Book Review – The Three-Body Problem [Three Body #1]

4.5 stars. Liu Cixin’s first contact novel The Three-Body Problem is the tale of a secret Chinese military project to contact extraterrestrial intelligence, and the answering message that may spell the end of humanity. Beginning with the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, Liu combines the tale of Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao. Ye progresses from respected professor to political outcast to engineer at the facility that first made contact with the Trisolarans to leader of a philosophical movement. Wang becomes part of an investigation into the suicide of prominent researchers, then explores an MMORPG called Three Body, which becomes allegory for the history of the aliens and their doomed planet.

The Three-Body Problem is heavy on the hard science: quantum mechanics, multidimensional existence, electromagnetic spectrum, and nanomaterials are integral parts of the story. A basic knowledge of these subjects is helpful (nothing more than one could glean from Wikipedia in a cursory overview), though not essential. To the best of my understanding, the science is accurately portrayed, though of course the alien technology is the result of imaginative application of the science.

Much of the narrative tension of the book is the result of the thin line indeed between enemy and ally. The life and outlook of each character believably aligns them with the factions of humanity, some expecting to be saved by the Trisolarans, some expecting humanity’s sins to be expurgated by the impending invasion, and some readying themselves to fight for our very existence. Liu applies the tone of dark paranoia of the Cultural Revolution to the invasion, which added a disconcerting and eerie undercurrent to the entire book.

The weakest part of the novel for me was that some of the minor characters seemed far more fleshed out than Ye and Wang, particularly the no-nonsense police detective Shi Qiang. Occasionally Ye and Wang seem as if they are just along for the ride, simply there to move the plot along.

The translation by Ken Liu is excellent, presenting a solid narrative flow while still retaining the feel of Chinese literature. I particularly felt the Chinese style on the in-game sequences; the mythical folk feel, archetypal characters, and philosophical nuances reminded me of Journey to the West. A smattering of footnotes gives cultural insights, relevant history, and some language play that would otherwise be lost in translation. (As an aside, Kindle footnotes on iOS would be so much better if they simply popped up the relevant information the same way that definitions appear instead of transferring to another page!)

Alternately scientific work, political thriller, psychological horror, and hardcore alien invasion story, The Three-Body Problem is a work of incredible scope and imagination. I am hooked for sure, and ready to dive into the next volume of the trilogy, The Dark Forest.

Book Review – The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado

Eliot Porter - Pools in Aztec Creek, Glen Canyon, Utah 1962-09-055 stars. The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado is a book that is intellectually stimulating, visually stunning, utterly peaceful, and entirely maddening. The lush photography of Eliot Porter illustrates so much beauty in the interplay of water, light, rock, and plants. And to think that all this is inundated under Lake Powell by the Glen Canyon Dam–a sickening loss of a natural wonder.

Porter’s photography is noteworthy for its use of color, texture, and reflection. Glen Canyon was a perfect playground for his lenses, with high, narrow slots tightly channeling the light against the vivid stone of the southwestern US. Few of the photographs show wide landscape views; many find grandeur in the small details of the canyon and its life. Water is often absent, though its role in carving the canyon is always palpable.

The beautifully-reproduced full color plates are paired with quotes from naturalists, thinkers, and notes from John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition through the canyon. The edition I have is the 1988 reissue, featuring expanded photographs from Porter’s collection.

The Place No One Knew stands as a testament both to Porter’s talents and a beautiful place that we chose to destroy. It is a shame that Glen Canyon may only be experienced through 50 year old photographs.

Book Review – Poor Man’s Fight [Poor Man’s Fight #1]

4 stars. Eliot Kay’s Poor Man’s Fight follows Tanner Malone as he matriculates from high school, looking forward to a life of college and opportunity. A giant wrench is thrown into the works by family issues and the crushing debt of his corporate-financed compulsory education, and he enlists in his star system’s navy. His training is put to the test by the pirates who feast upon the system’s bounty.

