Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

mcdonaldi-luna1-newmoonukAccording to its Wikipedia entry, this novel has been called Game of Thrones in space. You can see what is meant by that: this is a novel about near-future industrial dynasties on a commercialised and privatised Moon. It’s about a murderous and deadly frontier where there is no law except contract law and where there are a thousand ways to die.

So yeah: a bit like Game of Thrones. But not necessarily in a good way. I’ve said before that while I love the TV series (occasional pacing issues notwithstanding), I did not enjoy reading the novels. The novels seem soulless to me, written in an affectless style, as if put together by a committee.

And I did not enjoy reading Luna. There are sections of this novel I have in fact read before, in short story collections, and the novel seems to have been constructed around these fragments. But here’s the thing: I don’t care about any of the dynasties, any of the people, or their business ambitions. I’m not particularly interested in their polymorphous sexualities, their fashions, designer drugs, or much else about this society.

The main focus here is the Corta family, of Brazilian origin, who are competing – in some unspecified way – with other corporate families who originate from Russia, China, Nigeria, and Australia. Each family has a monopoly of some particular resource, but the Cortas and the McKenzies are at each others throats because their businesses overlap in some way.

There are arranged marriages, court cases, secret societies, and more – but I wasn’t interested in any of it. The thing about business, for me, is that it just isn’t very interesting. It’s worse, even, than playing Monopoly: it’s watching other people play monopoly. And though the stakes are meant to be high and lives are at risk, the fact that it’s so easy to die on the moon lowered the stakes.

There are lots of names: sons and daughters and second sons and more sons and daughters, and arranged marriages and custody battles over their kids, but it all ends up a big wash of interchangeable people who have walk-on parts, or pop up here and there, but not so much that you start caring about them. It’s another science fiction menippean satire, a series of meetings between characters who exchange views, but there isn’t much of a plot, and the climax ends up being both rushed and boring, with nobody to root for and nothing much to care about. If a meteor shower had hit every habitat and killed everyone, I wouldn’t have been bothered.

I have a horrible feeling there will be sequels. Ironically, like Game of Thrones, this might indeed make for good television, so I’m not saying don’t watch it, but don’t feel bad about not reading the book(s).

An interview with the author

class war coverFrequently Arsed caught up with T O McKee, author of Class War: the teacher’s story, a novel about life in a bog-standard comprehensive academy school in 21st century Britain. We asked all the burning questions that readers want answered.

First things first: why did you choose to publish under a pseudonym?

It’s not because I’ve breached confidentiality or written anything about actual people or places. I’ve taught in a number of schools over the years, and I’ve worked with people who have taught in more, so I’ve synthesised all those experiences into a fictional school with fictional staff and students – a composite of experience, like all fiction. On the other hand, what I say in the novel about the atmosphere of fear and censorship within schools is true. So although I haven’t written anything actionable, I’m mindful of the way in which employers will find fault and use any excuse to accuse teachers of being unprofessional. For example, what I say about social media in the novel is true: I have been in meetings where staff were told not to use Facebook. At all. And even doing something like running a useful blog for students to use as a resource is frowned upon if it takes place outside the micromanaged control of school leaders.

Is life as a teacher really that bad?

It is. And it’s even worse, because to undo all the damage that has been done over the past few years would mean another unsettled period of permanent revolution. You can trace the fault back decades. When they did away with grammar schools, for example, they didn’t do away with all grammar schools, so they hung around as a reminder of the old system – for parents and politicians to obsess over. Education has been a political football for my whole life.

Is teaching no worse than it always has been, then?

The difference, when the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, was the determination to make wholesale – and I think deliberately damaging – changes in a hurry. I think that Gove/Cameron etc. believed they wouldn’t be in power for long, so they set out to make irreversible changes as quickly as possible. So while teaching has always been unsettling, with the ground constantly shifting, what Gove wrought happened dizzyingly fast, and was ill-planned and gleefully destructive. To be a teacher in one of the subjects that Gove decided was unworthy – creative subjects, for example – was to see your contribution devalued, your livelihood threatened, and the number of students opting to take your classes diminish because parents had been influenced – or confused. Meanwhile, non-creative subjects like Business Studies get a free pass. And beyond what’s happened with the curriculum, the management style that has been encouraged by the current OFSTED regime; the attacks of teachers’ pensions – for ideological, not economic, reasons – the attacks of unions, pay and conditions, the ever-increasing workload, micromanagement, the pressure to conform – all of it makes the job harder and more horrible.

