The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin

February 9, 2018 § Leave a comment

First published in the Chinese in 2006
Translated into the English by Ken Liu in 2014

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Wang Miao is an expert in nanotechnology. One day, he is invited (forcefully) to attend a meeting in which he finds out that the armies of the world are getting ready for a war. He doesn’t understand—this is the most peaceful time on Earth for a long time. What war, and who is the enemy? Instead of telling him, the general, General Chang, leaves him with this to ponder on:

“Yes, the entire history of humankind has been fortunate. From the Stone Age till now, no real crisis has occurred. We’ve been very lucky. But if it’s luck, then it has to end one day. Let me tell you: It’s ended. Prepare for the worst.”

This meeting proves to be a turning point in Wang Miao’s life. Very soon after, a countdown timer appears in front of him. Only he can see it, and it continues to tick away the seconds. He is disturbed by this and seeks advice from a fellow scientist friend, Shen Yufei. She suggests something that has never occurred to him: “Stop your [nanomaterials] project.” He doesn’t understand—what is the link between the countdown appearing in front of him, and his work? But instead of offering any explanation, she only tells him: “Just stop. Try it.”

All this leads to his discovery of a virtual reality game, Three Body. In this virtual world, the weather is completely unpredictable. When is day? When is night? How many hours has passed? When is the next sunlight? How long will it last? There are no real answers to these questions in this Three Body world, and that is the aim of the game: to figure out the laws that govern this world, and thence calculate a way to predict the climate.

This game sucks Wang Miao deeper and deeper into a world that is both fascinating and horrifying. How do you survive in a world where drought can last for centuries, and cold nights can go on for decades without a single moment of sunshine? And in what way is this world connected to the one he is living in?

I don’t think I’ve read that many science fiction books in the past. (I just Googled “science fiction”, and it appears that dystopian fiction is sometimes considered a sub-category of science fiction. I beg to differ, but that is a topic for another day.) In fact, I’m finding it extremely difficult to recall the titles that I’ve read that fall into this genre. I guess it’s obvious—I’m not a huge sci-fi fan.

So why did I choose to read this one? Not to mention, it comes in a set of three, and The Three-Body Problem is only the first instalment of the trilogy. I chanced upon it. China is making this book into a film, and because of some personal connections, I somehow got interested to find out what the original work was like, and how it would compare to the upcoming film.

My thoughts after spending a week with the book: it’s not a bad one. I can see why it has become such an influential book in China. The premise is interesting, the ideas are cool, the plot is quick. And yet, that is all I can say about it: it’s not a bad book. It’s just not great for me.

There was a lot of explaining going on, and while I appreciated those parts (my lack of knowledge in advanced sciences really needed them), I also found them a little dry and easy to glaze over.

That being said, though, I have a feeling that I will continue to read the second and third books. I’m not absolutely excited and hyped about it, but I do want to know how it will end. And that’s a sign of good storytelling.

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The Invisible Man – H.G. Wells

January 1, 2018 § Leave a comment

First published in the English in 1897

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A stranger comes to a quiet little inn somewhere in the country. He’s wrapped from top to toe. The innkeeper’s wife finds this somewhat odd, but given that the stranger offers quite a handsome sum, she offers him a room and some food in return. The stranger is a curiosity—he keeps himself wrapped up despite being indoors and warm, as if he is always cold. He’s desperate to get his things from the station, insisting that his things are sent for immediately, which creates some unease with the villagers.

Some odd things happen around the village, and the villagers are convinced that these happenings have to do with the stranger’s arrival. They attempt to confront the stranger, only to see him slowly strip and disappear before their very eyes!

The Invisible Man is a short enough book, and quite a good one to end the year with. The language was simple and un-flowery, the characters rather interesting. Griffin, the scientist who became The Invisible Man, was especially intriguing. But perhaps the one person I found most interesting of all, was H.G. Wells himself.

As Griffin talked to his friend Kemp about how he came to turn invisible, and his first experiences as an invisible man, I found myself thinking, “How is it that Wells managed to think of all these things?” Things like stumbling down the stairs because he couldn’t see his feet, or mud stains betraying the shape of his invisible feet, or food that had yet to be assimilated being visible (and frightening, I believe, given that the food would be “floating”).

This is my first time reading Wells, and I don’t usually fare well with books that come from a century ago. But I feel that perhaps my reading tastes have changed somewhat, or perhaps Wells just reads well for me. I’m now rather interested to read the other book that he’s so famous for—The Time Machine.

