To start my review of Invisible Planets I’ll be delving into Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat” and exploring the story in detail. To be frank, the story unfolded in a way that both surprised and stunned me, and I hope that, should you read this entire review, you’ll understand why. I get the feeling that this wasn’t just because of my admitted ignorance of Chinese culture, or the limits of trying to interpret this story from the perspective of a Westerner. The narrative is suggestive of a greater ignorance, in fact, not just on the part of the reader, but of the characters’ own confusion at the developments in the plot.
For this review, we’ll be looking at the human element of the story, since that seems to be what’s front and center; more specifically, the relationship between humanity and the themes of the story (economics, maturing, and technology, for instance).
This will be a long review, closing on about 5,500 words, examining several different elements of the story that I think are worth noting. It will also serve as a quick analysis of some aspects of the story from my perspective. Many of these thoughts are preliminary, and if you have any ideas you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.
To avoid potential spoilers for people who would rather read the story first (and there will be spoilers aplenty as the entire story is discussed in detail), the rest of the review can be read by clicking the “Read More” link below.
“I’ve seen so many versions of you. With me. Without me. Artist. Teacher. Graphic Designer. But it’s all, in the end, just life. We see it macro, like one big story, but when you’re in it, it’s just day-to-day, right? And isn’t that what you have to make your peace with?”
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a novel that is particularly concerned with two important questions: 1) Who are we? and 2) What if? Like any good science fiction novel, it uses science (in this case some really abstract concepts from quantum physics) to explore not possible consequences of the science, but the ways in which it impacts humanity. Basically, science fiction explores how these concepts relate to us.
The novel opens with Jason Dessen, his wife Daniela, and their son Charlie in their home on family night. Jason contemplates the choices he’s made in life leading him to this point–having a wife, a son, and a mediocre job as a small college physics professor–when he could have stuck with his career and made world-changing discoveries. There’s regret, yes, but I also suspect resignation on the part of himself and Daniela, who also gave up her dreams for her family.
Jason goes out to congratulate an old friend, Ryan, at a local bar for winning the Pavia Prize, awarded to people who make breakthroughs in science. On the way back home, he’s held at gunpoint, kidnapped, and taken to an abandoned power plant where a mysterious man drugs him. He awakens in a hangar he doesn’t recognize, surrounded by people who are familiar with him but who he doesn’t know, and later learns that he invented a kind of machine that allows a person to travel between different universes (along the lines of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics).
“I don’t know. I could see it getting to the where it didn’t feel real anymore. Because it isn’t. The only thing that’s real in this moment is this city. This room. This bed. You and me.”
What I appreciate most about this novel is how it takes complicated ideas and weaves them seamlessly into an extremely compelling narrative, following Jason (or the Jason that is the most familiar to us), as he deals with the situation he is unwillingly thrust into. The complicated ideas don’t weigh the novel down or make it hard to understand; it flows naturally from the characters’ dialogue. In this, Crouch creates a novel that is, at its core, a thought experiment. Given the idea that for every decision we make universes split off to encompass every possible outcome, and given a kind of technology that allows people to travel to these other universes, how might humans use this technology and how might they interact with it?
In a word: badly. But Crouch’s exploration is deeply illuminating because it shines a light on us. When Jason explores “his” house in another universe, he takes stock of the many differences between that house and the house he actually lived in. “In my house…” sets up a contrast between what he knows and what he’s currently experiencing. He wonders if he’s going mad, or if someone’s playing a prank on him, but he cannot square his knowledge with his current experience.
As the novel progresses, Jason visits different universes where he sees several different versions of himself, of Daniela, and of Chicago. He acknowledges that, the more he travels, the less he thinks he understands about himself. “As I shave my beard, the questions of identity keep haunting me.” In one universe, another Jason drops money into this Jason’s collection box, and narrates, “There’s no danger. I’m unrecognizable.” If there are an infinite number of other universes, with infinite other Jasons, what do you really know about yourself? Throughout the novel there’s this theme that your decisions make you who you are; the Jason we’re familiar with made certain decisions that made him a family man, and the Jason that invented the device that allows travel to other universes made other decisions. So which Jason is the “real” Jason?
