the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘first contact

Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter

Published Aug 1 2017

where I got it: purchased new

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Stories about generation ships are nothing new, we tend to see a good crop of them every year. The novel might focus on the disenchanted middle generation that didn’t leave Earth, and won’t see their destination, or perhaps deal with a mutiny, or a malfunction on the ship, or the fact that their destination planet can’t support human life.  What I’m saying is that for the most part, many of us have seen this story before.

 

In Noumenon, Marina J. Lostetter goes in a somewhat different direction, and succeeds through the magic of ultra-fast pacing. It sounds counterintuitive, right? Speed up the pace of a story, to tell the story better? In Noumenon it works, and creates a unique situation for what might have otherwise been a forgettable novel.

 

The first few chapters race by – an interstellar mission is funded, a subdimension drive is invented and tested and engines are built, an AI is designed around a common personal assistant program. In these early chapters you’ll find yourself turning the pages faster than you realize. The prose is easy on the eyes, the characters are easy to get along with, we see everyone at their best, and we’re science fiction fans so of course we’re cheering for an interstellar mission!  And before you know it, we’re in spaaaaaace!

 

A few decades later, the implications of the twist start to hit.  These aren’t just any regular people on a colony ship.  Don’t think I’m spoiling things, because this is the least of the spoilers – the ship is crewed by genetic clones of the people who were chosen to go.  When those clones age and “retire”, new clones will be born.  If “Bob” is a biologist (making that up as an example) then every Bob who is every born on the ship will always grow up to be a biologist.  The colony ship will always have just as many pilots, communications experts, doctors, teachers,  sanitation workers, and scientists as it needs.  Only one “Bob” is ever alive at a time, but there’s usually always a Bob walking around somewhere.  Pretty interesting idea!

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dark forest

I finally got around to reading Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest earlier this month. My better half read it a few months ago, and I nagged him into writing a joint review with me. Well, more a conversation than a joint review. Epic spoilers ahead! Or, as Better Half says “If you’re on the no spoilers ship, better watch out, there’s rocks ahead”. He thinks he’s forgotten most of this book. He’s wrong.  Here’s what we thought of Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest.

Andrea: You and I are both drawn towards character driven narratives. The Dark Forest is even less character driven than The Three Body Problem. I had a tough time getting into the story, because it was hard for me to grab onto any of these characters. Did you have a tough time too?

Mike: Somewhat of a tough time, it was easier for me as I chose to read this as an historian viewing the book as ‘future history’. Then, I could just follow the ebb and tide of historical forces as the story unfolded.

I liked the hope given to the Wallfacers, the unreality of the projects, and that one of them actually does save the Earth.

Andrea: What’s that phrase? Necessity is the mother of invention? Humanity is desperate, so we’re willing to put our faith in crazy things. All the other Wallfacers had these ridiculously complex ideas, and the one that saves the Earth seems so simple. Talk about playing the long game! Being given limitless money and told “Save the World”, it was interesting to see what these people did with their funds and resources. Reminded me a little of the Selacao (how the hell do spell that?) from the anime Eden of the East. But the Wallfacers take advantage of their situation, they can spend money on silly stuff, and say “it’s part of the plan”. Many of the Wallfacers had a similar “ultimate plan”. Were you surprised?

Mike: I also saw the Eden of the East connection, one of my favorite animes! The Wallfacers, with one exception, chose brute force methods to win a war, which is exactly what a war winner does not choose. Subtlety was only chosen by one facer, people scoffed, and he won.

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three bodyThe Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

published in November 2014

Where I got it: purchased new

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This review contains minor spoilers.

 

I had a very tough time getting into The Three Body Problem.  In the first half of the novel, it’s hard to tell what’s going on, who or what is important to pay attention to. There are certainly interesting and important things that happen (and which are explained at the end), but I couldn’t understand how any of the dots were connected.

 

The story starts during China’s Cultural Revolution.  Professors, scientists, academics, anyone who is seen to be under the influence of western thoughts are persecuted and often psychologically tortured to the point of suicide. Ye Wenjie watches as her physicist father is murdered by teenaged Red Guards. Guilty by association, Wenjie is sent to the frontier to be politically rehabilitated through manual labor. A talented scientist herself, she is recruited to be part of the secretive Red Coast Base.  It will be years before anyone is allowed to talk about what happened at Red Coast.

 

The narrative jumps between Ye Wenjie’s life at Red Coast and modern day China, where nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao is pulled into a military investigation where he could be the key to stopping a dangerous enemy. Except no one will tell him who the enemy is, or where they are. He’s shown a list of scientists who recently committed suicide, and is exposed to a terrifying countdown that is counting down to, what exactly? Reluctantly, Wang becomes friends with Shi Qiang, the gruff police officer who had originally pulled him into the military meeting. A name on the list of dead scientists catches Wang’s attention, Yang Dong. He’s encouraged to visit Yang’s elderly mother, who turns out to be Ye Wenjie.