The Outsider – Albert Camus

December 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the French in 1942
Translated into the English by Joseph Laredo in 1982

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Meursault tells us that his mother has died. He’s not sure if she died today, or yesterday. All he knows is that he received a telegram telling him that his mother has died. He takes a couple of days off from work so that he can attend her funeral. He spends the night at the home where she spent the last years of her life, then goes back to his own home. He meets a girl the next day, takes her for a movie and spends the night with her. He goes back to work, but tries to avoid having to talk about his mother, or the funeral.

Instead, he focuses on everything else. The neighbour with that dog that he loves and hates at the same time. That acquaintance who asks him for favours and calls him his “mate”. That girl he’s seeing who seems to be just the person he might want to marry one day.

Then one day, he commits a terrible crime—one that he doesn’t have an explanation for, or at least, not one that is acceptable by all those who question him. No real motive, no remorse. He simply feels frustration, the absolute nuisance that this event has caused him. And he tells it plainly to whoever asks.

The Outsider, or The Stranger by other translators, is a short book. It reads simply enough, though I don’t believe it to be a simple book. It presents, not a complex idea, but a very deep and thought-provoking one—is it more sinful to commit a crime, or to not show the “proper” and “accepted” emotions at the appropriate times?

Is Meursault guilty for pulling the trigger, or for not feeling remorse for this crime, and for not crying at his mother’s funeral?

In an Afterword by Camus, he says:

… the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game. […] you must ask yourself in what way Meursault doesn’t play the game. The answer is simple: he refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what is not true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels.

It is easy enough to think that perhaps Meursault is simply a very unemotional person, or that he doesn’t love his mother, hence why he didn’t cry. For me, even though it did seem at first that Meursault perhaps didn’t share a good relationship with his mother, I got the feeling that he did, in fact, love his mother.

I realized that I’d managed to get through another Sunday, that mother was not buried, that I was going to go back to work and that, after all, nothing had changed.

This, to me, did not read like the thoughts of someone who didn’t feel the loss of his mother. He was just too honest with himself—he was tired from the travel, he was irritated by the inconveniences—and didn’t think it necessary to cry simply because that was what was accepted and expected.

You cry when your mother dies. You show regret and remorse when you’ve committed a crime. You cry for God when you are sentenced to death.

Is Meursault an outsider, then? An outsider because he doesn’t react the way people are expected to react? Maybe. But if we were all truthful about our feelings, or lack of them, would we maybe discover that we are all outsiders in our own way?

The Bradbury Report – Steven Polansky

December 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the English in 2009

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The narrator, or “author”, if you will, of this report is a man called Ray Bradbury. But that’s not his real name, he tells us quite early on. It’s the name of a famous author in the past, a name that he learned of from his friend and colleague. A name he has borrowed to write this report and remain as anonymous as he can possibly be. And he needs this anonymity because the contents of this report could very much cause a great deal of trouble for not only himself, but for anyone who has the slightest ties to him. (Though his wife has long died, his parents even more so, and his relationship with his in-laws is estranged to say the least.)

Ray has been contacted by the friend who gave him this name. His friend is called Anna Weeks, or Anna Pearson after she took her husband’s name. Though both names are also not real, as she is not really called Anna, and Ray (not his real name) cannot use her real name in the report.

So Anna contacts him out of the blue to ask him for a favour—a favour so odd and unexpected that Ray doesn’t know what to make of it. She wants him to meet his clone, and write a report about it.

This is in a world where America is the only country in the world that has not only NOT outlawed cloning, but also devised a government programme where clones, or “copies”, as they call them, are made so as to become convenient “spare parts” for the “originals” when they need them.

Where do these copies live, and how do they live? Do they know of their “true” purpose, which is to serve as a bag of spare parts for their originals? Do they speak? Do they understand language? Do they know what we know? Do they feel the same emotions and think the same thoughts as we do?

These are some of the questions that Ray, and Anna, are supposed to help find out. They’re asked to spend time with this clone, to teach it our language, to teach it to talk and respond, so as it may one day become a “spokesperson” against cloning. So that one day, it can speak against its very existence.

