Monday, December 22, 2014

"Hard" sci-fi recommendations from a more civilized age

I put out a call on Twitter tonight for recommendations of "hard" sci-fi from the Golden Age (by which I meant "stuff from before I was born" but which apparently means 1938-1946 (with plenty of caveats).  A few people chimed in, including very helpfully Paul Weimer and Fred Keische. Tweets are below for anyone interested in building a reading list.

First, though, an explanation.  It's not infrequent these days to hear a narrative something like: "back in the good old days, science fiction was 'hard' sci-fi about science stuff.  It wasn't about feelings and it wasn't about politics, it was about science!" Often rebutted by people pointing out first that much of that "hard" science fiction was poorly written and not engaging (people are more interesting than chunks of metal!) and also that by accepting and writing within a particular context, authors are writing politically - if all of your scientists are white men, you're writing a political story that says women and people of color can't be scientists.  (You're also valuing empirical physical sciences at the expense of others, which reinforces another political and social narrative, etc).  I'll have a separate post on creativity and overarching narratives, but my problem was much more basic: when I think of older science fiction writers, I think of Asimov (in particular the Foundation series), Heinlein, and Larry Niven (Ringworld) being the only thing I've read & remembered.  None of these authors are particularly writing about hard sciences, and certainly not to the exclusion of politics or at the least sketchy psychology.  I needed an education.

One of the great joys of Twitter is that there are smart and generous people on it.  Not only Paul and Fred replied.  I got book recommendations from Tim Akers, Kate Elliott and Ethan Jewett.  Fred pointed me to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which is far too much rabbit hole for me, but looks delightful.  Paul gently let me know that by throwing around the term "Golden Age" I was confusing.  I got a lot of book and author recommendations, and I'm excited to familiarize myself with a genre I don't know well.

Preliminary reading list (bold indicates those I'm most interested in), then the full Twitter exchange -
Hal Clement's Heavy Planet (a re-read in large part because I own it)
Larry Niven's Ringworld (again, a re-read I own)
Arthur C. Clarke's The Other Side of the Sky (a first read, but I own it.  Not sure if it fits the bill)

Hoyle The Black Cloud
Clarke Rendevous with Rama
Greg Benford
Poul Anderson
Paul McAuley Quiet War
Charles Sheffield

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A bookshelf picture

I picked up N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy Omnibus yesterday (Nahadoth! New Novella!) and was struck by the size.

Here's the Inheritance Trilogy up next to a few other books on my shelves.  The Dreamblood Saga & books 1 and 2 of the Imperial Radch Saga (Ancillary Sword and Justice), then The Name of the Wind and Mirror Empire on the right.  Erikson's Malazan books (minus the last) tower over them in back, and up front is the Earthsea Trilogy.

Friday, December 5, 2014

3-Body Problem - A Personal Reaction

Here's a second post on Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu.  As before, this is not a "review" of The Three Body Problem (Speculative Scotsman has a good one), it's more a personal reaction.  I do want to emphasize that The Three Body Problem is fantastic hard sci-fi. It invites us to think about big scientific problems, consider the ways scientific progress can advance, and projects the possibilities on the horizon.  I highly recommend reading it if you have any interest in science fiction.

There are links below to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign as well as thoughtful essays by people of color about representation in media.  I'd encourage you to head down & read them now.

(Light spoilers to follow, more likely to color your reading than ruin a surprise)

The Three Body Problem is a bestselling Chinese novel recently translated into english, and reading it made me aware of how thoroughly accustomed I am to being the center of a story.  The book is primarily set in modern China, with a prologue and a few other moments that look back to the Cultural Revolution.  Not surprisingly, there are essentially no americans.  Even when some of the scientists decide to reach out to the global scientific community, input comes from European experts, not Americans.

Some of this is simply delightful and creative.  Late in the story there's data on a boat that needs to be recovered.  I found myself waiting for the obligatory moment where special forces landed on the boat.  Since there's a loose global alliance, I actually found myself wondering if there would be a SEAL team or the chinese equivalent storming the boat.
I found the few places where Americans did show up the most challenging, however.  As mentioned, there is a loose global alliance (this is revealed early on, though the purpose is not), and there are periodic meetings where a US military officer shows up.  Four, I'm pretty sure.  By which I mean - I paid a lot more attention to the book every time an American shows up.  All four times.  Four meetings, where basically the officers serve as window dressing.  And yet I read these scenes very closely.  Then, in the last meeting, the American officer is a jerk.  He's a foil there to show off one of the actual protagonists, and reading this scene actually made me angry.  "We're not really like this!" I wanted to yell.  "That's not me!"

I don't know quite how to describe this, so I'm going to just say it again - I went into a story written by a Chinese author in Chinese, and yet every time an American showed up, no matter how briefly, I keyed in on that character.  When the characters turned to the outside world, I was disappointed that it wasn't an American expert they sought out.  When the American in the story turned out to be a jerk and a useful foil rather than a fully realized character, I felt betrayed and angry.

I take two messages away from this - first, I am incredibly accustomed (in ways I'm not even aware of) to being able to center myself in the story.  The Three Body Problem is the first time I can remember where I found my representation pushed to the margins.  This is the definition of privilege, and once again a reminder for me of how easy & unconscious privilege usually is.

