Early Riser

I got off my Green Line trolley at Park Street Station the other morning and turned toward the broad flight of stairs that leads up to the corner of Boston Common.  I’ve probably done it a thousand times but I was struck by a pang of fear.  I was sure that outside of the familiar, skylit granite box of the station entrance was a deadly whiteout blizzard.  A winter to bring the glaciers back.  And I wasn’t facing it with a clear head, either, but with the narced out fogginess of someone who ought to be sleeping through this season.  I might even meet the Gronk, and I don’t mean the Patriots’ goofy tight end.  No, the Gronk is invisible on film, huge on radar, takes the fingers of her victims and leaves their clothes neatly folded.  Fortunately, it was just a passing impression.  In reality, Boston winters aren’t much.  I had been reading Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser.

I felt like a wealthy man when the Boston Public Library called me to tell me my reserve was in.  I took an extra long lunch break and went to the central branch to pick up my brand new copy, four days after release.  I had been waiting a long time for a new Fforde novel.  Unfortunately, I’m just not ready to let him off the hook for Shades of Grey.  The present book, a standalone I believe, is genuine Fforde and pretty strange, but it suffers in the shadow of that unfortunately titled unfinished series.  Still, the list of things the book does well is impressive.

Perhaps because I’d expected something quite different, I thought a lot about how closely Fforde hews to the formula of the noir.  Fforde’s characters, as far as I know, are always loners and always out of their depths investigating some mystery.  Family plays a role in the Thursday Next books and in Shades of Gray, but the really important characters are always antagonists or comrades in arms.  Though I’ve hardly read any real noir, I feel like I know their stock characters somewhat through Fforde.  In Early Riser, there’s Birgitta, apparently a classic seductress.  She’s trouble anyway, and she has a ravishing routine when she asks to paint our young hero’s portrait.  There’s Laura, a cheerful girl just trying to get along in a harsh world.  Her firstborn has already been optioned.  She has self effacing lines that reminded me of Stiggins, the neanderthal cop in Thursday Next.  Finally there are the actual comrades in arms, including a couple of haunted veterans of a vaguely described southern war who have taken to wearing suicide vests at all times.  They’re determined to take as many Wintervolk, Villains, and Nightwalkers as possible out with them when they go.

So I haven’t said what’s going on yet.  It’s not really a spoiler, though there might be a few mild ones here.  Charlie Worthing is a novice Winter Consul.  His calling is to see the bulk of humanity through hibernation.  In this Wales, people hibernate not only to escape the cold but to save food.  Someone has to keep any eye on things.  Fforde doesn’t do a lot of broad, explicit world building, but there are clues as to what’s going on.  Anglesey, in the northwest corner of Wales, is under the ice cap (the cause of an important philatelic rarity).  There’s suggestion that England suffered a catastrophe that scattered the traditional nobility.  One question is whether this is a global cooling novel, so to speak, and I’ll return to that.

Every year, some portion of the sleepers fail to return to full consciousness, and instead wake up as mindless zombies called Nightwalkers.  It’s quite an achievement for Fforde to have made zombies fun again.  This version is only dangerous when very hungry, so a good Winter Consul makes sure to have a stash of Mars Bars and other British sounding goodies on hand to facilitate the humane treatment of Nightwalkers.  Despite the risks, the annual hibernation is embraced by all to the point of being a physiological habit.  Only someone like Charlie, an indentured orphan, would take on the dangers of staying up in winter and “early rising”.  

It’s a problem that when Charlie begins investigating a dream that’s upsetting sleepers and causing violent behavior, the reader recognizes it as the crucial mystery, whereas the consuls must continue to fumble.  It doesn’t help that the plot drew comparisons to the movie Inception, which I feel caused a big splash and went absolutely nowhere, like most dreams.  Perhaps Early Riser will do better, partly because it’s a novel.  In places, I was fairly impressed that through all the bizarre madcap, Fforde was coming round to the bluntly topical.  But maybe I’m unrealistic in expecting that dream reading and dream inducing technologies will shortly exist.  Literature certainly already creates a kind of shared dreaming, more so than movies, as was mooted around the time of Inception.