Is that why the drugs?

I wanted to portray a mid-life crisis – the kind that people who can’t afford fancy sports cars have. But I’ve known a lot of teachers who would have to confess to drinking a bottle of wine every night in order to relax or sleep. People who take three sets of books home at the weekend, who put in 60-hour working weeks.

Do you work those kind of hours?

I don’t think so. But I probably work more than I’m aware of. I’ll be working on my laptop with the telly on, for example. Which in my mind might be telly watching time. But I’ve watched whole series without looking up at the screen. And I’ve spent hours creating resources for myself or my students, which is part of the planning and preparation. The long-term view is that you can re-use rich resources in later years and save yourself time. But then exam specifications change, or subjects are abolished, or whatever. So they don’t last that long. I try not to take more than one set of books home at the weekend, but you definitely work longer than your contracted hours. And then at stressful times, sleeping can be hard.

Why include the romantic sub-plot?

I needed something that would highlight how my main character is being driven to clutch at straws. The lack of joy, the unrelenting pressure, the feeling of being ground down – he needed something to cling to, something that would offer hope. There’s nothing quite like that feeling you get when you meet someone and go through that initial attraction. And I also wanted to write about the different ways in which people interact in these digital days.

Is it doomed?

Maybe. Maybe all relationships are doomed. I’ve kind of left that for the reader to judge, based on their own experiences.

And was that romantic sub-plot based on your experience?

I wish. Kind of. Not a romantic relationship, but certainly thinking about how – for a long time – I would write lots of letters to people I cared about, but how these days you’re more likely to chat or exchange selfies. I have chatted online with former students, and it’s a weird experience and there was never any romantic interest on their part. At my lowest ebb as a teacher I might have fantasised about throwing everything away and running away with a younger woman, but not really.

But that’s not the ending of the novel. What about that ending?

People like to complain, don’t they? And then most don’t do anything about it – complaining is enough. But some people get out on the street. Historically, you look back at protest movements – the anti-Vietnam movement, Civil Rights, the Poll Tax – and you can see that there was some impact. Change never happens quickly, and it often doesn’t go far enough, but without those people – who often/usually put themselves in physical danger – society would be a lot worse. But I have mixed feelings. While you’re in it, on the march, you’re just surrounded by shouty people and you have tired legs from walking too slowly, and your feet hurt. And then you get home and the BBC haven’t even bothered to report it. So you feel like nothing will change. We do need a mass movement. But most of all, we need an engaged electorate who are aware of their own interests and aren’t fooled (by racism, lies, by short-termism) into voting against them. So I wanted to finish on that note. How you can be reluctantly driven to participate, but also what might result from all the frustration and anger and the feeling of helplessness that goes along with it.

The final image is ambiguous

It reflects my own ambiguity. I want to bring the place down in flames, but I’m afraid to live in the aftermath. It’s a kind of what would you do? moment.

A book: Class War

class war coverUpdate: fellow blogger Rashbre has put up a review of Class War, which has some interesting insights. 

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I need to write a better blurb for it, but: it’s about Dave Coote, a teacher who’s struggling along in an academy school and facing up to the fact that the job is becoming impossible because of creeping privatisation, corruption, and management bullshit.

There’s other stuff happening, too: a former student who drops in to ask a favour and turns his life upside down. And then there’s the evidence of financial mismanagement Coote comes across and what he decides to do about it.

It’s a work of fiction, of course, and published under a pseudonym because: reasons.

It’s a quick read: 68,000 words. Available for Kindle and Kindle Apps:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon Canadia

Amazon Oz

Amazon India

 

Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers – Review

Rudolph_Valentino_and_Natacha_Rambova
Valentino and Rambova

My favourite author* Tim Powers has released a new novel just four years after the last one (has it been so long, Tim?), which is very exciting. A new Powers is an event to savour, and you want to force yourself to read slowly so as not to use it all up.

My copy is a hard back with deckle edges (uncut pages), which is a design choice you come to understand when you reach about halfway through the novel.

Like the Fault Lines series (1992-1996) and Three Days to Never (2006), Medusa’s Web is largely set in contemporary Los Angeles, and like Three Days to Never it features spooky links to Old Hollywood.

