. the freeing of the self from attachments to the unlasting things of the universe) can arrive instantaneously as if by a lightning bolt for the mind that is ready to receive it. This is the reason why, in the various versions of the Ramayana, demons and monsters and all kinds of ne’er-do-wells are able to achieve enlightenment while the good guys remain chained to their appetites. Perhaps, then, Toby has the opportunity for a form of spiritual greatness that is beyond the ken of the rest of us, at least for the time being. Such an interpretation would appear to coincide with her vampire books, particularly the later ones. The first, Interview with a Vampire, was a jolly romp with vivid characters and occasional bouts of fast-paced action. Yet as the series continued (and I started to lose interest in it), the books increasingly became involved with the supposedly superior ability of some great souls to be able to suffer and love and suffer again. That Anne Rice then went on to write books about Jesus rather reinforced my idea that her authorial sensibility had disappeared somewhere the sun does not shine.

However, when I saw this little book available at a moment when I wanted to buy and read something quite like it, all misgivings disappeared and I was ready to give her another go. Thankfully, the being in the bosom of the angels thing soon disappears and Toby is dispatched to an Italy of the Renaissance period in which the presence of a dybbuk or golem is suspected. Toby’s task is to find out what is going on and make things better. He will receive some angelic assistance along the way but the angels are not God and so not omnipresent or, indeed, all-knowing. Fortunately, Toby is able to communicate with the local people and can soon get on with his job.

This is quite a nice set-up for a series of books that could be moved in various directories (and probably would transfer nicely to the screen) and do not require that much effort on behalf of the author – in a concluding note, she observes that she used Wikipedia for much of her research. I will be interested to see if any more of these come along or whether she has turned her attention elsewhere.

Review of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm

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The Lair of the White Worm

Bram Stoker

London: Collins Classics, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-00-811050-5

VIII + 208 pp.

This is quite a difficult book for me to review – there is so much obvious racism and sexism that it seems extraordinary that it was published in the twentieth century. This is not just the prejudice of the age as it might be argued was the case for H.P. Lovecraft or T.S. Eliot, this is a spray of n-words used about a poor African chap who is associated with all kinds of stereotypical beliefs and attributes. The women, on the other hand, are either virtuous and demure (like Mimi, the young Burmese woman who seems to have been brought up in Siam) or else full of feminine wiles and probably somewhat Satanic with it, like Lady Arabella March, who does not have the decency to stay married and live in her castle like Lady Bountiful:

“… but being feminine, she will probably over-reach herself. Now, Adam, it strikes me that, as we have to protect ourselves and others against feminine nature, our strong game will be to play our masculine against her feminine. Perhaps we had better sleep on it. She is a thing of the night; and the night may give us some ideas (p.125).”

Other novels also published in 1910 include Clayhanger, Psmith in the City, Howards End and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

Well, the book continues to be published and to have, apparently, a favourable reception so what is the positive aspect? It is a work of gothic horror, set in Derbyshire. My experience of Derbyshire, limited though it is, is that the elevation is quite high, it was cold and rather windswept. It is quite possible to imagine, therefore, stone castles pointing like stiff little fingers into the sky and rooted in the rocky hills beneath. Small and remote cottages would dot the estate but be distant from each other and their denizens forced to become reliant on the castle owners. This is, indeed, the case here for the small list of characters have no opportunities to meet or interact with anyone else and there are no telephones or even telegrams to use to apply for help.

Into this somewhat bleak landscape (my advice is, given the choice, be born into the castle-owning class) comes Adam Salton, newly returned from Australia where, it is suggested, he has done great physical things on the ranch and in the outback (where, famously of course, there are no women to distract a man bent on physical dominance of the landscape). He has been summoned by his great-uncle, of whom he had previously been unaware, so as to be offered the position of son and only heir of Castra Regis, the Derbyshire estate. The only problem with this plan – the great-uncle immediately accepts Adam as his long-lost boy and no more need to be said about the arrangement – is the presence of the aforementioned Lady Arabella and her sinister associate, Edgar Caswall, who is perhaps a mesmerist or some kind of a magician able to have his wicked way with other people purely by the force of his personality. These two are utterly inimical to Adam and his household for no particular reason. The Lady – the front cover shows quite clearly her ophidian nature – is something of a prodigy. She is malignant and repugnant in a sort of quasi-modern way. Described as being very thin and customarily wearing a sheer white dress, she is the antithesis to the maternal or womanly ideal and is compared directly with the two orphans of empire, Lila and Mimi. Their skin colour is not mentioned and, indeed, they are described very little – perhaps imagination is all that is required in this case or perhaps coming to Britain has emphasized their imperial heritage. Clearly, there can be no peaceable settlement.