Tanner is a well-conceived character who is easy to identify with; his actions and reactions are believable. His struggles through boot camp make for an interesting read, and his relations to other characters give a dramatic depth beyond simple space combat action.

The last third of the book unfolds with breathtaking speed; it’s hard to put down once the plot comes to fruition. The blockbuster action scenes provide page after page of over-the-top fun.

Science fiction’s ability to present a world similar enough to our own that we immediately recognize it yet strange enough that we can see the absurdity in our own gives some real bite to Kay’s social commentary on debt and corporate power. These themes resonate strongly given the current political focus on the role of government and corporation in individuals’ lives. Kay deserves kudos for letting his themes speak for themselves through the events and characters rather than preaching or ranting about them.

Parts of the book were told from the pirates’ POV. These seemed unnecessary given the conclusion of the book; they probably would have made a good standalone, but seemed out of place in this narrative. While the pirates are democratic and egalitarian, their viciousness is such that I never felt conflicted about who to support.

Poor Man’s Fight is action oriented mil sci-fi that revolves around an interesting premise and strong characters combined with thoughtful political themes. A solid, entertaining read.

Book Review – Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters

3.5 stars. Parachuting into a forest fire, controlling its furious and unpredictable flames, and packing out of rugged terrain carrying well in excess of 100 pounds pretty much fulfills the definition of “badass” in anyone’s book. Jason Ramos recounts his 20+ year career as a smokejumper, combining his memoirs with a concise history of firefighting and lucid discussions of the problems facing wilderness firefighters today.

As with many memoirs by the elites of dangerous professions, there’s a humility and “all in a day’s work” understatement of risk to Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters. The smokejumpers are men who have no need to brag; their accomplishments stand on their own merits with no embellishment necessary. I can’t imagine anyone who would read this book and not feel a sense of awe at these brave firefighters.

Smokejumper is easily readable, with direct prose. While the narrative tends to be pretty jumpy–moving from Ramos’ part in a fire to discussions of firefighting equipment to the history of the deadliest fires–it maintains a natural feel, like a long chat over some beers (and don’t even think of not picking up the tab, he deserves a beer and then some!). I would have liked a little more personal stories of Mr. Ramos; he almost casually mentions his role in fighting fires as an afterthought when I get the feeling he could have written much more about his role, and I did not feel as emotionally bound to the story as its contents would have allowed.

I also appreciated his reflection on the firefighting profession and man’s role with nature. Esoteric details of forest management, firefighting tactics, and the behavior of fires are presented very clearly; Ramos is a natural explainer.

As man encroaches more upon wilderness, the topic of forest fires becomes more and more relevant. Smokejumper is a readable, enjoyable look at the problems posed by wildfires, and the brave men and women who risk their lives to control them.

Book Review – Visit Sunny Chernobyl

4 stars. As its title implies, Visit Sunny Chernobyl is a book of complete contradictions. Andrew Blackwell travels for the purpose of seeking the most polluted spots in the world, visiting the radioactive ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the oil sand fields of Canada, the Amazon, and more.

His findings were quite interesting, and possibly a letdown for a pollution tourist: Chernobyl had become overgrown, a haven for wildlife and vegetation. Deforestation is heavily regulated in Brazil, with environmental regulations working to preserve the rainforest. A floating mass of plastic garbage supposedly twice the size of Texas is rather elusive to track down. Electronics recycling is a home-based (though somewhat toxic) cottage industry in China.

What I found most interesting in this book was the contrast between the preservationist view of nature found in the West and the stewardship feelings in the East. Westerners tended to regard nature as a separate entity to be set aside from the use of man, kept in a “pristine” state and visited to satisfy a connection with the environment. Easterners viewed nature as part of their daily lives, to be lived with rather than visited.