Three Days to Never featured the handprints of Charlie Chaplin, whereas Medusa’s Web visits silent heartthrob Rudolph Valentino; set- and costume-designer Natacha Rambova (aka Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy from Utah); and star of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé Alla Nazimova (which was co-written by Rambova, who was also married to Valentino and rumoured to have had an affair with Nazimova).

Your grasp of Old Hollywood may stretch to Valentino, but Rambova and Nazimova call for more rarified  knowledge – or, like me, you go scurrying to Wikipedia to find out how much of this is true. In Hollywood, of course, everybody was somebody else, and every building (as Raymond Chandler so often noted) was a simulacrum. Rambova was Shaughnessy (a surname that makes me think of The Maltese Falcon); Valentino was  Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla; Nazimova was actually Russian, but was born Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon. The Garden of Allah was a mansion, was a hotel, was levelled and paved over along with all the rest of ‘the Hollywood village’ and the orange groves and Bunker Hill.

then-now-goa-1935-today
The Garden of Allah site, then and now-ish

So it goes with Tim Powers. His stock-in-trade is history with a twist of mystery. He clearly buries himself in the lore until he finds something odd, and then weaves a novel around it. This has worked successfully for romantic poets, pirates, cold war spies and Vegas mobsters.

While this novel pales in comparison with my all-time-favourite Declare (his 2001 masterpiece), it’s still entertaining and fascinating, if not as disturbing and/or gripping as some of his best work. If you have an interest, Declare is essential, The Stress of Her Regard should probably next in line – and then you’ll want to read the sort-of sequel, Hide Me Among the Graves. By which time you’ll be hooked, or not.

Right now, after the first reading, Medusa’s Web ranks quite low for me, but then I’d have said that about Three Days To Never until I read it for the second time a while ago. There’s usually enough here to require more than one reading. Even sitting here, writing this review and perusing images of Old Hollywood, I’m starting to like it better.

Rambova, the exotic pseudonym of a woman from Salt Lake City, is intriguing. The Wikipedia article includes this nugget about her later life:

She published articles on healing and astrology, and helped decipher ancient scarabs and tomb inscriptions, which led her to edit a series titled Egyptian Texts and Religious Representations. She also conducted classes in her apartment about myths, symbolism and comparative religion.

Nuggets like this are surely a magnet for an author like Powers. What if…?

In this case, we have some kind of multi-dimensional beings whose manifestation in this world takes a peculiar form, which becomes a fad among the Hollywood élite, and a dangerous addiction for some.

Returning home after the death of the aunt who raised them, Scott and his sister Madeleine reconnect with their estranged and odd cousins Claimayne and Ariel, who live together in a falling-apart Hollywood mansion and bear no little hostility towards them. Claimayne is nasty and Ariel is angry, and both of them have been addicted to the ‘spiders’ that allow them to travel in time – sort of. Scott and Madeleine are pulled back into the family psychodrama and find themselves caught up in events they barely understand.

Scott is your typical Powers hero, even down to the hand injury he sustains partway through (a trope Powers has used repeatedly since his first two novels); and his sister is also a familiar female character. There are no talking heads in boxes, another common Powers trope, but there is a clattering keyboard and a telephone that rings even though it’s not there.

My main criticism I think is that these characters do seem like shorthand by now: if you’ve read this author before you don’t need them fleshed out, but they are on the thin side and I can’t escape the feeling that this novel has had 150 pages or so edited out of it.

The greatest pleasures here are the glimpses of Old Hollywood, and the feeling that those black and white days of glamour and debauchery are almost tangible. Of course, almost none of it survives today, mainly because it was built of chipboard and stucco, like a movie set.

4a05813a_3x2crop.jpg~original

*Give or take Robert Charles Wilson.

Three reviews: Career of Evil, Introducing Darlene Love, and Cass County.

career_of_evilCareer of Evil by Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike 3)

I’ve noticed a certain amount of sniffiness coming from the direction of some established crime writers in reference to J K Rowling’s crime-writing alter-ego. It reminds me a little of the famous quote from Palm CEO Ed Colligan about Apple making a phone. “PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.”

J K Rowling, noted children’s author, is not going to be able to walk in here and write a crime novel. Or three. I previously reviewed the first outing and enjoyed its old-fashioned, knowing, spirit. To those sniffy, established crime writers I say this: she knows, boys (they’re always boys).