Other aspects of Fforde’s satires strike me now as more realistic than they might appear.  I think in most of his novels the maleficent corporation is only ever chastened by the investigator’s work, not brought down. I also noticed that the strange and irresistible walnut handled Bambis, the Thumper, and the array of other amusing weapons and effects quite casually show security forces willing to repurpose and push the use of less lethal weapons to the point where someone mentions that bringing back bullets might actually be desirable.  Sure, a little knock from a wave of compressed air sounds ok, but what about when a blast from a two handed Cowpuncher gets refracted through a narrow doorway and pops your target like a balloon?  It gives different meaning to the term “Bernoullize”*.

I hope I’ve already conveyed that some of the blizzard scenes in this are pretty good and a bit frightening.  There’s a fairly dark infanticide subplot.  There are creepy scenes in the dormitoria, which are huge silo structures, heated by atomic reactors to just above freezing.  After lights out, there’s only the flickering of ritual candles.  Of course, there’s more activity in them than meets the eye.  These buildings are named like ships, it seemed to me, like the Sarah Siddons, and resemble them also with their skeleton crews and cargoes of innocent passengers trying to travel from autumn to spring. 

Is this a global warming novel in some sense?  I wonder if it’s been raised in reviews or interviews but I haven’t looked yet.  Fforde makes some transparent allusions, in questionable taste.  I take global warming seriously.  He uses the words “inconvenient truth”.  He also talks about trading carbon, but in the opposite sense, with Wales getting positive credit for out of control coal mine fires.  But I think I’ve reconciled myself to this.  For one thing, I’m open to a fairly wide characterization of what global warming literature might be.  I’m fairly sure that Seveneves should count, even if Neal Stephenson is trying to set himself up as a skeptic or a techno optimist or what have you.  In Seveneves, people are fighting a natural disaster against an impossible deadlines, and the experience as a reader is not claustrophobic just because it takes place in space capsules.  I think this may be more pertinent to, or descriptive of our situation even than instances where authors like Kim Stanley Robinson take global warming seriously and work it into their versions of the future.  I don’t see any reason to think that Fforde is pushing willful ignorance.  When he casually reveals that his characters are speaking Welsh, it produces what has to be a deliberate loss of balance.  The climate has changed things profoundly.  There are other examples of this, and of course a lot of starvation.

* Bernoullize was used by Leibniz to mean doing mathematics, in homage to the Bernoulli family.


The Three Body Trilogy


Cixin Liu’s trilogy consists of The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End. It is first contact fiction of an abstract bent. Liu’s story is episodic; the trilogy ranges very widely and does not focus on any particular character.  Although I read the books happily enough, it’s not easy to say what I liked about them. I suppose I enjoyed them for Liu’s unpredictability and for some dramatic set pieces. Liu does not worry much about the details or even the plausibility of the technological devices he introduces, but the results are entertaining. I won’t try to discuss them without spoilers.

The three body problem is to predict the motions of three bodies, usually celestial, according to the normal laws of gravity and motion. Mathematicians have wrestled with it since the discovery of calculus and it is known that it’s not susceptible to exact solution in all cases. Characteristically, Liu draws a beautiful portrait of a mathematician plagued by restlessness of soul until he loses himself in contemplation of the beauties of this problem. The character does not appear again. Much of the first book takes place in a game world where the problem serves as motivation for a primer in the history of science, and an introduction to an advanced civilization threatened by its location in a ternary star system. Liu’s telling stories within stories reminded me of Ender’s Game, but in a lighter mood. For example, Turing, Newton, and the emperor of China construct a computer out of a vast host of flag waving medieval soldiers, but they cannot predict the motions of the three suns for long. Despots and sages argue with operatic exaggeration while their hapless subjects suffer the indignity of being dehydrated and stored in warehouses to be gnawed on by rats while they wait for the next spell of fair weather in their chaotic planetary system.

Contact between Earth and the Trisolarans is initiated by an astronomer despairing at the worst depths of the Cultural Revolution. Despite this extreme example (and granting the existence of numerous inhabited worlds in the galaxy) Liu handles the question of whether humanity poses a greater threat to itself than the one posed by alien civilizations with subtlety. He makes the conflict between planets nearly intractable; Liu’s strength is spectacular set pieces of utter, beautiful destruction wreaked by enemies capable of manipulating the structure of matter and space. One of the Trisolaran weapons is the sophon: a proton unfolded unfolded from its string theoretical eleven dimensions to form a surface vaster than a planet and etched with computer circuitry. Rerolled, it becomes a smart particle, capable of travel near light speed and instant quantum communication, and able to bring human science to a halt by lurking in particle colliders.