There’s probably no way to answer that question, because the question itself is absurd. They’re all the real Jason, but they come from different contexts and they have different histories. They’re not only the result of decisions that they make, but of the history and developments in their universes that are different than our universes. None of them have any kind of priority over any other, and this fact assaults our sense of self and the idea that we all hold that we’re special and unique. Jason has to come face-to-face with the fact that there are versions of himself that are capable of great evils in desperate circumstances.
Further, it turns out the being able to travel the universes depends on your own conscious and subconscious mind. Essentially, your thoughts and emotions direct your travel in the space between dimensions. In effect, by exploring the multiverse, you’re actually exploring yourself.
I suppose we’re just trying to come to terms with how horrifying infinity really is.
Dark Matter has an interesting structure. Most of the narrative is first-person perspective in the present tense, from the point-of-view of Jason. However, the story shifts to third-person when we move to the original Daniela and her time with “Jason2,” which is an interesting shift that makes Jason2 feel really alien–like an altogether different person. Jason’s narration has a very stream-of-conscious feel to it, which reinforces the present-tense, and really makes you as a reader feel the emotions, fear, or sense of panic that the character feels.
Crouch’s writing style is descriptive without being too detail-oriented. It’s original and engaging, and unlike Inferno, it uses ellipses and dashes sparingly and only when they’re called for. The way he describes characters is fresh and real. For instance, “Her breath is wine-sweet, and she has one of those smiles that seem architecturally impossible.” His writing style also has hints of a wry sense of humor, such as the following sentence: “Whole Foods smells like the hippie I dated before Daniela–a tincture of fresh produce, ground coffee, and essential oils.”
The pace of the novel almost never falters, and I found myself losing track of time as I turned the pages. You really lose yourself in the story, and in the images that Crouch draws through witty writing and a profound imagination. During Jason’s travels through the universes, Crouch uses what I call the “ampoule countdown,” tracking the number of trips Jason has left to make. That combined with the truly infinite nature of the multiverse creates a sense of utter hopelessness, especially as we see Jason struggle to figure out how to tune his mind and emotions so that he can find his way home (and fail desperately).
Overall, Dark Matter has a solid story, excellent writing, characters that are fleshed-out and real, and an original idea with a fantastic twist ending. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, and by the end of the story you find yourself questioning your own sense of identity.
I give Dark Matter a 5 out of 5, and highly recommend it to anyone who lives mind-benders, techno-thrillers, or science fiction.
Every now and again I decide to venture out of my bubble and read something that’s not exactly typical of my usual literary fare. In the past, Dan Brown had been able to tell a relatively entertaining tale (if not reliably researched or well-written), so I took up Inferno with the hope that Brown would live up to his mediocre writer / good storyteller reputation.
I can tell you that he did not. Inferno, despite being a decent page-turner, didn’t really leave me wanting to read more about Robert Langdon. Actually, about three-quarters of the way through I just wished it would end. Unlike his previous books (with maybe the exception of The Lost Symbol), Inferno feels like it drags on forever, with serious disruptions in the pacing of the plot throughout with endless description of setting that, in some areas, seem completely extraneous. Indeed, it is obvious that this was a book conceived from the ground up as a movie.
Let’s start from the beginning: Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist, wakes up in a Florence hospital with a bullet wound and amnesia. Soon, he is being chased by an assassin, and helped by the beautiful Sienna Brooks to figure out how he got there and where he was going. Pretty standard Dan Brown fare, honestly. The assassin works for a mysterious group called the Consortium, headed by a man only known as the Provost, who are trying to keep Langdon from accomplishing his goals aboard the good ship Mendacium, which essentially means falsehood or illusion (sigh…obvious symbolism is obvious). Yes, he did simply call the antagonists “the Consortium” and “the Provost,” in a fit of what I can only describe as a habitual lack of originality. Just to knock it up a notch to pathological, the Provost, in several instances, steeples his hands when he talks as bad guys are wont to do.