Blackwell is an engaging writer, though better at capturing people than environment. His dry sense of humor and almost zest for garbage sets the perfect tone for a book about pollution. He gives a few details of a personal crisis that happened during his travels, though not enough information to really engage an emotional response.

While the pollution that Blackwell finds is depressing, Visit Sunny Chernobyl is ultimately a hopeful book. Nature seems to do a pretty good job of healing considering what we throw at it, and what we risk through our exploitation of the planet isn’t so much the end of the planet as the end of its suitability for human habitation. Maybe we’ll learn something… ?

Book Review – Desert Solitaire

5 stars. Irascible crank Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire as a description of his first season as a park ranger in Arches National Park (then Arches National Monument), painting a vivid picture of the stark and beautiful landscape and the life it supports. Right from the beginning his prose had my attention:

This is the most beautiful place on earth.

There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.

Through his eyes, we see the beauty of Arches: Balanced Rock, Delicate Arch, and the desert itself. Abbey tells of his day-to-day job duties, and how he lived in the harsh environment. A mournful tour of Glen Canyon, now condemned to Lake Powell by the Glen Canyon Dam, is one of the highlights of the book–and sadly the best tour available of that spot. A jaunt into The Maze (some of the most remote and unforgiving terrain in America) is powerful and immersive.

What I most appreciate about Abbey is that, in opposition to those who idealized and romanticized nature, he loved it for all its grit and gore, the struggle for life. His writing shows a conception of the larger sense, the cycles of biology, geology, and astronomy. Survival is ultimately measured on a species level rather than an individual level. Take this passage about locating and removing the body of a tourist who died in the park:

Each man’s death diminishes me? Not necessarily. Given this man’s age, the inevitability and suitability of his death, and the essential nature of life on earth, there is in each of us the unspeakable conviction that we are well rid of him. His departure makes room for the living. Away with the old, in with the new. He is gone–we remain, others come.

Yet, he is not without capacity for finding the beautiful as well:

Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.

As to his views on politics and society, I can only charitably call them curmudgeonly. He’s not a big fan of politics:

“Modern politics is expensive–power follows money.”

Or modern lifestyle:

“We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.”

Or tourists:

In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.

Don’t worry, there’s something here to offend anyone. (Abbey would not deign to notice our outrage.)

While Desert Solitaire is certainly one of the seminal works of environmentalism, some of Abbey’s outdoor manners were a product of the era and shocking to those of us who learned and practice Leave No Trace ethics. Carving his initials in an aspen tree? Killing wildlife? Lighting a campfire in delicate backcountry? It’s enough to give his successor park rangers apoplexy–but very interesting as an illustration of how we learn to do better.

This is a book that I need to own, and reread. I suspect each time I open Desert Solitaire, I’ll find something new to make me long for harsh landscapes, or laugh out loud, or shake my head with a low “Abbey, you old coot,” or value the moments I have all the more.

Book Review – The Wild Muir: Twenty-Two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures

4 stars. John Muir was a monumental figure to anyone who loves the outdoors: naturalist, adventurer, preservationist, and skilled mountaineer. Muir re-enactor Lee Stetson compiled some of his most hair-raising tales in The Wild Muir: Twenty-Two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures. Stetson introduces each story with a paragraph that places it within the context of Muir’s life.

The stories follow Muir from his childhood in Scotland, through the hardscrabble family farming in Wisconsin, then to Florida, then California and Alaska. Most of the prose is from his books and letters, with occasional contrasting voices from his travel companions. The passages by others show that, if anything, Muir tended to understate the danger and adventure of his undertakings!

Muir’s love for nature comes through very clearly, and he had a gift for evocative phrasing. Stetson edited the text to remove some of the more lengthy descriptions in favor of the adventure theme, making this volume less contemplative than Muir sometimes is. I’m glad that I read some of this book by headlamp in a tent; it just seems made for that setting.

Illustrator Fiona King contributed gorgeous woodcut-style illustrations that are perfect for this volume.