The Bradbury Report was a rather surprising book, probably because I didn’t know much about it prior, and because of the way it was written. The world is a dystopian one, and yet not really that far in the future (2071, it said) that there is no longer any memory or knowledge of the world that we live in and know today. It’s as if it’s the start of a really crazy world, one that if allowed to continue would bring about a catastrophe of epic scale. And yet, because it was a personal report by a man, Ray Bradbury, who hardly feels any attachment to this world, there is a slight apathy to his voice, and in essence, the entire report. It’s almost as if he’s writing it so others may know what he knows, which is very little, but he doesn’t really know, or care, what this report will do. Will the world change because of his report? Will cloning be outlawed in America? Will the protestors grow in numbers? Will the living conditions and other information about the clones be more transparent?

He doesn’t know if his report will cause any dent or ripple, major or minor, at all. He writes it because it is what has been asked of him.

This very personal, apathetic voice is what made the book really intriguing for me. At the same time, it was also what frustrated me the most. I wanted to know more. I wanted him to want to know more. But to be inquisitive, to be curious, was to be someone he wasn’t.

Maybe I’ll reread this in a few years. It’s a keeper.

Strangers – Taichi Yamada

December 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the Japanese in 1987
Translated into the English by Wayne P. Lammers in 2003

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Hideo Harada is a 47-year-old scriptwriter. He’s recently divorced, and as a result, his finances are in the worst possible shape, forcing him to move into his office. It’s busy enough in the day, he tells us, but when night comes along, everyone else leaves the building, and soon, the silence is eerie, the rumbling of trucks hurrying along a busy road just amplifying how quiet the building really is.

One night, he sees a light in one of the units as he is walking into the building. Ah, he’s not alone after all. A beautiful woman lives in that unit—it is someone he has seen before once when he was sitting in the lobby and she was rushing in and simply walked past him. This same woman, Kei, pays him an unexpected visit one night, and later, a rather awkward love affair starts between them.

During this same time, he decides, on a whim, to visit Asakusa. That’s the place he grew up in with his parents, until he was 12 and his parents died. Just visiting the place brings up dear memories of his time with his parents, so much so that he thinks he is seeing things when he sees a man who looks very much like his own father. His father, that is, as Hideo remembers him—a man of thirty plus years.

This man who looks like his father invites him to his home, and Hideo accepts this invitation, perhaps out of curiosity. How far will this hallucination go? When he walks into this man’s home and sees his wife, his heart almost skips a beat—that is his mother as he remembers her!

How young they are! How is this possible? Even as ghosts, shouldn’t they have aged? But somehow, he talks to them as if they are indeed his parents, yet it seems ridiculous, even to himself. After all, it’s impossible for a 47-year-old man to have parents younger than himself!

He knows how impossible it is, but he can’t seem to resist going back to Asakusa again and again. Soon, he even looks forward to those visits, glad that he is able again to spend time with his parents. At the same time, he realises (though he cannot see it for himself) that he has changed much physically—he has lost a great deal of weight, looking quite pale and wasted. He knows this, and suspects that it is his visits to Asakusa—to see his “parents”—that are doing this to him. He knows this, and yet—

Perhaps I was destined to go on wasting away, never able to see the ravages with my own eyes, until suddenly one day I dropped dead. So be it, then. One who’s been given the chance to spend time with his departed parents must not ask for much more.

I don’t usually like reading stories about ghosts, but Strangers is quite different. There is nothing spooky about it, because Hideo simply tells it as if it’s quite normal to meet with ghosts of your past. However, it does have an immense feeling of indulgence—in the past, in loneliness, in worthlessness.

It is beautiful book about dealing with loneliness and lost time with loved ones. And because it is so spare with its words, there’s a lot of space to read in between the lines. What would it mean for you to be able to spend time with departed loved ones? What does living this life mean for you now? How real is the now, and how real is the past? Are your memories ghosts of your past, or are you a ghost of your own life?

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I read this for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 11.

Room – Emma Donoghue

November 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the English in 2010

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Jack has just turned five years old. He lives in Room with his Ma, and every day, they go through more or less the same routine. They wake up and clean up, eat, watch some TV, play some games, read, and when night-time comes, Jack has to go and sleep in Wardrobe so that Old Nick doesn’t see him.

Some days, they stare up at Skylight and play Scream. They also get to ask Old Nick for some things they want as Sunday treat. But Jack has never left Room, nor has he seen what is outside of Door. It’s Outer Space, as far as he is concerned, and everything in Outer Space is not real. Not like him and Ma and Old Nick.

A few days after he has turned five, Ma starts telling him some very disturbing things about Outer Space: it is real, it is where she was from before she lived in Room, and she wants to go back out there. She comes up with an idea on how to do that, but Jack thinks it’s ridiculous. Why would she want to go into Outer Space? It’s making him have a headache.

