Friday, February 24, 2017

Death's End by Liu Cixin

Having recently finished the last book in Liu Cixin's instant classic "The Remembrance of Earth's Past" series, Death's End, I can only report a feeling of total amazement and awe. There is so much about this novel that blew my mind, that offered different and better ways of viewing the universe. This novel did what I wish more novels would, serve up a new universe entire, evoking beauty and horror, nobility and disgust, in a timeless monument to unfettered speculation. 

Obviously, in discussing the events of the last of a trilogy books, spoilers are to be expected. I am, however, going to try to avoid discussing much beyond the first 100 pages of the third novel.

I read the translation of this novel, as ushered into being by the amazing talent of Ken Liu. Ken has written of a certain prickliness when it comes to translating work. He makes an effort not to anglicize the source material, not smudging away the occasional difficulties in bringing Cixin's intention into English prose from its original Mandarin. That said, I really did not find myself experiencing much trouble reading this book. Significant groundwork has already been laid of course for this novel - the previous two novels (The middle novel, Dark Forest, was translated by Joel Martinsen) in the series did a lot of the hard work in establishing Cixin's vision of the universe. This novel is the payoff.

A quick recap: during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a Chinese astrophysicist comes across a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence and responds with a message of her own. The intelligence on the other side of this message, the Trisolarians, quickly reveal intentions far from noble, and send an initial response in the form of a swarm of sophons, particle sized computers meant to spy on Earth and stymie any further growth in scientific knowledge. Over the next few centuries Earth tries various measures to prepare for the expected invasion, including the deployment of the Wallfacers, a group of individual human beings attempting to pierce the Trisolarian's blanket of surveillance by developing plans for resistance in the only space free from interference - their own minds. Ultimately it is one of these Wallfacers, Luo Ji, who is able to devise the only workable defense against aliens with technology far in excess of mankind's - dark forest deterrence.

This is an idea which I have been grappling with in one form or another for the past year. I will do my best to explain it as Cixin does in the eponymous novel, the middle book of the series. Essentially, the Dark Forest is an attempt to solve the Fermi Paradox. Given the staggering number of projected planets in our galaxy alone how is it that Earth has no evidence of other intelligences? Cixin's answer is not unique in its basic outlines. Basically, any civilization of sufficient development would realize that the one thing you most want to avoid is discovery by another intelligence. All intelligence is a potential threat to another and without any commonality of culture, language, or basic physiology, that threat cannot be easily minimized. The only alternative is to wipe out the other before they have a chance to do you the same favor. The image Cixin employed is a vast, night-shrouded wilderness, where each civilization is a frightened man with a knife, hoping to escape notice while seeking out others to knife in the back.

The only way to escape this cycle of preemptive destruction is to bring down the retribution of the true powers of the universe, beings capable of destroying entire stars with casual ease. Once the Wallfacer Luo Ji deduces this essential reality, he uses the threat of mutually assured destruction to halt the Trisolarian invasion.

So that's where Death's End begins: a stalemate between the Trisolarians and Earth set up and maintained by Luo Ji (now referred to as the Sword-Holder). After several decades of maintaining deterrence, it's far from clear that the status quo can be maintained much longer. A new Sword-holder, Cheng Xin, is selected to take over for the original. There are fears that this new candidate is not up to the job, and will not be able to convincingly use the deterrence weapon if pushed.

I think that's about as far as I can get without going to much into spoiler territory. I will say that Cheng Xin's decisions are complicated by a gradually unfolding understanding of the universe around Earth. A question introduced early in this book concerns the effect life has had on Earth. A character asks, "Is the natural world really natural?" What really brings Cixin's genius into focus is how he constantly builds upon his speculations. Each simple idea compounds upon the other, each angle of metaphor bringing light, previewing or reinforcing another corner of the universe. Late in the book, Cixin even gives a try at describing the actual powers of the galaxy and succeeds in bringing a terrible new dimension to the horror he is describing.

And yet, when all is said, even though this is one of the bleakest depictions of the universe, and mankind's role within in it, not all is hopeless. Some part of his vision allows for mercy. The utility of this attribute is always within doubt and possibly never fully changes anything, but nevertheless, the simple act of charity and sympathy for others is never completely abandoned. I honestly feel that this is the part of the novel that brings the work from simply being one of the best space operas I've ever had the pleasure to read to something approaching a masterpiece in world literature. Like a series of invented and cleverly structured fairy-tales introduced about half way through the novel, there are interlocking dimensions to Cixin's metaphors - ways that things that seem abrupt and inconsequential initially paint a far more complete picture later.

Another delight to this novel is the way it effortlessly glides through the centuries, deftly painting pictures of each moment of human civilization's response to the Dark Forest. Like a symphony, there are themes and motifs that reappear and transform over time, but the basic tragic outline of Liu's vision always rings through. A novel like this, following a single character on a journey across eons of time, brings to mind such classics as Olaf Stapleton's "Star Maker," and Greg Bear's "Eon."

