Books, Fiction, Reviews

Reviews: The Goblin Emperor, The Three-Body Problem, Ancillary Justice/ Ancillary Sword/ Ancillary Mercy

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This week: The Award winners
‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means’ –Oscar Wilde
The three books reviewed below have each been nominated for several major awards, but the awards shortlist is their only common ground. The Goblin Emperor is fantasy, in a similar but gentler space than in Game of Thrones. The Three-Body Problem is diamond-hard SF, coruscating with outlandish concepts. And the Imperial Radch trilogy of Ancillary Justice/Sword/Mercy is great, smart space opera.
THE GOBLIN EMPEROR: The fantasy of resolution
On episode 231 of the Coode Street podcast, a weekly Sci-Fi discussion, Sydney writer James Bradley (whose novel Clade was reviewed here on November 13) talks with Ian Mond and host Jonathan Strahan, reviewing the three novels here among others in the lead up to Awards season. Bradley’s opening comment on The Goblin Emperor: ‘I loved this book. I read it in a completely uncritical (way), I just loved it.’ (Though he thought the title was embarrassing.)
In another time and place, Maia, a swarthy young fella of mixed heritage — Elven and Goblin — fourth in line to the throne, unexpectedly ascends to Emperor of the Elflands when his father and half-brothers are killed in an air crash (zeppelins! steampunkish!). He is hustled from distant exile where he has lived since his Goblin mother died and thrown into the court and its intrigues. He is not stupid, but very inexperienced, unschooled and badly needing guidance.
The story of his coming into himself, and therefore gaining allies by his qualities has all the hallmarks of a Wildean fiction — we know that problems will come to a head and somehow be resolved. This Fantasy novel is also a wish-fulfillment fantasy — and therein lies its solid satisfactions. That’s no more a criticism than it is to discount Jane Austen’s works for their happy endings. A great read, especially for the holidays, with red wine and chocolate. Winner of the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and shortlisted for the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.
THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM: Brain-dazzler, with historical heart
This amazing cascade of mind-bending ideas by Cixin Liu won the Science Fiction Galaxy Award in China in 2008. The English translation by unrelated Ken Liu was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2014 and the Hugo Award in 2015; it is the first translated, never mind Chinese, novel to win the Hugo.
The three-body problem is a term in physics — the classic model is Sun-Earth-Moon, and Newton had a go at this in the 17th century. In any case, it sets the tone for a book about the wild wild world of physics, in the way that Perth SF writer Greg Egan‘s propositions curve the reading space of the book around the reader — a kind of author’s distortion field. It’s impossible to give a synopsis of the ideas in the book, and to do the same with the plot would be to provide a string of spoilers. Part of the reason I can’t write about any of the ideas is that I can barely grasp them — but the magic is when you are reading the book you feel like you are winging in the cold air above the intellectual mountaintops.
Not only that but the first part of the book is an extraordinary piece of writing — a very moving account of the horror days of China’s Cultural Revolution when intellectuals were humiliated as enemies of the proletariat, and tortured and sometimes killed in public, witnessed by their own children. It is in this way the central female figure, Ye Wenjie, arrives at her views of the human condition, and later, as an astrophysicist ends up at a secret military project. Her actions are a direct result of the terrible things she has seen as a child, and therein lies the engine of the whole tale.
Ye Wenjie remains a touching figure later in the book, in her old age, slipping in and out of the narrative which follows nanomaterials scientist Wang Miao. Wang becomes involved in a scientific whodunit, aided and abetted by the hilariously vulgar copper, Da Shi, who would be a badass in any crime novel.
James Bradley, in the podcast mentioned above, makes an insightful comment about writing style, which is so interesting I am quoting him here at length:
“This is a Chinese novel and they are quite different to the Anglophone tradition, (like Chinese novels I have read) quite uneven, lurching from … the opening section which is astonishing, a beautifully done piece of realist fiction, to quite didactic polemical essays … to thriller, bad thriller — an odd kind of generic instability about it, but it is such an interesting book. I love the crazy big ideas in it. There is a sense that you are reading something that is different, which is really, really interesting and incredibly exciting.”
He goes on to say how reading it he was struck by the conservatism of so much of the Anglophone tradition, of how we are convinced that “good writing” can only be a kind of well-realised realism, about dialogue and character — in other words, the product of a creative writing course. Whereas this book and the tradition it draws on suggests that good writing can be something else — that it can be “generically unstable”, a melange of different tones with its own validity as a story-telling approach.
(And you should know, this is the first of a trilogy; book two, The Dark Forest has just been published in English, though The Three-Body Problem is thoroughly satisfying as it is. Whatever you do, don’t read the jacket blurb — it’s irresponsible about spoiling.)
ANCILLARY JUSTICE / SWORD / MERCY: More than human
The SFF readership suffered a great loss in 2013 when the peerless Iain M. Banks passed away — he was the irrepressible inventor of new worlds and his space narratives were a compendium of astounding displays of imaginative verve. His universe was the Culture, a spacefaring “hedonistic, anarcho-utopian society”.
A small compensation arrived that year in the form of Ancillary Justice, the first book in the Imperial Radch trilogy by debut author Ann Leckie, which went on to claim the big prizes: Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Arthur C. Clarke and Locus Awards. It presented a stunning new space opera universe. I dislike space opera as much as anyone else, just as I dislike fantasy … except, of course, when I really like it. Ancillary Justice has tremendous panache, opening with a brilliant snow chase scene and a quest for the ultimate gun, and thus the expectant outcome of an ultimate killing.
The central character, Breq, is a complicated piece of work being part of a military spaceship, the AI, in a human body: she is the last surviving remnant of a many-bodied entity. The convolutions of this setup allow Leckie to make a thorough interrogation of consciousness and what it means and costs to feel and be.
Now that they are all published, you can enjoy the three books as one long work: Volume I is an epic chase across the universe, and also introduces and grapples with assorted themes: concepts of identity, gender, consciousness, power and the consequences of colonisation. Volume II closes in as an intimate chamber drama set on a space-station and a planet. Volume III culminates in a space battle against the odds … reminding me nothing so much as the fantastic Napoleionic battleship sequences in C. F. Forester’s wonderful old Hornblower series.
This three-part work also features a startling strategy of recasting the default “he/him” and “she/her” (though all superior officers are addressed as Sir) — we are never clear of the gender of any of the protagonists. In a direct line of inquiry from Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness with its gender fluidity, it’s a genuinely provocative move. The other great character apart from Breq is the amazing villain, a multi-clone god-like ruler, Lord of the Radch, Anaader Mianaai — the name suggests a multi-armed Hindu apparition.
Breq is a demandingly consistent character — when she is good, ethically, she is always good. When she is remarkable, physically, (being of AI inception) she is always remarkable. This can be trying, rather like Superman, whose real flaw is not susceptibility to Kryptonite but to our jaded sense of goodness and morality. But Breq, like Superman, is an exemplar of what you and I can only aspire to, being merely human.
Buy The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison here
Buy The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu here
Buy Ann Lecki’s Ancillary Justice here, Ancillary Sword here and Ancillary Mercy here

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