Before I tear into this book, I want to talk about something from TV Tropes. An official entry exists for the term “Dan Browned,” and TV Tropes describes it thus: “Have you ever picked up a work by a creator who claims (or strongly implies) that his writing is based on thorough and careful research, only to discover what you are actually holding is a steaming pile of lazy assumptions or outright lies?” You can find a page on the website here dedicated to Dan Brown’s loose history with fact. So anything that Brown asserts as true in the book should be taken with a grain of salt as a general rule.
I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but it should be noted that for as much grief as I’m about to give this book, I think that Brown still somehow manages to create a book that, for the most part, is a page-turner that manages to keep your interest. Further, he peppers his novels with these little insights and discoveries that let you feel like you’re in on them.
First off, I think Brown’s writing is getting worse. Or, at least, from what little I remember of my readings of the other three Langdon novels, it seems to be getting worse. Maybe lazier is a better word. On the first page, Brown sets up a pattern that will be repeated ad nauseam: he overuses ellipses and uses esoteric words like dolant and chthonic. This takes me out of the action and makes me aware of the act of reading, and I think it makes the book poorer. Later, he’ll start other annoying writing eccentricities: the overuse of italics to express inner monologue, the overuse of dashes to add information (which creates jarring, awkward sentences), and perhaps most annoying of all the overuse of the interrobang (!? or ?!, Brown uses them interchangeably), making the dialogue come off as a college freshman’s creative writing project you just have to read, man.
Here, I’ll ding myself for the overuse of the word “overuse” just to maintain consistency.
Unfortunately, the problems with Brown’s writing don’t end there. Apart from the problems already listed, a lot of it is clumsy and awkward. Take, for instance, this horrid image: “…a powerfully built woman effortlessly unstraddled her BWM motorcycle…” Unstraddled? I searched high and low for other references of the existence of that word and the only things I could find after strenuous google searches were other people discussing Brown’s use of this word. Look, we’re not dealing with Shakespeare-level creativity here, and I don’t think Dan Brown is anywhere near justified in using a “word” like unstraddled when the English language is replete with good words to describe the action he intended. Now excuse me while I get off my high horse, dismount my stool, hop down the stairs, and go for a walk.
Brown’s work also suffers from the “show, don’t tell” problem. Often he uses insipid words like “surreal” and “unique” where detail would not only enhance the flavor of the text, but offer more memorable descriptions of the events, locations, and character attitudes. Another instance of the “show, don’t tell” problem is exemplified by the following sentence: “Sienna quickly outlined a plan. It was simple, clever, and safe.” Okay, Dan Brown, I’ll just take your word for it. There’s no need for me to have the ability to judge that on my own as a reader with a brain. That can judge things. You know, like I’m judging you right now. I have a suggestion. It’s simple, clever, and droll. Write better.
Another issue I have with his writing style is that he breaks everything up into small, easily-digestible chapters, as if he’s spoon-feeding the reader. Sure, this may contribute to his ability to turn mediocre novels with terrible writing into page-turners, but after a while it gets about as irritating as the muscle fatigue I experienced rolling my eyes. Chapter eight is one page, front and back! One page! For the sake of all that is good and just in the world, stop that man from splitting a book that could be trimmed by about one hundred pages into 104 chapters and an epilogue.
As I skim my notes I become aware of another damned pattern: repetition. At one point I wrote, “Yes, we know the Consortium does shady things. Yes, we know they fulfill tasks.” And perhaps that repetition was contagious: “we know, already,” “this is such a goddam repetitive novel. We already know,” “This is getting tiresome,” “and now we get Vayentha telling us what we already know,” and finally “Chapter 64 is pretty much a rehash [spoilers removed]…We know what’s on the video! Come on.” The repetition is actually present throughout the entire novel and, had I wrote notes on all of it, I would never be able to finish this review.
Worse than that, however, is that this idiosyncrasy of Brown’s writing spares not his characters. He constantly refers to one character by what he’s wearing and his damn skin rash (“the man with the rash”), when his name would suffice. Nobody is going to forget that man’s damn rash or his nerd glasses or his ugly paisley tie. A violent twitch developed in my eye from how often Brown called the Provost some variation of a “deeply tanned man.” I am the deeply annoyed man.