By this third outing, we come to the core problem of the modern-day private detective. We, the audience, know that real-world private detectives do divorce cases and maybe some industrial espionage. This is all happening in the background for Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Dellacott. The real business, the reason we came, is the investigation of murder. And absent a client who wants them to disprove a police theory; or a pricy defence lawyer who needs a defence investigator, Cormoran Strike just won’t be doing that. Unless, as here, the killer specifically targets the partners by sending Robin a severed leg.

So are we, the readers, buying it this time? A little less so, I think. The police are investigating, of course, and getting it largely wrong, of course, so Strike and Robin are forced to investigate this very personal killing themselves. Which all brings to mind the worst aspects of long-running TV series like The X Files, ER, or CSI: once the cases start getting personal; once the stories start being about the protagonists, it’s all gone a little oroborous.

The killer is somewhere in there, one of the suspects, and there are clues and a little bit of a twist. It’s fairly satisfying, and still takes you to London landmarks that most of the readers will instantly recognise (Spearmint Rhino in Tottenham Court Road, for example), so it ticks the same knowing boxes the previous volumes did. But in the end, after months of not earning anything because they’re investigating something on their own behalf, your willing suspension of disbelief gets a trifle frayed.

If there’s a volume IV (there will almost inevitably be one), will I buy that? Probably. But next time, please let there be a paying client and a proper case.

darlene-love---introducing-darlene-love-cover-art_sq-9372c2dbe6e8d67cf27d39408a50d23597c2d8f1-s300-c85Introducing Darlene Love

Darlene Love should need no introduction, but here we are. She’s 74 years old, and for various reasons her status as one of the best singers of her generation is not as well known as it should be. Phil Spector had a problem with the women he worked with gaining any recognition (recording songs with Love, then putting them out under the Crystals brand); and Love herself was frequently in the 30 Feet From Stardom position as backing singer.

Here we have a Steven Van Zandt-produced collection of songs written by high profile songwriters including Van Zandt himself, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, J(oan?) Jett, Jimmy Webb, Weil/Mann etc. There’s even a cover of “River Deep, Mountain High”, just to take her back to her Philles days. Van Zandt is probably the right producer to evoke those 60s soul sounds.

In your mind, you probably have an idea of how a 74-year-old singer might sound. After all, history teaches us that Frank Sinatra’s great voice mellowed to a croaky croon by his 60s; Paul McCartney’s voice has taken some damage and takes a long time to warm up; Bob Dylan’s voice is gone, gone, gone; Bruce Springsteen’s voice isn’t as subtle as it was. Then again, women in the pop music industry have a different story. For various reasons, they disappear. Dating back to the 1950s, they’ve been discouraged from working once they get married; or they take a career break to have children; or they simply get dropped, ignored, or marginalised. Or they die. I’ve complained before about the absence of new product from some of my favourite country artists: Dixie Chicks are on tour but last released new material in the mid-2000s; Faith Hill: ditto; Wynonna: ditto; Joy Lynn White: ditto. Some of these artists have been performing, but their discography has an enormous hole in it.

So it was with Darlene Love, and yet her voice is strong. She sounds much like her younger self. If there’s a criticism of this record it’s that every song is a belter, and there’s little light and shade. If you’re familiar with the work Can Zandt did with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, you’ll have an idea of the sounds here: Somewhere between Stax soul and wall of sound; horns; major chords. There’s a couple of gospel numbers (12 minutes or so at the end of the record), but most of it is a blast: party music, who’s this? music.

f9h3_CCcoversmall_1Cass County – Don Henley

Talking of who’s this? music, Don Henley needs no introduction. His mellow voice is instantly familiar from his mega-selling group The Eagles, though he too hasn’t put much on record over the past 20 years. He released three solo records in the 80s, one more in 2000 (an Eagles album in 2007), and then silence until now. I don’t mind some of the Eagles’ stuff, but always found them a little soulless, music industry suits dressed as rock stars. Henley’s been at pains to point out in interviews that their backstage behaviour back in the day was wild, but drugs and alcohol don’t necessarily disguise the accountant within. Bankers probably behave worse than rock stars ever did.

So I was reluctant to engage with this, his first official country album. It’s not that I was sneering in an Alan Jackson “Gone Country” way. Nobody has more right than Don Henley to record in this genre. Most of the big country artists from the 90s onwards were heavily influenced by The Eagles (Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, to name but two).

