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.
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.
I first saw the movie Gravity not too long after it was first released in theaters. Smarter people than I have explained what the movie got right and wrong in terms of science, but that’s not what I would like to talk about. I haven’t seen Gravity since I saw it the first time in theaters, so my memory might be a bit fuzzy on what happens in the movie. Fair warning: there are spoilers if you haven’t seen the movie.
The thing that most interested me about the movie was this theme about rebirth and growth that was developed through the movie, starting with Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone and her first spacewalk to service the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble Telescope is, in fact, one of the most important instruments we’ve ever developed, capturing images of the universe with such clarity that they never fail to leave us stunned. To look at one of the images is to see the breathtaking expanse of space laid out before us, each speck of light representing another galaxy.
Gravity is a movie about space, but not in the way that a lot of other movies are. Sure, there’s the typical “space is dangerous” aspect about the movie. Apart from that, though, I think that there’s a great respect for the physical forces we’re dealing with, and what it will take for humanity to meet the challenges in front of us. We have a long way to go before we’re ready to reach out and touch the stars.
In the movie, Ryan Stone’s inexperience is met with the childish antics of veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney. This is Kowalski’s final mission, so he takes the time to enjoy the view and the experience of being in space by floating around with his manned maneuvering unit. To some degree, there’s less a feeling of exploration and pushing the bounds of human knowledge than there is the feeling that this is becoming old hat. How many people are interested in the minutia of what NASA does on versus the number of people who were watching anxiously as man took his first steps on the moon?
The main problem arises when a Russian missile strike on an old satellite puts debris on a collision course with the team and the Hubble Telescope. What follows is a mad scramble to avoid the collision, but ultimately, both the space shuttle Explorer and Hubble are destroyed, and one of the three astronauts dies. Kowalski and Stone then try to get to the International Space Station before the debris spins around the planet to hit them again.
Without doing an in-depth summary of a movie I haven’t seen in over a year, let me get to the point: after Kowalski dies, Stone is on her own, facing circumstances that nobody has ever faced before. There’s a poignant scene in which Stone, after crawling into the space station and taking off her suit, is curled up by a window.
This image calls to mind the picture of a human developing in the womb, curled up with the umbilical cord. And in a way, the space station is Stone’s womb–it’s the thin skin between the cold void of space and certain death and the warmth and air she needs to survive.
Moving ahead a bit, after she crash lands on the planet in one of the Chinese station’s escape pods, she crawls onto the beach. The movie ends as she takes her first, trembling steps on land, signifying her survival and growth from baby in the womb on the space station.
It’s very human–but more than human, it represents the evolution of life. There’s a an idea in science–not quite a theory–called panspermia. There are a lot of different version of this idea, but for me the most attractive is one which posits simply that life on Earth came from space via microorganisms that survived being carried on asteroids and comets. I don’t subscribe to this idea as a good explanation of life, but there are interesting implications. We do know that organic compounds that life depends on can be found on comets and asteroids–so it is, at least, thinkable that the compounds needed for life could have come from them.
There are clear parallels in Gravity and this idea, and furthermore with the evolution of life. Stone survives reentry as all of the metal of the satellites and the two space stations crashes around her. She emerges from the water–as early life did–crawling onto the beach, then on her hands and knees, and then standing on two feet.
So what does this have to do with space exploration and humanity? We reach for space, but come crashing back to Earth. What Gravity does is highlight how hostile space is and how much we actually rely on the safety of Earth. There’s a narrow window in which humans can survive, and once that’s gone, that’s it. As Carl Sagan said in Pale Blue Dot:
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
We reborn onto the planet Earth, with a new respect for it. We’re ready to take our first steps into space, but with humility and awareness that Earth is who we are. We’re drawn to it, literally and figuratively. From space we can marvel at its beauty, and from the surface we can appreciate how it has nurtured us.
Maybe one day we’ll find life on another planet, or maybe even settle and build on other planets. I tend to think that the future holds boundless potential for humanity, as long as we remember that, when we look at the big picture, life is fragile. Earth is all we have.
If you value your sanity, and if you value reason, science, and logic, for the love of gostack (may gostack ever distim the doshes) avoid this movie.
At all costs.
I really tried to summon the energy to write a point-by-point tear-down of the movie and why it is the worst comedy-masquerading-as-serious-sci-fi film ever made, but the total cost in terms of entropy created by such action was universe-devouring in scope.
Let’s leave it at this: it mangles science, philosophy, sense, and does so at the expense of coherency and enjoyability. There wasn’t a time when I wasn’t facepalming epically during the 90-minute assault on my neurons. When, near the end, Lucy, named–ha ha–in a rather transparent reference to the australopithecus afarensis, gives a bizarre speech about the non-existence of numbers and some nonsense about time, I reached such divide-by-zero levels of fury that I had to consciously stop myself from throwing my shoe at the screen in the theater.