Brown seems to abuse his characters more severely than George R.R. Martin. Langdon’s relationship with women in the book should be held up for ridicule by teachers of creative writing. Two of the most powerful and intelligent women in the book, Sienna Brooks, his young, blonde companion, and Elizabeth Sinskey, the director of the World Health Organization, describe Langdon as handsome several times. Perhaps the most egregious example of Langdon’s supernatural powers of attraction over woman is the following: “She knew it was probably just adrenaline, but she found herself strangely attracted to the American professor.” Uh-huh. Strangely, I am not surprised. Brown’s stories always follow the same pattern. Langdon teams up with some attractive, professional woman, and we learn later–big surprise–that she’s got a troubled past, holds Langdon as an object of desire (and is held as an object of desire in the narrative), and holds secret knowledge.
And Langdon himself doesn’t come out from under Brown’s overbearing weirdness unscathed. Even as he struggles to figure out what the hell he’s doing in Florence, he whines about losing his damned Mickey Mouse watch. Langdon even comes off as a pompous hipster when Brown writes, “As Langdon stared into his own weary eyes, he half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.” Danny boy, buddy, don’t character assassinate the man responsible for that fat bank account. You’re not listening to me, are you? You’re…going to give Langdon a weird relationship with penises in statuary, aren’t you? Langdon’s going to focus on it and even note how he cringes at a “penile grip” in a famous statue. *Sigh*
The predictable twist ending doesn’t really pay off in any significant way, and I even had to backtrack to make sure that my impressions of the events were colored only by my own assumptions. In that, Brown was actually kind of clever because he sort of pulled off a trick to impart Langdon’s amnesia onto you, the reader. But, like I said, it doesn’t pay off because it feels cheap and doesn’t really seem to hang together well. Eh, don’t listen to me about that. I’m still deeply annoyed about that goddamned deep tan.
All in all, I give Inferno 2 out of 5 stars. Despite the many issues the novel has, it does manage to eek out a passable plot that manipulates you into turning the page.
It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog. Of course, I say that every time I come back from a long hiatus. I am a terribly inconsistent blogger–I admit this freely. Somehow this blog keeps calling me back, year after year, no matter how long I let it languish. I think I like to delude myself into believing that I have an audience for my ramblings.
Anyway, I wanted to start off 2017 by reviewing a book that my fiance got me for Christmas. Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, features short stories by some of Chinese science fiction’s most preeminent authors. In his introduction, Liu attempts to explain to an English-speaking audience the complex, bold tapestry that is Chinese science fiction, inveighing us not to see the themes and narratives merely through a “Chinese” lense, but a human lens.
While there are some pretty serious cultural schisms that can make the stories somewhat hard to access for an average American reader (me), the stories are nonetheless masterfully written (translated) and serve as an adequate introduction to a vein of science fiction that hasn’t been availble to Western readers in the past.
Since Invisible Planets is split into short stories told by a handful of the most well-known Chinese authors, I plan on splitting my review into several parts, one for each of the short stories. While I cannot come close to anything approaching a knowledgable review of the book, I hope that by sharing my thoughts I can interest other Western readers and bibliophiles.
I started reading this book already a fan of Ken Liu’s skill for translation. I had previously read his translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem and Death’s End. Liu’s understanding of the conundrum of trying to define literature is one that I share; indeed, when attempting to define how Chinese science fiction is different from English science fiction, Liu concedes “that the question is ill defined…and there isn’t a neat sound bite for an answer.” The genre is broad and diverse, even within languages.
So what is Chinese science fiction? I suppose that depends on the reader. Liu purposefully selects authors who have a broad range of approaches to science fiction, from their writing styles to the tropes that they employ. Liu grants us a huge boon in this strategy as it allows the reader to try to piece together a view of Chinese science fiction for themselves instead of relying on an easy answer Liu may give. Keeping in mind, of course, that as an Anglophone your idea is either woefully incomplete, wrong, or likely both. But in trying to understand a well-known and loved genre in Western literature taken up by another culture I believe it is best to try to learn what it is for yourself, without the bias of having a simple answer spoonfed to you.