No, it wasn’t that. I just suspected this would be all a bit low-key and (given the number of collaborations) sound a bit like a novelty collection.

In an industry currently dominated by R&B influences, stomping beats, rock riffs and lyrics about beer, trucks, and girls in tight blue jeans, Henley’s Cass County turns out to be a quietly polite cough in the corner: excuse me, boys (they’re always boys), but this is what it should sound like. You’re welcome.

Because it turns out to be very good. From the opening Tift Merritt penned “Bramble Rose” (with guests Miranda Lambert and Michael Phillip Jagger) all the way through the 16 tracks of the “deluxe” edition, it’s a beautifully recorded, solid collection of good songs, with guest appearances from Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Lucinda Williams and Dolly Parton. Henley’s voice doesn’t sound out of place in this company, and in fact the 68-year-old former Eagle doesn’t seem to have lost any of his vocal power: his voice was always the greatest asset The Eagles had. There are no out-and-out rockers, but I think that’s a pointed omission, a very deliberate swerve away from the so-called “bro-country” vibe.

So we were entertaining guests at our place in France this week, my wife’s cousin and her husband, and Cass County was on in the background. Who’s this? said the husband. Don Henley, you know, we said. Of the Eagles. 

Ah.

Of course, just as Apple weren’t going to walk in and show the phone industry how to make smartphones; and J K Rowling wasn’t going to walk in and show the crime-writing industry how to write detective novels, Don Henley wasn’t going to walk in and show the music industry how to make country albums. But he just did.

Canada by Richard Ford (review)

canada covers
A selection of the covers produced for Canada – the one I had is far right

Literary fiction is not really my genre, but in straitened circumstances (in France without enough to read) I picked this up, along with some others, in the Belfort Fnac.

Although this 2012 novel features both a bank robbery and a double murder, you can tell it’s not really in the crime genre, because the focus here isn’t on the crimes themselves but on the effect they have on the first-person narrator, Dell Parsons, a 15-year-old boy whose fraternal twin sister has run away to San Francisco while he has been exiled to Canada.

The book takes about half its length (250 pages) to reach Canada, by the way, which it does at the end of Part One, which deals with the lead-up to the bank robbery.

Canada is a quintessentially American novel, because only in the United States does Canada mean what it means in these pages. So it’s rather odd to be a British person sitting in France trying to grasp this meaning. This is a novel about borders and lines, decisions, and appearances. Set in 1960, its action takes place over a very short period of time. Kennedy and Nixon are in an election campaign, but we never quite get to the result of that election, which simply fits into the background, anchoring this novel in a time when the border between Canada and the USA was more porous than it is now, when it was more like, say, the border between France and Germany in the EU: only the font change on the road signs lets you know you’re in another country.

Canada: a place that looks the same as the USA, where the accent is supposedly different, but not much, and where the head of state is a distant queen, seen only in portraits, and where the dollars are a different colour.

Everybody has slightly weird names in the Parsons family. Dell’s parents, Bev (a recently discharged airforce man from Alabama) and Keeva (the Jewish intellectual and disappointed daughter of Polish refugees) somehow end up robbing a bank. Dell tells you this almost immediately, but takes over 250 pages to get to the point, as it were, because (of course) the robbery itself isn’t the point. Dell’s narration takes you forward and then back again, going over the same ground again and again, puzzling things out, and filling in more detail as he goes. There’s a scene in Part Two, in Canada, in which Dell watches a woman called Flo paint a scene: he watches her, dabbing and scrubbing, adding details, making what she originally put onto the canvas look more like the object in the real world that she’s portraying.

“So. Do you like us up here?” Florence glanced at me for a third time to be certain I was noticing her carefully applying paint to the post office. It pleased her, I thought, to be observed painting. “Canadians always want everybody to like it here, And us—especially to like us.” She made a careful little jab at the post office door, then turned her head sideways and looked at it that way. ‘But. When you do like us, we’re suspicious it might be for the wrong reasons. America must be a lot different. I have a feeling nobody much cares down there. I don’t know a lot about it. Doing things for the right reasons is the key to Canada.”

Dell’s narration is like this: a charcoal outline, and then colour, and then detail, and scrubbing, and shading, and filling in, until the picture becomes more complete. It’s a key passage: doing things for the right reasons, is the centre of the novel.