 

The connection between Wang and Ye Wenjie is a point of no return. For Ye, everything she’s worked towards is coming full circle. For Wang, he learns of a video game called Three Body, in which the goal of the game (or at least the first level of it) is to predict how long the next stable and chaotic eras will be in an environment in which the laws of orbital mechanics don’t seem to make any sense.  Players who understand what the game truly represents are invited to learn who made the game and why.

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close encounters bookClose Encounters of the Third Kind by Steven Spielberg

published in 1977

where I got it: purchased used

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Raise your hand if you saw that blog post title and immediately heard five musical notes.

 

Novelizations are tricky beasts to review, because for the most part the author isn’t in control of the plot or characters. It’s hard to judge it as a story, because it’s based on something that hadn’t originally been meant to be presented as words on a page. Something that looks fan-freaking-tastic on the big screen might not translate so well to the page, you know? My attitude towards novelizations is do they add to my enjoyment of a movie? If it’s a movie I’ve never seen, does reading the novelization make me want to see the movie? (That actually happened. Read a very enjoyable novelization in early 2014, liked it so much I bought a movie ticket. and the movie was awful!)

 

Reading the novelization of Close Encounters of The Third Kind was absolute pure nostalgic fun.  The movie was a huge part of my child and young adulthood, and reading the novelization was a fun way to experience the movie in a different way. The book is a direct line for line, scene for scene novelization of the movie, but I was happily surprised by the deeper characterization and smoother pacing (I always felt the middle of the movie where Roy is figuring his shit out gets really slow and draggy). Or maybe I liked the pacing better in the book because I could control being able to linger in my favorite scenes, and zip through the less interesting ones.  That’s a nice thing about novelizations: the reader controls the pace.

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childhoods endChildhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

published in 1953

where I got it: purchased new

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There’s going to be some spoilers, because I don’t feel bad about spoiling a book that was published the year my Dad went into kindergarten.

 

The novel opens with a momentous event: the day the aliens come.  Their giant ships hover over every major city, but they came in peace. Forced peace, actually.  The Overlords announce they will be taking over all of Earth’s governments, they will be stopping all wars, stopping hunger, disease and poverty, they will be making sure us Earthlings live peaceful lives.  This is the first step towards Earth joining a galactic community, and the Overlords have been tasked with making sure we take this first step.  The Overlords give us no choice in the matter, and any earthly warlords or take it upon themselves to violently disagree are shamed into submission.  No choice at all, really.

 

But no one has ever seen an Overlord, and humans aren’t known to be trustworthy of anything we can’t see. The Overlord spokesperson, Karrelen, tells us that in fifty years they will show themselves to us, it will take that long for us to be ready.  And they were right.

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Contact, by Carl Sagan

published in 1985

where I got it: paperback swap

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Don’t know who Carl Sagan is?   the horror!  Get thee to his wikipedia page, pronto! And then put Cosmos (the original. not the new ones they made off the old soundtrack) on your Netflix.

Contact was written in the 1980’s, and the only thing that made it feel dated was that cell phones and e-mail never show up.  Ellie has to drag a telefax machine around with her when she travels.  It’s all late 80s technology. And yet. We went to the moon on the computing power of a Commodore64, which means I can completely believe that all that’s needed to translate an alien message is a radio telescope, a sliderule, and a fax machine.  Time waits for no one, and aliens don’t wait for the invention of the i-pad.

Eleanor Arroway always loved radios. She took them apart as a child, and as an adult became one of the only female radio telescope directors. Obsessed with SETI (The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), Director Arroway was able to ensure her “farfetched” sky scanning projects got the majority of the telescope time.  This is of course, a novel about first contact, so it’s not a spoiler to tell you that an alien message is received.

The message comes from Vega, and at first all we hear is a pattern of prime numbers.   There’s got to be more to it than someone shouting prime numbers, right? Of course there is.

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I’m now around 400 pages into Existence, and it’s like I’m reading a completely different book by a completely different author.  The pace has drastically picked up, the plot now has every bit of my attention,  the characters are getting interesting, it’s damn good.   And the reveal? damn.  and the second reveal? holy shit, hotdamn! I now care about what is happening in Existence, and the scales are quickly tipping from “disappointed” to “this is pretty damn cool!”

But will they tip enough?

As my interest in the plot has increased, so has my appreciation for the asides and commentaries on near-future technologies and society’s reaction to them. Things like crowdsourced journalism and whistle-blowing, theories about autism, gene manipulation, self replicating machines, our growing interactions and dependence on the internet, the possibility of uploading the minds and personalities of people who are trapped in severely damaged or disabled bodies,  so many things that many of us are talking about right now.

Even better, reading the book now feels like enjoyment rather than work.

Still, some severe annoyances keep rearing their ugly heads, such as a wordplay trick that quickly feels gimicky,  loose ends that don’t go anywhere, and writing mechanics.

minor spoilers ahead:

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.