Liu states that “The fiction produced in China reflects the complexity of the environment.” I believe that this is true of fiction produced in any culture or society, be it one comprised of many, many facets like China; or one as diverse and well-worn as America. In any case, the stories in Invisible Planets are best taken as individual pixels in a larger picture–be careful that you don’t read too much into them, but at the same time be mindful about their place in the grand scope of not only Chinese literature, but human literature. Because these stories are indeed human, even if they seem, to a Western reader, a little alien.
This exposure is one sure way to help bridge the gap between East and West. Exchanging not only ideas, but perspectives, is how we tear down the walls between us. Liu is ever mindful of the bias we Westerners may bring to these stories, and they’re mostly things we bring with us without conscious awareness. It’s probably impossible to completely divorce your perspective from the culture in which it was fostered, and that becomes apparent when you feel like you can’t quite grasp everything the story is doing–like you can’t see the whole picture that’s being painted for you. It’s easy to fill the gaps in your understanding with your own biased views–and to a large extent, I believe, this is not wrong so long as it doesn’t overtake or replace the perspective of the author.
The limiting factor in all of this is, however, the quality of the translation. Liu has proven himself capable by his admirable and skillful English adaption of Cixin Liu’s works; even so, there is always something lost–some flavor of meaning that doesn’t quite make the jump from language to langauge. I suspect that this is especially pronounced in Asian languages like Chinese, which are not based on letters put together to make words like English. The logic of the language is different, and thus when the stories are made to be told in a completely different language with a vey different logic, some of the perspective is lost.
But the effort to translate, and to read, and to try to grapple with a new perspective is worth these small losses. And the journey is an extremely rewarding one. The first review will be on Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat,” and the stories will proceed from there based on the order in which they appear in Invisible Planets.
So, dear reader, grab a cup of Earl Grey and curl up with a warm blanket. We’re going to get a small window into a literary world that rarely gets translated to English.
First things first: I recently got hired at McLaren Greater Lansing as a Nurse Assistant. I am very excited about this job and I am eager to learn more skills. Everyone I’ve met so far at the hospital has been terrific, and I really believe that I’m going to enjoy my time there.
Second things second: I’ve been working for a while on internet stuff for the Clinton County Democratic Party as the IT Specialist. I’ve actually gotten a lot of work done, though by looking at the website you’d never guess it. Still, there are a lot of other factors that go into developing a decent internet presence for a political party than just the website, which is the next big thing to tackle on my seemingly ever-expanding agenda as IT Specialist.
And now, Ultimate Book Tag! I took this from Jackie Smith’s blog A Platform of Sorts. I haven’t written here in a while because life has been busy, so I thought I’d make this post fun.
1. Do you get sick while reading in the car?
Nope. I’ve read in cars for as long as I remember, and never had any problems with it. Even now, when I’m a passenger in a car and reading my Kindle, it doesn’t bother me.
2. Which author’s writing style is completely unique to you and why?
Douglas Adams. Hands down. And it’s not just his writing style, but how turns my expectations on their head. For instance, when describing the Vogon ships in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he writes, “They hung in the air much the same way bricks don’t.” His writing style influences my fiction writing in ways too numerous to count.
My general rule of thumb, thanks to Adams, is “when in doubt, give everything an inner voice. Even composite board bookshelves.”
3. Harry Potter Series or the Twilight Saga? Give 3 points to defend your answer.
a. It’s not Twilight.
b. It’s more original.
c. It’s not Twilight.
4. Do you carry a book bag? If so, what is it in (besides books…)?
I carry a book bag when I need to. I’ll either put my notebooks, folders, computer, or papers in it. I tend to keep all of the papers for my writing projects organized into folders or binders.
5. Do you smell your books?
Who doesn’t like the smell of wood pulp?
6. Books with or without little illustrations?
It really depends on the book, doesn’t it? Sometimes an illustration adds to the narrative in complex or unexpected ways, and that’s very refreshing.