Despite its shortcomings, this is still an interesting book and it moves along rapidly. It is not surprising that versions have appeared on the screen, for the story is as much visual as verbal in nature. Which is to say, I suppose, that the language and particularly the dialogue used is not very interesting. I cannot, under the circumstances, really recommend the book but I am quite glad to have had the chance to read it.

Review of Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

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Norse Mythology

Neil Gaiman

London: Bloomsbury, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4088-8680-9

XIX + 279 pp

The impact of Norse mythology on western culture and, particularly, British culture is enormous but often underestimated. Four of the seven days of the week are named after Norse gods, two named after pagan gods and the remaining one is named after a Roman god (the Romans demonstrate their influence through the names of many of the twelve months of the year). Most people have at least heard of Odin and Thor and might recognise the lightning bolt and the hammer, although knowledge is more likely to come from the Avengers these days. Yet the real nature of the original figures has been obscured by the imposition of monotheism and centuries’ of propaganda trivializing their lives and personalities. The great advantage of having a polytheistic view of the universe is that it can be acknowledged that some gods are better than others and that none is perfect. There is no need to pretend that the supernatural big brother is all-perfect and all-knowing and all the palaver about trying to explain how a good god permits evil to persistently to prevail, often unchallenged, can be forgotten. Instead, we can reflect in a more mature way on the nature of reality, the nature of our obligations to others and to society and, indeed, the answers to the great questions of life, the universe and everything.

Any retelling of these tales, to refresh and reinvigorate our interest, would be welcome. This one, by Neil Gaiman, is already apparently the biggest selling title of 2017 and the sales figures will probably only increase when his best-known book American Gods begins to be screened in television form later this year (as I heard on the Guardian Books podcast the other day). Despite Gaiman’s fame and renown, I had not read any of his books before (on the basis that I cannot read everything) but this seemed to be a good place to start and so I picked up a copy at San Min in Taipei the other week. I am glad that I did because this is a very readable and enjoyable collection of tales and one which covers both most well-known episodes and some lesser known ones as well. We have the opportunity to meet of course Odin and Thor but also Tye, Heimdall, Hel, the Fenris Wolf, the world-circling serpent and the unavoidable and inscrutable Loki. Thor is a bit of a buffoon but every creature is afraid of his hammer and without him Asgard would certainly be conquered. Odin is slightly enigmatic and has made a sacrifice of himself to himself, hanging from the world-tree Yggdrasil and giving up an eye to gain wisdom. His two ravens are constantly whispering the events of the world into his ears, as if he were connected with a precursor to the internet or at least to Twitter. He appears to be more creative than destructive but a little more about him would have been welcome. As for Loki, he is the principal mover behind many of the events, for good and ill and, even when he is not, he is often called upon to rescue the situation. He is not presented as evil or mischievous so much as he is constantly active. He has children who turn into monsters but that does not appear to be his fault as a parent. It is tempting to play the game of which god represents which part of the human psyche and this is one of the strengths of the book in that it is possible to consider the personalities of mythic creatures developed in the pre-Freudian era. That he is able to recreate these myths in a language different from the ones in which they were created is probably an advantage in this respect as he is freed from the need to use well-established adjectives and descriptive titles.

There remain many mysteries in this world of myths: why are there so many different realms, for example and why are the giants so much more powerful than the gods? What are the elves and the dwarfs (or dark elves)? What is the source of the magic and the magic artifacts that give the gods dominion over the world? The events that take place in a previous iteration of the universe and it is the death of the gods at Ragnarok that ushers in the current universe when mankind is born from Yggdrasil to claim mastery of creation. We do not live in the same world as the gods, therefore, who presumably cannot be judged according to our concepts of ethics and morality, unlike the gods of Greece who continually meddle with the lives of ordinary people, as well as princes and generals.

There is a slightly cartoonish element to this book in that dirty, sweaty and visceral descriptions are absent. Giants die often in multitudes but in silence and more or less off-screen. Gods and goddesses occasionally make love but have no body parts. It is a book that would not scare the horses. However, it is a very enjoyable book and one which is likely to inspire many people to take a more sophisticated approach to the myths that have done so much to influence the way we see or at least describe the world.

 

 

Review of Tetsuya Honda’s The Silent Dead

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The Silent Dead

Tetsuya Honda

London: Titan Books, 2016

ISBN: 9781785651694

431 pp

Translated by Giles Murray

It is Tokyo in the middle of the first decade of the present century and we are in the presence of the police as they try to solve murders and other horrible crimes. In particular, we are following a young woman, Reiko Himekawa, who has reached the rank of lieutenant at the tender age of 30 and so has her own squad to command. The back cover blurb reveals the fact that there is a serial killer loose on the streets, although this does not emerge in the text until at least half way through. Still, one death never seems to be enough in books like this.

