Science Fiction in Translation

The Three-Body Problem book cover

I wasn’t sure at first what to make of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated from Chinese by Ken Liu. I still struggle with how I feel about it. There is much that I enjoyed and appreciated. It is based on hard science and isn’t a space opera. But about a third of the way through it just sort of bogged down for me. Fortunately it picked up again and I ended up liking the book overall. I can certainly see why it won the Hugo Award for best novel in 2015.

Part of what I struggled with was that the translation felt like a translation. The occasional foreignness of the prose was challenging for me. Upon reading the translator’s postscript, I learned that this was on purpose. He wanted the text to reflect as much as possible the original. That means it won’t feel like native English. Perhaps that is what led to the feeling of being immersed in the “Chineseness” of the story, which I liked very much.

The story starts during the Cultural Revolution in China and ends in modern times. It deals with difficult people and difficult times, politics and science, as well as relationships of all sorts. I am grateful that such a unique novel was translated into English so that I could experience something outside of my culture in my favorite genre.

Exploring the Human Condition

Station Eleven book cover

It took me a while to pick a copy of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It is about a flu outbreak that is so virulent and deadly that civilization collapses. Not exactly cheery reading in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally published in 2014, I expect that the concept at the center of the book felt extreme at its release. No more. Reading it left me grateful that humanity has thus far avoided being completely brought to its knees by a microbe.

The story is told primarily through the lives of The Traveling Symphony composed of actors and musicians who travel around Lakes Michigan and Huron performing Shakespeare and classical music. The reader gets a glimpse of how the plague started through the stories of those who later became part of The Traveling Symphony or encountered it. The writing is engaging, drawing you into the experiences and inner lives of the characters.

Slowly, bit by bit, you begin to learn about how some of the characters are connected. The hints at what might come later are part of what drew me to keep reading, as well as characters whose flaws felt real and relatable. In a world where civilization has collapsed, there are no angels. And yet there are a remarkable number of people who seek to make the world a better place. Through her characters the author show the absolute humanity of the people who inhabit this book, filled with both hope and deep disappointment.

If you are looking for an uplifting, feel good read, this book isn’t for you. But if you like stories of authentic people and a somewhat optimistic yet realistic look at the human condition, this book is a winner.

A Contemporary SFF Magazine

Uncanny Magazine No. 45 Cover

I am a huge fan of science fiction. I read many sci fi novels in high school, and recently subscribed to the semi-pro Uncanny Magazine. It publishes every other month and includes short stories, novellas, poetry, and essays on the topics of science fiction and fantasy. The latest issue is number 45, March/April 2022.

In this issue I dogeared five different pieces – two short stories and three essays. Flowerkicker by Stephen Graham Jones (available online April 5) is the story of a couple on a hike up a mountain. She is stopping to view every flower. He wants to get to the top and back before sunset. And they come across something out of the ordinary along the path.

In Requiem for a Dollface by Margaret Dunlap (also available online April 5) a teddy bear seeks the “murderer” of a child’s favorite doll. Upon discovering the perpetrator, he must make a very difficult ethical decision.

The essay Acknowledging Taiwanese-American Vampire Foodies by Jo Wu discusses explores cultural prejudice in the foods we eat and how they affect our attitudes toward those who eat differently. I thought the title absurd, not expecting much from the piece. Instead I found it poignant and insightful.

Resisting the Monolith: Collecting As Counter Narrative by Rebecca Romney is an essay by a collector of feminist science fiction. She traces the history back before Margaret Atwood to the nineteenth century. I added at least two titles to my “to read” pile after reading it.

Wax Sealed With a Kiss by Elsa Sjunneson (available online April 5) discusses the role of letters in general and love letters in particular throughout history and their use in fiction such as The Screwtape Letters and This is How You Lose the Time War. She even explores how her own letter writing helped her get perspective on her divorce.

I encourage anyone with an interest in contemporary science fiction and fantasy to read and subscribe to this excellent magazine.

A Touching Ode to Awe

Book cover for Contact by Carl Sagan

Shortly after it was first published in 1985, I read Contact by Carl Sagan. I was a nerd in high school who loved hard science fiction by authors such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. I’d watched the PBS series Cosmos and was very much interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Of course I was going to read this novel!

When I first read it way back then, I was an altar boy with a deep faith in God. Now as a divorced man in his early fifties, I find myself more of an agnostic than a believer of any religious faith. While I no longer believe in the supernatural, I do recognize there is much in our world that remains explained. I believe in the incredible capacity of humanity for love and the undeniable beauty in the universe that inspires awe.