This is a novel about all the ages of man written for all the ages of man. A week after finishing it, I feel as though I am still within the world of this novel, of this series. It is a vision of the universe so compelling, I suspect it will take other authors years, possibly decades to fully work through the meaning and implications of this work. Highest possible recommendation.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"A Breath from the Sky" Story Announcement!

I am thrilled to share the news my story, "Promontory," will appear in an upcoming anthology of unusual possession stories published by the incredible Martian Migraine Press. The anthology, "A Breath from the Sky,"puts together a classic H.P. Lovecraft tale and twenty other atypical stories of possession. Judging from the cover and the list of impressive authors, I'm anticipating pure awesomeness. "Promontory" is a possession story and one of my more overtly horror tales, so I'm overjoyed that it found a host, er, home here. I am sharing the Table of Contents below, as well as a link to the announcement on the Martian Migraine website to provide a sense of what this collection will be about. The cover is amazing, the other authors selected for the collection are amazing, and I have to say, having a story appear alongside a classic tale like HP's "Colour Out of Space," feels pretty darn amazing. I hope to provide more information about this anthology as it becomes available.

A Breath from the Sky: Unusual Stories of Possession will offer the reader just that: tales that subvert and challenge the common ideas of what it means to be “taken over” by something that is not yourself.

Table of Contents:

by Erica Ruppert

by Garrett Cook

by Sam Grieve

by Cody Goodfellow

But Thou, Proserpina, Sleep
by Megan Arkenberg

Open Fight Night at the Dirtbag Casino
by Gordon White

by Anton Rose

The Evaluator
by Premee Mohamed

by Jonathan Raab

The Monsters Are Due in Mayberry
by Edward Morris

The Colour Out of Space
by H. P. Lovecraft

Skin Suits
by Autumn Christian

Master of the House
by Matthew M. Bartlett

The Stuff
by Andrew Kozma

by Morgan Crooks

by Sam Schreiber

Echo Hiding
by Rodney Turner

A Thousand Mothers
by Aaron Vlek

Bog Dog
by Seras Nikita

Everything Wants to Live
by Luke R. J. Maynard

We Don’t Talk About the Invasion Anymore
by Leon Chan

Saturday, February 4, 2017

What I Read in January 2017

January was a busy month for me, to put it mildly. I attended Arisia 2017 and sat on a terrific panel about short fiction. I received word of two story acceptances (one listed in a previous post and the other forthcoming). There were also all of the distractions of a world veering somewhere between the "Dead Zone" by Stephen King and a cyberpunk dystopia by William Gibson.

And, of course, I read a whole bunch of awesome short stories, including a few I can recommend below.
  • Wooden Boxes Lined With the Tongues of Doves by Claire Humphrey. (Beneath Ceaseless Skies). When considering stories that revolve around magic, I really respond to writers that can somehow conjure what that magic is and how it works within the tight confines of a short story. To me, magic should feel like magic. In other words, waving wands and intoning spells doesn't really cut it. When magic is done in fiction, the result should feel inevitable. Pull a trigger and a bullet flies. I prize magical inevitability. This story's treatment of magic definitely surpasses that mark. A magician takes an apprentice and makes him a servant to his will, clipping from him all of the things that would free him. This reader left the story with a sense of great loss and terrible awe. 
  • "The Twelve Rules of Etiquette at Miss Firebird’s School for Girls" by Gwendolyn Kiste (Mithila Review) Kiste's stories are always a treat - crafted with care and intensity, taking playful swipes at their own concepts. This fun flash piece begins as a list of instructions for students at a very special school for the magically inclined. The story dissolves its own structure by the closing paragraph, ending on a creepy but hopeful note. 
  • Loneliness is in the Blood by Cadwell Turnbull ( Nightmare) My favorite "Nightmare" stories use the trappings of horror and the macabre to tell their own unique tales. Here a vampiric spirit known in the Caribbean as a soucouyant shares moments of its life. The loneliness refers to its own tragic fate, a creature driven to siphon the warmth and life of its victims all the while drifting farther and farther from any connection with the world not purely transactional. 
  • Redcap by Carrie Vaughn (Nightmare) I first read about Redcaps from a giant and grisly book of fairies. Part of the Unseelie Court, Redcaps are notorious for attacking lost travelers, killing them, and dying their eponymous hats with their victim's blood. So from the title and set up of a little shepherd girl wandering afield, I thought I knew where this story was heading. What makes the story worthwhile is how all of these familiar details add up to a very different story by the end. 
  • The Whole Crew Hates Me by Adam-Troy Castro. (Lightspeed) A crewman aboard a ship on a deep space mission awakens to the reality that his responsibility is to be hated and abused by every other crew member. Somehow this simple set up unwinds perfectly over the next 3500 words, never slowing down or losing focus. The scenario is dark but somehow presented with the right note of fatalistic comedy.