The timing of the action means that the characters have mobile phones but cannot send texts or photos to each other and so the coppers still have to put in the legwork even at the rank of lieutenant. Curiously, there do not appear to be any police cars available and so Reiko and her squad travel around by train and even taxi. Do they have to pay for this and then be recompensed later? That must be a nightmare for administration. Well, given that so many police officers here seem to use their own money in a variety of inventive ways, perhaps it is just par for the course to get the money back through the use of initiative.

This is a Japan that is on the edge of being brutal, sexist and corrupt, on a kind of casual basis. The characters also have to deal with the complications of living in a bourgeois society in which social relations can be very intense, complicated and stifling in the need for outward conformity. This is one of the reasons I enjoy Japanese crime fiction, especially when it combines these personal issues with the mundanity of everyday living, shopping, eating and travelling. Unfortunately, there is not enough of this in the book and that has the effect of reducing the credibility of the characters and the sense of really being part of the action. To be honest, in many ways this is a terrible book: the characters are one-dimensional and lack any kind of intellectual hinterland; the relationships are cliché-ridden and predictable; the plot itself does not really seem to make much sense. However, the action is brisk and the narrative zips along, which is helped by the large amounts of white space on every page. The translation is OK but a little too American for my taste – of course, there is a strong American influence on Japanese culture and, besides, no one really cares what I think.

My impression whenever visiting Japan is that the exaggerated manners people use in every social interaction and the care which people take in avoiding each other on the street are symptoms of the inner rage each feels about everyone else and that resembles British society. Both countries seem to be the source of a great deal of crime fiction and that is the dark side of the external politeness. Crime fiction is found everywhere, of course, although I imagine that American crime is often the result of gun culture and the everyday failures of capitalism, French crime considers the fundamental impossibility of tolerating the other and Chinese crime relates to the contradictions between authoritarianism and human aspirations. No doubt a more penetrating evaluation of this issue would provide more grounded and profound insights.

Despite its flaws, The Silent Dead overall is a pleasant romp and the cover claims that more than one million copies have been sold, which is quite an achievement. People who like this kind of thing will like this book.

Review of Poseidon’s Wake by Alastair Reynolds

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Poseidon’s Wake

Alastair Reynolds

This is the third and apparently final part of the trilogy written by the leading British million pound-advance sci fi author and fan of the mighty Fall Alastair Reynolds, which featured the earlier instalments Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze. Representatives of humanity – people, advanced elephants (known as Tantors) and artificial intelligences – form a new kind of post-religious trinity and have travelled through the stars using adopted and adapted alien technology. Great mysteries of the universe are on the verge of being unveiled and centuries’ long feuds may at last be settled. This must all be to the good.

In the earlier books, humanity – whose primary languages are now Swahili and Chinese – began to take its baby steps away from earth and away from its own nature. People became able for the first time to diverge from the limitations of their physicality and explore new forms of life as, for example, merpeople or massive denizens of the deep. The ability of people both to become a massive denizen of the deep and to travel in alien spaceships is, of course, limited for practical reasons but the prudent traveller is able to combine the two activities with some care. Although this is not a post-scarcity society, most of the protagonists seem to have enough money to do more or less what they want. Some characters are members of a well-established corporate dynasty, which explains their freedom, while others are able to become commanders of their fate through skill in arts, diplomacy, ability to attract research grants and so forth. Meanwhile, technology has started to develop to the extent that it has become less rather than more obtrusive and, so, does not really need to be discussed or described or justified. Be that as it may, the scene is set for interactions between the characters and the changing nature of their relationships that takes centre stage. It is a confident author of science fiction who disregards all the toys and paraphernalia of the genre to rely instead on characterization and dialogue. Reynolds is good enough to be able to achieve this. Characters are nicely paired and contrasted with others, while the development in the action as it switches locations may be considered to embody dialectical relationships.

The action progresses in a way that is both optimistic and humanistic. People make mistakes, certainly but one of the virtues of having a greatly extended life expectancy is that more opportunities for redemption will come around eventually. Nevertheless, people must still be ready to take those opportunities. Even so, it is pleasing that the plots move toward progress for the individuals involved and for humanity as a whole – some significant problems are, after all, circumvented.

It would probably be possible to pick up this final part of the trilogy and make sufficient sense of the action but probably only just. A better idea would be to start with the first part and then let the action continue from there. I myself will be looking forward to his next book.