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Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir is another cool space engineering adventure by the author of The Martian. Here our adventurer wakes up on a spaceship and needs to find a way to save the earth from astrophages. A lot of engineering and dry humour later, well you will have to read for yourself.

Read: 1x | First: May 2021

This was another great read (listen) and it had many of the characteristics of Andy Weir’s previous books (The Martian, Artemis). It was fun, showered you with cool engineering and physics problems, and didn’t take itself too seriously.

Ryland Grace is the protagonist of the book and the sole survivor of the space journey that has taken place before the present time. Because of the medically induced coma (he thinks), his memory from before is fuzzy and the reader is presented with bits and pieces throughout the book. Or in other words, that is used as a convenient way to tell the backstory.

It’s interesting to see the reluctance that he started with, that he even didn’t want to go in the end (and that Strat drugged him), but throughout it all he did want to do the science, and contribute to the survival of humanity.

Whilst at Tau Ceti (a nearby solar system) he meets an alien who is also the lone survivor of his mission to save his home system. He and Rocky (who looks like a huge spider) learn to communicate (the latter speaking in musical notes, and not having vision but echo location) and become friends.

After a lot of science, some major screw-ups, and a visit to a local planet, the two figure out how to stop the astrophages from consuming the sun(s). Instead of coming back a hero, Ryland comes back to save Rocky and go to his solar system.

There, Ryland ends up a teacher (which he was before too) and the book comes full circle.

All and all, amazing book, and definitely one to re-read someday.

Invisible Planets

Invisible Planets is edited and translated by Ken Liu and features 13 awesome sci-fi stories from China.

Just like Broken Stars, Lui features an interesting casts of writers. All can be classified as somewhat sci-fi but differ a lot in the types of stories.

Read: 1x | First: April 2021

Here are the stories with mini-notes:

Chen Qiufan

  • The Year of the Rat (ok, not my story)
  • The Fish of Lijiang (interesting concept, faster time for productivity, slower for old age) *
  • The Flower of Shazui

Xia Jia

  • A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight
  • Tongtong’s Summer (human-controlled robot-helpers, good take – random business idea: sensors on grandparents for safety but also for grandchildren to connect to toy that has their heart-beat etc)
  • Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse

Ma Boyong

  • The City of Silence (inspired by 1984, good story) *

Hao Jingfang

  • Invisible Planets (title of book, but not my type of story)
  • Folding Beijing (could easily turn into a sci-fi movie, very good) *

Tang Fei

  • Call Girl (interesting) *

Cheng Jingbo

  • Grave of the Fireflies

Liu Cixin

  • The Circle (adapted from Three Body Problem) *
  • Taking Care of God (very Liu Cixin – small premise, big story)

Some great sentences I came across:

  • “The biggest fear is for someone else to understand what you really fear” (p62)
  • A man is such a strange animal: fear and desire are expressed by the same organ.” (p63)
  • … technology is neutral. But the progress of technology will cause a free world to become ever freer, and a totalitarian world to become ever more repressive.” (p182)
  • [his father] had held fast to the thin reed of opportunity as the tide of humanity surged and then receded around him until at last he found himself a survivor on the dry beach.” (p231)
  • Morning climbs in through the window as shadow recedes from Tang Xiaoyi’s body like a green tide imbued with the fragrance of trees.”
  • Each individual’s behavior is so simple, yet together, they can produce such complex intelligence.” (p314)

Saturday

Saturday by Ian McEwan is another great novel by this most talented writer. I’ve enjoyed a few of his other books and will probably read more of them in the future.

The whole book takes place on a Saturday (as one would expect) and describes it from the perspective of Henry Perowne. The events of the day and memories from the past come together in a masterpiece of storytelling.

Here are some of the sentences that I particularly enjoyed:

  • “… he experiences a superhuman capacity, more like a craving, for work.
  • He’s too experienced to be touched by the varieties of distress he encounters – his obligation is to be useful.
  • (page 17)
  • … or the pleasure he still takes in the relief of the relatives when he comes down from the operating room like a god, an angel with the glad tidings – life, not death.
  • This is what he has to have: possession, belonging, repetition.
  • … endless and beautiful forms of life, such as you see in a common hedgerow, including exalted beings like ourselves, arose from physical laws, from war of nature, famine and death. (Darwin/Dawkins)
  • The luxury of being half asleep, exploring the fringes of psychosis in safety.
  • And it interests him less to have the world reinvented; he wants it explained. (and on the next page) … the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible. (I should probably quote this somewhere at the start of an essay)
  • (about a protest) … tens of thousands of strangers converging with a single purpose conveying an intimation of revolutionary joy.
  • (about his fancy car) It is, of course, possible, permissible, to love an inanimate object. But this moment was the peak of the affair; since then his feelings have settled into mild, occasional pleasure.
  • (tennis match, describing Flow state) It’s possible in a long rally to become a virtually unconscious being, inhabiting the narrowest slice of the present, merely reacting, taking one shot at a time, existing only to keep going.
  • (and later at work) Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past or any anxieties about the future. In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness.
  • (visit to dementing mother) It’s like taking flowers to a graveside – the true business is with the past. (and later) ‘She’s waiting for you,’ Jenny says. They both know this to be a neurological impossibility. Even boredom is beyond his mother’s reach.
  • Especially difficult when the first and best unconscious move of a dedicated liar is to persuade himself he’s sincere. And once he’s sincere, all deception vanishes.
  • … a man who believes he has no future and is therefore free of consequences.

My Purple Scented Novel

My Purple Scented Novel by Ian McEwan is a (short)story about a man who steals the life of a fellow novelist. I enjoyed it throughout.

Ilium

Ilium by Dan Simmons is a tome of a book that mixes sci-fi with Greek mythology. Although I have some basic understanding of that period, I think I lacked some background to enjoy some of the subtleties. Besides that I also found it to be too long (description of traveling or other such things) for the content. And of course, it stops right before a climactic fight which will be the start of Olympos (part 2 of duology).

“The Trojan War rages at the foot of Olympos Mons on Mars—observed and influenced from on high by Zeus and his immortal family—and twenty-first-century professor Thomas Hockenberry is there to play a role in the insidious private wars of vengeful gods and goddesses. On Earth, a small band of the few remaining humans pursues a lost past and devastating truth—as four sentient machines depart from Jovian space to investigate, perhaps terminate, the potentially catastrophic emissions emanating from a mountaintop miles above the terraformed surface of the Red Planet.”

The novel centers on three character groups: that of Hockenberry (a resurrected twentieth-century Homeric scholar whose duty is to compare the events of the Iliad to the reenacted events of the Trojan War), Greek and Trojan warriors, and Greek gods from the Iliad; Daeman, Harman, Ada, and other humans of an Earth thousands of years after the twentieth century; and the “moravec” robots (named for scientist and futurist Hans Moravec) Mahnmut the Europan and Orphu of Io, also thousands of years in the future, but originating in the Jovian system. The novel is written in first-person, present-tense when centered on Hockenberry’s character, but features third-person, past-tense narrative in all other instances. Much like Simmons’ Hyperion, where the actual events serve as a frame, the three groups of characters’ stories are told over the course of the novel and begin to converge as the climax nears.”

Broken Stars

Broken Stars is an anthology of short stories by different Chinese writers. They are collected by Ken Liu (an awesome writer in his own right). I can’t say that I enjoyed every story as much, but there are some really innovative ones in there.

I don’t have the best mental map of Chinese history (but do know some things), so a lot of the subtle hints when using historic rulers/periods do get lost on me.

And I think I like sci-fi that plays with concepts (e.g. time) more than those that incorporate too much historic or today’s concepts.

The stories are:

  • Goodnight, Melancholy (Turing is featured heavily, makes me think of Machines Like Me)
  • Moonlight
  • Broken Stars
  • Submarines
  • Salinger and the Koreans
  • Under a Dangling Sky
  • What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear (heavy, good)
  • The New Year Train (good moral/end-note)*
  • The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales (interesting, very good sci-fi and medieval mix)
  • The Snow of Jingyang
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: Laba Porridge
  • The First Emperor’s Games
  • Reflection (good idea about seeing time flow backward)
  • The Brain Box
  • Coming of the Light
  • A History of Future Illnesses

*”I’ts simple when you put it like that right? What doesn’t make sense to me is this: lots of times, when the starting point and the destination are fixed – say, birth and death – why do most people rush towards the end?

Network Effect

Network Effect by Martha Wells is the fifth installment in the Murderbot Diaries series. It was a bit longer than probably necessary and I wasn’t totally focussed, so it wasn’t as engaging as with the earlier editions.

See a fuller review here.

To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic

This review was first published on Blossom Analysis.

To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic is a fictional book about starting a psychedelics research project/revolution, written by Ben Sessa.