These picture from the Hubble Space Telescope are in the public domain.

Human strife is not a major part of the novels.  Panic at imminent alien invasion leads to destruction, but in a madcap register; glassy arcologies tumble down, it’s Lord of the Flies for a little while, but no resentment ensues. It seems to be Liu’s contention that despite the horrors humanity is capable of inflicting on itself, we can and must cooperate to face the universe. But I have to qualify this; as I said, Liu is more subtle than that. Another of Liu’s painstakingly created bit players, after a trying ordeal, communicates vital guidance to earth in the form of a classical fairytale. In the tale, the bad guy destroys his enemies by depicting them in masterly, lifelike paintings.  The world’s powers work together to interpret the tale and are nearly successful, but not quite.  When a few starships escape the solar system, they carry the same people who advocated most heroically for human solidarity and morality.   I wonder if Liu had Thucydides in mind when he wrote of the uncomprehending acrimony that comes between the terrestrial authorities and the spacefarers. It reminded me of the mutinies in the Athenian fleet in Asia, of the zeal with which Athenians prosecuted the leaders of failed campaigns, and the shapeshifting of Alcibiades.

In what I’ve read about the big bang it seems to be a commonplace that conditions early on in the universe were quite different from what we find now. In the dense early universe, fundamental particles, and even laws governing the forces between them, did not take on the different forms we distinguish today. Physicists hope that by understanding the origins of the universe, we might resolve problems like “electroweak symmetry breaking”, or so I’ve read. Or where six or seven or eight extra dimensions got to, presumably. In the struggle to protect themselves from scarcely comprehended threats, Liu has humanity begin to unravel some of these questions of fundamental physics.  But it proves to be a tangled web indeed. I’m now desperately trying to remember if and how Penrose, Hawking, et al, have used the words “Eden” or “Edenic”, to describe the early universe, and whether they might have dared to load that term as Liu ultimately does. (To Orson Scott Card’s name, I might add that Liu reminds me of Neal Stephenson and Philip Pullman.) It’s in these terms, of Eden and the big bang, that Liu counterposes the question of facing the universe with that of facing ourselves.


Why go to Mars?

Martian landscape, courtesy of NASA

Mars, courtesy of NASA

It’s easy to forget that NASA maintains a publicly stated goal of sending a human to Mars in the 2030s.  I go back and forth on whether Mars would be worthwhile, given everything else we might want to do.  Faced with a couple of multi leg flights, I recently put several new books on my phone.  One of them was Andy Weir’s The Martian, and right now it’s a lot harder for me to sit on the fence about Mars.  I really want us to go. 

The Martian is a straightforward survival adventure story about an astronaut left behind by his teammates after a freak accident.  Left without means of communication, Mark Watney still believes he has a shot at surviving, thanks to supplies sent for future missions and his expertise in engineering and botany.  The descriptions of Watney’s improvisations and the obstacles he overcomes are extensive.  When he decides that the cramped conditions in his rover are likely to become unbearable, we follow along as he chooses the materials for a tent like sleeping annex, completes a prototype, tests it, repairs it, and weighs the pros and cons of his new routine. 

Some readers have found this dull, and some have complained about the lack of character development in this novel.  I think the novel does exactly what it’s supposed to, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Weir is actually rather clever about how he carefully widens our view of events.  Wouldn’t it be missing the point to make such a criticism of A Journal of the Plague Year or “To Build a Fire”?

Compared with The Martian, other works of science fiction, such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series, appear baggy and out of touch with reality.  They start in the far future, making all sorts of assumptions about the tough process of getting into space, let alone living there, in order to lay the groundwork for grandiose plots.  This novel does the opposite.  If we do go to Mars, the most important thing won’t be strange new politics or new forms of warfare, and in any case, it will be a very long time before we get to have those.  The idea of flying to Mars doesn’t need epic justifications; exploration, like the simple will to go on living, doesn’t require them.  At first I was a little put off by Watney’s joking, vernacular tone.  He won me over, though.  If Weir has a message, beyond sheer love of exploration, it’s that even one person’s facing such an extreme challenge will make everyone better and more caring.