Room is entirely told from young Jack’s point of view. I’ve read a few books now (not many, just a few) that are told from a young child’s perspective, and I have to say that this book, as well as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, has been very convincing. The voice was naive enough, and there were no instances (not that I can recall) where Jack felt like he had to explain anything to us readers. He tells it like it is for him, and it’s up to us to decipher what he means.

That’s part of what made this book work. The topic itself is immensely depressing—a woman and her child are kept under constant lock-and-key for years on end by their captor. But Jack has never known life outside the four walls of Room, and it’s not depressing for him that he has to live in such a confined space. From his point of view, this is what life looks like, and because he’s not upset, I didn’t get upset either. (Which I would have, given the nature of the topic, if it was Ma who told the story instead.)

I felt for the boy. So innocent to the world.

A Pale View Of Hills – Kazuo Ishiguro

October 27, 2017 § 2 Comments

First published in the English in 1982

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Etsuko is a Japanese woman residing in modern-day England. Her youngest daughter, Niki, is coming for a visit—one that doesn’t come by too often, it seems. They don’t seem to have the easiest of relationships, but there is something floating between them—something they seem to want to talk about and avoid at the same time. Etsuko’s eldest daughter, Keiko, had committed suicide not too long ago.

Instead of talking about this incident with Niki, Etsuko chooses to talk about a woman she once knew from a long time ago, back when she was still in Nagasaki. A woman and her daughter—Sachiko and Mariko.

Much of the book dwells on Etsuko’s past, or more precisely, that one summer in Nagasaki when she had gotten to know Sachiko and her daughter. And it is through Etsuko’s memories that we get to know them as well, which then becomes convenient for us to be influenced by Etsuko’s descriptions of the woman.

Sachiko comes off as someone immensely odd. She constantly tells Etsuko to ask whatever she wants, making it seem as though she’s willing to tell all. And yet Sachiko answers none of Etsuko’s questions directly. In fact, she often just laughs or smiles, then walks circles around the question before arriving to a conclusion that perhaps it is Etsuko who is too worrisome, too close-minded, too doubtful.

Mariko is an even odder character. She ignores her mother and Etsuko most of the time, then stays out late into the night. She refuses to answer questions, choosing to repeat herself, sometimes saying completely unrelated things. Weirder still is how she constantly talks about a woman she sees by the river—a woman that neither Sachiko nor Etsuko can see.

The overall atmosphere, aura if you will, is one of slow, misty resignation. As if the sun doesn’t shine too brightly, not even on the hottest of summers, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It almost feels like Etsuko believes that she has no say, that things simply happen to her—like meeting Sachiko, and Keiko committing suicide.

I’ve read a few of Ishiguro’s books by now (this book itself is a rereading), and I found A Pale View Of Hills very similar to An Artist Of The Floating World. Similar not only in tone and atmosphere, but also in the descriptions and characters. Beautiful and quiet, very nostalgic, a little melancholic.

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If you’ve not read the book, and plan to do so, this is where you should turn away. *Spoiler Alert*

Because I read this book as part of a read-along with Bellezza, I thought it would be good to have this extra bit to discuss a bit further about my other thoughts.

There were two things that really stood out for me, especially as I reached the end of the book. The two mother-daughter pairs (Sachiko-Mariko, and Etsuko-Keiko) felt so eerily similar that I find it hard to believe that Etsuko is perhaps Sachiko herself. Did Sachiko really exist? Or did Etsuko make her up, gently moulding her own memory to make it seem as if Sachiko was indeed a neighbour?

This became even stronger in that scene where Etsuko tried to convince Mariko to follow her mother to America, saying that “If we don’t like it there, we can come back,” as if talking to her own daughter. Perhaps it was really Etsuko talking to Keiko, and not Mariko at all.

The second thing that sort of caught me by surprise also came in this scene. As Etsuko continues to talk to Mariko, Mariko suddenly sees a rope in Etsuko’s hand and asks about it. Etsuko says that it just got caught on her ankles.

But as I was reading it, I had this nagging feeling about it, so I did a Google search. Apparently, there’s an interpretation about this—perhaps Etsuko is really the child murderer, and the rope that she had in her hand was really for her to use against Mariko.

I’m not completely convinced about this, and it could mean something else entirely. But it just really stood out as something out of the ordinary, and the fact that Ishiguro cared about that rope being caught on Etsuko’s ankles should mean that there’s something more there than meets the eye.