Is there hope in psychedelic medicine? Can we dream bigger than just numbing patients (and doctors)? That is the underlying question in this fictional book by Dr. Ben Sessa. After reading the book you may take home some hope, some tingling of the possibility that MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, and other psychedelics could help people become whole again. But if nothing else, you will get to know two, somewhat broken, men (the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) who start a psychedelic revolution.

Review

To fathom hell or soar angelic just take a pinch of psychedelic” – Humphry Osmond

Using a fictional book to describe a brave new world where psychedelics make a new introduction is an unique way of exploring this possibility. The book hovers between the esoteric and science-driven, between dream catchers and psychotherapy.

The world that is sketched could be best positioned at around the turn of the century, a moment in time where very little research had been done on psychedelics (since shutting it all down at the end of the 60’s). The way it’s revived, in a barn and with plenty of reference to The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary et al., was quite interesting.

The book, and the research mentioned, may best be seen as a proof of concept, an introduction to psychedelic therapy (it features several sessions with MDMA, LSD, psilocybin). The double-blind, placebo-controlled experiments are left for a future moment to transpire.

The critique of the ‘normal’ system is evident in Sessa’s description of current psychotherapy. He paints it as a system in which patients come back for years, don’t solve their underlying problems, and get dosed with SSRIs that don’t do much if anything. Oh, and the protagonist is fantasizing about killing his patients (don’t worry, it doesn’t turn into Hannibal). The alternative, psychedelic (psycho)therapy, is offered as a way out of this loop.

From my perspective, the alternative is presented without enough evidence and rigor (the double-blind studies that are left for the reader to imagine happening sometime in the future). After seeing positive results, the two psychiatrists are heralded as heroes in a presentation for their colleagues. It’s a fantasy that many in the psychedelics field may have, but unfortunately many have been burned too much before to have that level of hope (although it is likely to be justified in this case).

At the end of the book, things get turned up to 11. The second psychiatrist (Joseph Langley) is dying and in a flurry of science-y sounding words, they run tests and strange things happen. One is left to ponder what this means or why it’s related to psychedelic science, but I was none the wiser.

Other Works by Ben Sessa

Ben Sessa has also written The Psychedelics Renaissance, summarizing where we stand with research and sticking much more to facts this time.

Wall of Storms

Wall of Storms by Ken Liu is the second installment in the dandelion trilogy (preceded by The Grace of Kings). It’s another epic story that entices emotions, uncovers plots, and keeps on surprising with the large level of creative innovation.

In this mini-review I wanted to touch upon two aspects. The characters, which are very well done. And the story structure according to the 8 steps of the hero’s journey.

The Characters

The main protagonist is Kuni Garu, you get to know him as a kid in the first book, and experience him as Emperor Ragin (people get new names sometimes, which is somewhat confusing) in the second book.

The great thing is that the characters all have their own personality, shaped by the earlier history in the book. Their strengths also show their weaknesses and most of them are strategic thinkers with great theory of mind. They think about what others think about them (many times over).

This not only includes thinking about what the person directly in front of you thinks, but also what the others there think, or what the general population will think (in the long term).

The book is highly political, but then more in a Game of Thrones-way then in a left/right party politics way. All I can say is that I was really captured by the considerations that all the characters had, the flaws that you got to see, and outcomes of their actions on the world.

Story arch

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
    1. Kuni Garu and the gang are in peace, they rule the country
    2. Luan Zyu is a noble without titles
  2. But they want something.
    1. Succession needs to be planned far ahead / want to keep the piece
    2. Wants to do the most interesting thing
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
    1. Intrigues, world outside of Wall of Storms
    2. Teaches Zomi and/or ventures outside the Wall of Storms
  4. Adapt to it,
    1. Squash rebellion? And/or teaching kids to grow up
    2. Survives, is at other island
  5. Get what they wanted,
    1. Things are in balance/united
    2. Finds new people
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
    1. Has to give own life in the end, deaths/temporary peace from others
    2. Dead, guides other people to Dara
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
    1. But family wins partly, people are united, daughter is (temporarily) empress
    2. Student had learned much (Komi, could also do her arch someday!)
  8. Having changed.
    1. New situation with other people, learned to innovate quickly
    2. Zomi is more wise now

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu is another great collection of stories by this awesome writer and translator.

Previously I’ve written about The Paper Menagerie and also liked many of the stories in that one.

Here the stories are more focussed on sci-fi, but there is still a lot of fantasy topics in there too.

Lots of great characters and stories. I can recommend it.

See a very good review on Goodreads (with spoilers)