My second takeaway is that #WeNeedDiverseBooks.  I'm a cis white male with all of the privileges.  It's easy for me to find books that center me.  But I'm trying to imagine reading a book where the character who I obviously identify with is always just a foil to show off someone else, always relegated to the background, always an idiot or a jerk, or violent, or being set up for a noble, tragic death (or maybe an ignoble or meaningless death).  Because for many readers and authors - women, people of color, gay or transgender individuals, that experience, rather than my one-time discomfort is the norm.  (And that's if they exist in the story at all).

I don't know what that experience would be like.  I can't extrapolate from my one venture into literature where I was not centered to imagine reading only books that marginalized me.  I can imagine that your defenses would go up.  I can imagine reading every book waiting to be betrayed by the author.  I can imagine clinging to shallow tropes and marginal representation because it was the best you've ever seen.  I can imagine anger every time someone said something like "well at least now there's a character like you - isn't that a good first step".  I can imagine simply being driven away from the genre entirely - choosing not to keep reading books that will let you down over and over again.  I can imagine all of these things, but I don't really know what it's like.  I do know that for me, reading a book that presented my identity in a marginal way, and eventually showed the character who looked like me to be an unpleasant jerk was not fun.  It wasn't enough to spoil my reading of The Three Body Problem (which, I reiterate, was awesome), but it did make me angry.

I'm going to stop here with links to a campaign to bring more diverse books so that more people can have literature than centers them, rather than marginalizing them.  (And also maybe so I can read more literature that doesn't put me in the center, and become a bit more aware of my own privilege).  Also included are a few recent links where people of color talk about representation in media.  If you're aware of more, please let me know in the comments & I'll add them here.

More links-

Donate here through December 10, 2014!

Troy Wiggins on DA: Inquisition
(Also a good set of recommendations if you're looking for diverse Fantasy/Sci-Fi)

N. K. Jemisin on DA:Inquisition

The Unbearable Solitude of being an African Fangirl

These are the links that I've noticed specifically in the few blogs that I follow in the SFF community recently.  This doesn't really touch on some of the issues exposed at the National Book Awards (buy Brown Girl Dreaming here!) or elsewhere.  These links aren't exhaustive.  They're barely scratching the surface of an experience many readers have all the time.  An experience that I've had once, but which provoked a visceral, angry reaction I haven't had towards a scene in a book in a long time.

Monday, December 1, 2014

3-Body Problem - The Aliens

I finished The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu recently.  Published by Tor books, this is the first of a trilogy of bestselling Chinese hard sci-fi.  I am unapologetically a fan of this move, and looking forward to more translated science fiction in the coming years.  (Clarkesworld will also be publishing translated SF short stories beginning next year, thanks to a successful Kickstarter project).  All of which is to say I was predisposed to enjoy The Three Body Problem, and I did.  The science is hard.  The perspective is Chinese, or at least recognizably not coming out of an American fiction tradition in ways that were almost entirely good, novel, and brain-stretching.  The Three Body Problem is probably my favorite book of the year (jostling with Lagoon), and this is definitely not a review.  There's a good one at The Speculative Scotsman (one of the few reviewers whose reviews I generally read regardless of the book, simply to learn from), I'm sure there are lots more elsewhere if you look.

Light spoilers follow - I don't think anything that would ruin a surprise, but probably things that will color your reading.

I've got another post planned about reading a book that's both global (and indeed interstellar) in scale and yet centered outside the US, but first I want to address the aliens in The Three Body Problem.  I'm accustomed to aliens in Sci-Fi, but usually (at least when presented with nuance), they are specifically different from humans in important psychological ways in order to comment on certain human impulses.  I am thinking here mostly of the emotionless but hierarchical Atevi of C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series, but also of the stationary and consuming monsters in Peter Hamilton's Pandora's Star, and the multi-bodied creatures of Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep.  There are aliens in The Three Body Problem, but their interactions with humans are mediated by a couple layers of technology and communication, such that they are presented as essentially human - any major psychological or physical differences don't make it through the layers of mediation, so humans are basically interacting with other humans.

One thing that this allows Liu to do is dive into the history of various important scientific discoveries & imagine how they could occur in a different environment.
What most blew me away, though, was that just as humans encounter aliens, so the aliens are encountering us.  Where many stories focus on differences between humans and aliens to highlight certain aspects of the human condition and suggest alternatives, The Three Body Problem achieves the same goals without needing to emphasize any difference.  People living on planets encounter each other twice in this book.  There are many important differences in their histories, the environments that they live in, and their political structures, but Liu focuses instead on their similarities.  The responses are similar, without being identical.  The general bureaucracy of a united communications effort and the particulars responses of individual representatives play out differently, and yet with certain unpredictable echoes in each case.

Liu's aliens, their response to humans, and their non-alienness aren't the most important aspect of The Three Body Problem, but they're probably the place where my expectations were most clearly blown away.  I have read about aliens and humans encountering each other many times.  I've seen alienness used to reflect (generally) weaknesses in humanity in ways that almost inevitably reveal as much about the author as any universal human condition.  Without relying on these tools at all (and thus, of course, preserving the possibility of further revelations if and when we encounter the aliens more directly!), Liu achieved these goals in a spectacularly ingenious way.  There's better writing & better science in the book, but these nearly featureless aliens keep sticking with me as I look back on it.  I'm grateful to Cixin Liu for such a great book, to Ken Liu for translating it, and all of the people at Tor who brought The Three Body Problem here.

Unfinished - My personal reaction to reading a book so thoroughly centered specifically in China and yet on a global scale.