7. What book did you love while reading but discovered later it wasn’t quality writing?
A Song of Ice and Fire–the entire series. The stories are engrossing, complex, original–but Martin’s prose is atrocious. He can spend three pages describing what someone is eating and I just want to tear those pages out to get on with the damn story. His saving graces are the realistic characters he invents and his willingness to go places most writers fear to tread.
8. Do you have any funny stories involving books from your childhood? Please share!
I used to build tunnels with my books so my model trains could go through them. That’s not really that funny, but it’s all I’ve got.
9. What is the thinnest book on your shelf?
The Trial and Death of Socrates, translated by G. M. A. Grube.
It was a close contest, but the winner was The Norton Shakespeare, Second Edition.
11. Do you write as well as read? Do you see yourself in the future as being an author?
Yes, I love to write, and I do see myself being a published author in the future. It might take a while, what this this life thing, but I do love writing. If you want to preview some of my short fiction, head on over to my other blog, Fictional Heuristics.
12. When did you get into reading?
I still have my copy of Itchy Itchy Chicken Pox from when I was a kid.
13. What is your favorite classic book?
Ofer-hyda ne gym, maere cempa!
14. In school was your best subject Language Arts/English?
Yes, actually. I won awards for my screenwriting, for being an outstanding writer, and I entered writing contests all of the time. It really wasn’t a surprise when I decided to major in English.
15. If you were given a book as a present that you had read before and hated…what would you do?
I would express my opinion of the book in a friendly way, but keep it in my collection. It’s why I haven’t thrown away Ayn Rand books.
16. What is a lesser known series that you know of that is similar to
Harry Potter or the Hunger Games?
I don’t think I know of one. I haven’t actually read The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series is pretty much a one-off for me in young adult fantasy.
17. What is your favorite word?
Queue. Look how funny it is. I want to pronounce it que-ue.
18. Are you a nerd, dork, or dweeb? Or all of the above?
I’m a geek. I have models of the Enterprise and the time machine from Back to the Future. I have so much Isaac Asimov it poses a small fire hazard.
19. Vampires or Fairies? Why?
I’d go with vampires for no other reason than I think Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a good book.
20. Shapeshifters or Angels? Why?
Shapeshifters are more interesting. Plus, Odo.
Neither. Boring. Overdone. Next?
22. Zombies or Vampires? Why?
Zombies, because if you can make a zombie movie like George Romero that offers up a critique of consumerism in American culture, you can make on out of a book. Max Brooks comes close.
23. Love Triangle or Forbidden Love?
Neither. Boring, cliche, just…come up with something more original.
24. AND FINALLY: Full on romance books or action-packed with a few love scenes mixed in?
If a choice between the two? The latter. I can deal with love subplots if they’re done right. Romance isn’t my thing.
Well, that was fun! I hope that everyone has had a great International Women’s Day!
I had a busy day so I just wanted to briefly touch on an idea I had to write a book on alien biology and anatomy as if it were a real book.
This idea first occurred to me when I was thinking of a realistic physiological explanation as to the green color of Spock’s blood. I want to write a kind of Grey’s Anatomy for aliens.
Anyway, that’s all I have tonight. Thanks for reading!
Yesterday was not the greatest day I’ve ever experienced, and I kind of shorted all of you, my keen and lovely readers, out of a decent post. I thought I’d make up for that tonight by posting a series of eight questions from SF Signal about science fiction books.
So, without further or do, here we go:
- The first science fiction book I ever read was: Jurassic Park
- The last science fiction book I read that I’d put in my “Top 20″ list is: Earth by David Brin
- The last science fiction book I couldn’t finish was: Dune
- A science fiction author whose work I cannot get enough of is: Isaac Asimov
- A science fiction author I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read yet is: L. Sprague de Camp
- A science fiction book I would recommend to someone who hasn’t read sf is: Foundation
- A science fiction book that’s terribly underrated is: Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
- A science fiction book that’s terribly overrated is: Ender’s Game
I’ve also been thinking about what book I’d like to write about next as part of my series of posts that will be inspired by the A-to-Z post on the letter B. I think that I’m going to focus on I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.