As the credits started to role, and I began to ponder the ending lines, “Now you know what to do with it,” I realized that the proper reaction to this movie is not seething rage, but laughter.
See, the movie is a practical joke, played on all of us.
Damn you, Luc Besson, King of Practical Jokes.
Hello, my dear readers (and new readers!).
Sadly, last month, I was not able to finish the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge. I kept going, and managed to get some posts up for the last few letters except for Z, but ultimately, life got in the way. I wanted to end the challenge with a bang, and write a post called “Zero-Point Energy Generators and Other Internet Malarkey,” but a person I am very fond of visited me and my priorities changed.
The challenge was very fun, though, and it was a challenge to keep thinking of new ideas to write. I’m not really the kind of person that can keep writing a daily blog like that without succumbing to some kind of fatigue or dissatisfaction at the quality of the writing. Indeed, the hardest part of the challenge was, for me, hitting the publish button on a post that I put together in haste to get one out for the day.
I will still, at some point, be writing that post about zero-point energy generators. I also have plans to add a new page for book reviews that I want to start writing. Most of them will be for books that I find for Kindle on amazon.com by independent authors. I have recently discovered that world and, honestly, I am rather impressed by it. Some of the writing is not very good, but the stories usually make up for that. But I’ll write more about that later.
My fiction blog, Fictional Heuristics, has languished since March. Part of the reason is because April was a busy month, and the A-to-Z Challenge took priority. A large part of the reason is because I have been trying to run a campaign for State Representative. I have written previously about a survey I got from Americans for Prosperity, and since then, I have done much more work and have taken other surveys. As the summer really gets started I will be busy campaigning and learning more about this process. I have to be honest that it’s been very eye-opening. There are more groups working to lobby elected officials than I had realized, and each of them wields a great deal of power. It’s frankly rather worrisome, and I’m concerned about the state of our democracy.
In the interest of keeping things separated and organized, I have started another blog for my campaign, in which I have reblogged the post about the AFP survey with a small update. It’s pretty simple, and it’s called “Josh Derke for State Representative.” It’s a work in progress (and I haven’t had much time to work on it yet) so it doesn’t have a lot of content.
I’ve also got a Facebook page for my campaign (which is also a work in progress) that can be found here.
Anyway, the most interesting bit of news was that I attended the Motor City Comic Con. And, honestly, it was great! I got to meet William Shatner, who was a kind, warm person. I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect that. His panel was really neat as well, and he had some pretty great stories. He did kind of butcher science when he talked about the fact that we don’t really know anything about the universe, but his central point was, I would think, dead on: that we don’t really know what’s out there and we’re driven to discover.
So let’s get out there! (Preferably on the Enterprise.)
Shatner talked about a bit of the wisdom he’s learned about why cons are so popular: these stories we celebrate, from Doctor Who to Star Trek to Lord of the Rings (and all of the other shows that are too numerous to name) are our modern myths. I think that’s a very important observation.
We get together to explore our common ethos, and share our common myths. We revel in the stories and the heroes. The Doctor is a modern Odysseus on his own odyssey, as is James T. Kirk. And there’s something in this that speaks to something that all of humanity has in common: our use of stories to tell us about ourselves. So, at comic con, we get together to share these stories which we love with other people who love them. We meet the actors who are the heroes. We get their signatures and we take pictures with them because we make them part of us–part of our own stories. And, in this way, we become a part of the modern epics we celebrate.
John Barrowman was also a hoot, and his guest panel was hilarious. But you don’t have to take my word for it:
The thing I like about John Barrowman is that he doesn’t just shoo you through a line. He takes the time. He talks to you. He shook my hand (and I might have swooned a bit). He’s the kind of person that actually, genuinely cares about his fans and I find that so refreshing.
One of the things I really like about going to comic con is that I just love to see all of the passion of the people who attend. It’s great to talk to people, laugh with them, recount our favorite moments in Star Trek and Doctor Who. There were many cool costumes (and I took some pictures, but not nearly enough because I’m bad at that kind of thing) and a lot of cool displays.
And, finally, what kind of Con would it be without the 501st Legion?
Anyway, that’s it for tonight. I hope that I will be updating this blog more regularly again, but it’s summer and I have a million things to do. Plus, you know, summer. It’s actually nice and not cold outside. I keep hoping that my allergies won’t be bad this year and I can actually enjoy the outdoors, but maybe that’s a fool’s hope.
Thanks for stopping by!
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!