Dell spends the first half of the story trying to work out just why his mother agreed to rob the bank. He never quite gets there in his mind. He’s clear, after a while, that his father was probably born to it: probably always wanted to do it. But his mother, who wanted to be a poet, who needn’t have gone through with her accidental pregnancy and marriage to a man with whom she shared nothing in common bar their children; his mother is a puzzle.

There’s a puzzle in the novel, too: one of Niagra Falls, up on the border between the USA and Canada, which Bev Parsons works on while he’s waiting for the police to come and arrest him. And just as with Keeva Parsons and her motivation, in the end there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.

Dell is whisked away by a friend of the family and dumped up in Canada, in a near ghost town, where he stays for just a few weeks. He’s told us about the robbery: now he tells us about the murders. Meanwhile, his sister, Berner, has run away with the remaining proceeds of the bank job, and goes on to lead a very different kind of life.

Where Berner is active and opinionated, Dell is quiet, passive, and thoughtful. Events happen around him, and he observes, but he rarely becomes an actor in this plot.

Arthur Remlinger is another American in exile in Canada. He’s the dandyish and intellectual proprietor of a rough hotel in the middle of nowhere, frequented by truckers and hunters. Like Dell’s intellectual mother, Remlinger’s a puzzle with a piece missing, and Dell, his mother in jail awaiting trial, transfers his curiosity onto him.

While I was slightly infuriated at first with the glacial pace of this narrative, by the time Dell reached the beginning of his 250-page build-up to the second shocking event of his sixteenth year, I was prepared for it and relaxed into the rhythm of the prose. It’s interesting, food for thought. Literary fiction still isn’t my thing, but if you liked something like The Lovely Bones, you’d probably enjoy this too.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu – Review

three-body-coverThe hyphen in the title is important, of course. Without it, you could be forgiven for thinking of this as some kind of thriller, in which a killer has the problem of disposing of three bodies. The hyphenated title refers to the problem of calculating the chaotic orbits and relative positions of three massive objects or bodies (stars, actually) in space.

Nominated for several awards, I picked this up at the same time as The Goblin Emperor. Whereas one is a fantasy with steampunk accessories, this is a hard science fiction novel* set against the background of Chinese society in the years since the catastrophic Cultural Revolution. There are helpful footnotes (from the translator), for those of you who didn’t study relatively recent Chinese history for ‘O’ level. I did, in 1979! Although this novel doesn’t make mention of The Gang of Four. The Cultural Revolution is important here, because if you ever wondered what might make someone completely lose faith in humanity…

It’s an alien invasion story, though you wouldn’t necessarily realise this in the opening half of the book, which jumps between the mid-1960s and (more or less) the present day, with odd interludes spent inside the virtual reality environment of a sophisticated computer game (more of a puzzle than a game). The science here is hard (as in hard SF), and the book does spend considerable time explaining it all to the reader in lengthy exposition dumps. It doesn’t let up, either. In the last few pages there’s a lot of discussion of folding protons into various numbers of dimensions. Just as they do in the movies, these info dumps do have the unfortunate effect of throwing you out of the plot and keeping you at a distance from the characters, who are hard to root for.

*In fact, I’d go as far as to claim that the multiple exposition dumps make this more of a Menippean Satire than a novel. I noticed a similar effect with Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids and his earlier Islands in the Net (neither of which I enjoyed) and (of course) with Don DeLillo’s unreadable Ratner’s Star (and his more readable The Names, arguably). In Menippean Satire, a central character meets a variety of other people, who take turns explaining or attacking a point of view or philosophy. There’s no plot to speak of. It’s surprising how often you read something marketed as a novel that turns out not to be.

There’s sort of a plot in The Three-Body Problem, but it is really more of a set-up than a full-blown narrative. Inevitably, when it comes to this genre, there are two sequels, forthcoming, and reading to the end of this merely puts you into a position to experience the next volume. Huh. The problem with Three-Body Problem is that I didn’t really enjoy it enough to consider picking up the next in the series. In fact, I’m more inclined to pick up the second of The Hunger Games series, having just read the first book in order to prepare for teaching it next year.

It’s kind of interesting to experience science fiction from China, but it also left me a bit cold. All in all, perhaps, I would rather The Three-Body Problem had omitted its hyphen and had been some kind of SF-Thriller in which an anti-hero was forced to dispose of three corpses.