Given this change over the last thirty-five years or so, when I recently thought of this book I decided to read it again. I am so glad I did. I was surprised by how much of the book I didn’t remember. Most of it in fact. But despite my changes over the intervening years, I loved the book just as much this time as when I first read it.

Despite his public status as a non-believer, the author respected religion in many ways throughout the book. In fact, much of it involves the interplay between religion and science, though indirectly. In the end, he reveals how much these two have in common, specifically the numinous experience of awe and the foundation of love.

Yes, this is the hard science fiction story of how an advanced extraterrestrial intelligence contacts the human race and how the human race responds to that contact. But on a deeper level, it is about human relationships and how they interact with the enormity of our universe and its limits. It deals with these intelligently, intellectually, as well as emotionally. Carl Sagan may have been known as one of the preeminent astronomers of the twentieth century, but he was also a committed and loving husband, father, and humanist. And both of these sides shine forth from this incredible novel.

Not Your Average Love Story

cover of the book "This is How You Lose the Time War"

I almost stopped reading This Is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar. I am very glad that I didn’t. I found it a little hard to get into. The language is what I would call “flowery” and poetic. And since the story is largely told through letters, learning about the world takes some investment. But the investment is worth it.

The love story is deep and complex while somehow being somewhat traditional despite it being between enemies. I am not a big fan of sappy romantic nonsense (that’s my description for absurd, unrealistic romantic ideas that pass for relationship stories). Some parts of this story gave me that feeling, but for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on I kept reading and lost that feeling.

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It isn’t for everyone, but if you are willing to explore an unusual story unusually told, this might be for you.

A Fun Series

The Murderbot diaries by Martha Wells is just flat out fun. It is about a cybernetic robot who gains consciousness and just wants to be let alone to watch his “stories”. But the universe and its humans have other ideas. Murderbot is snarky and despite avoiding humans comes to care about a few of them.

I’ve just started reading the sixth in the series, Fugitive Telemetry. Each book in the series is a short quick read. They are a combination of mystery and thriller. I thoroughly enjoy them and highly recommend them to others.

Mixed Bag But Good Ending

This morning I finished Supernova, the final book in the Renegade trilogy. Wow! What an ending! It was amazing. But the first half of the book had some really tortured plot twists. They felt a little forced. Not enough to ruin the book, though. They kept the story going. I found myself shaking my head, but I still wanted to see what happened. The last half of the book was relentless with the action. And the final resolution was amazing, topped only by the epilogue. Again… wow!

A Short Review

Cover of book Archenemies

I finished reading Archenemies, and I loved it! It reminded me of how I felt when I watched The Empire Strikes Back. The story was full of action and twists. I was at the edge of my seat in anticipation; I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. The end was a cliff hanger that left me wanting the next in the series right away. Fortunately, the next book has already been published so I don’t have to wait three year for the sequel like I did with Star Wars.


Difficult Questions

Renegades Series Book Covers

I am reading the second book of a young adult trilogy named after the first book of the series, Renegades. It is the story of a world where “prodigies” discover they have super powers. The world is very reminiscent of Marvel’s X-Men. The themes involved are very similar as well. What do we do about people who have powers? What does justice mean in such a world? Who gets to decide?

The story takes place in a city that ten years previous had suffered a great battle between the villains (known as the Anarchists) and superheroes (the Renegades). The Renegades won and now are trying to put the city back together and establish society and culture. The founding members form a council that runs the city and much of the world through a sort of police force of prodigies.

What makes this most interesting is that the story is very open about questioning what it means to be the good guy. The characters start to question why an unelected group of people get to make all the rules. It is clear through the characters that good and bad, hero and villain, are not two sides of the same coin but rather a spectrum. I haven’t yet finished the book, but I am thoroughly enjoying how the two main characters are starting to question who they are and what side they are on.

A Disappointing Issue

A human looking figure is surrounded by playing card sized objects in the air

I was disappointed by the January/February 2022 issue of Uncanny Magazine compared to my experience with the other issues I have read since subscribing in May of last year. None of the fiction in this issue really connected for me. I felt like too much was left unclear on the background of the stories. The topics were very interesting, but the execution left me feeling like the stories could have been improved.

The one piece that really grabbed me was “Gone with the Clones: How Confederate Soft Power Twisted the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy” (article available online starting Feb. 1). Briefly, the argument is that while the original Star Wars trilogy was based on WWII with the clear enemy being the Nazis and fascism, the prequels were based on the US Civil War, the meaning of which is much more messy due to the myth of the “Lost Cause”. The best part was the author’s amazing summary of how organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy muddied the cause for the Confederacy from preserving slavery to a number of nebulous higher level ideas like states’ rights (states’ rights to do what?). Buying this issue is worth it just for this essay.