Tag Archives: aliens

“The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu


<Arrrg, matey, spoilers ahead!  Ye have been warned!>

A young astrophysicist, Ye Wenjie, is working at a secret SETI base in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s.  Her professor father was disgraced, beaten, and killed by Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, and Wenjie had been working at a nearby logging camp before being pulled into work more suited to her talents.  One day she stumbles upon a method of using the Sun as an amplifier for the radio greeting they are sending out into the cosmos.  She thinks it is a failure.  But several years later, a return message comes.  It’s actually a dire warning – “do not answer!!!”  An advanced, militarized race detected the first transmission and any others will give them a firm fix on Earth.    But, Wenjie is still pretty ticked off about her father and the whole Cultural Revolution in general (who wouldn’t be?) … and replies: “Come here!   Our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems.”

And thus a mega force of “Trisolarian” invaders is on the way, ETA around 400 years (they travel pretty fast, but still much slower than radio transmissions).  Also, they have “folded” (?) protons into super-AI Sophons which are already at the Earth, messing up physicists’ particle accelerator experiments.  The Trisolarians were worried that human technology, while currently inferior to their own, was progressing just too exponentially to leave alone for 400 years.

The Trisolarians are named such because they live on a planet revolving around three stars (Alpha Centauri) which experiences an unstable mix of super hot and super cold periods depending on relative distance to each star.  Civilization is routinely (yet randomly!) destroyed in either fire or ice.  After millenia of trying to figure out what was going on with their world, then trying unsuccessfully to solve the three-body problem, they ultimately determine to find some better planet and move.  Wenjie’s description of Earth sounds nice…

Wenjie finds plenty of sympathizers on Earth who agree that humanity needs help, or even that it deserves to be eradicated.  I thought this was going a bit too far – are there really that many eco-terrorist types out there who would root for the aliens over humanity, including their own self and family?  Especially the character of Michael Evans in the book was really hokey.  Billionaire tree-hugger who wants all humans to die and leave the birds and bugs alone.

Some of the group more-or-less worship the unseen Trisolarians (some interesting commentary in the book on how even a solitary confirmation that ET exists, and nothing more, would still fundamentally alter civilization) and put together an odd MMORPG, 3body, to tell about the Trisolarian world and history.  It’s through this game that the protagonist (and we the reader) first learn about what’s going on.  Little bit of reveal at a time.

There is a REALLY funny incident in the game, where a 30 million man medieval Chinese army becomes a von Neumann architecture computer: squads of soldiers with black and white flags become logic gates, scribes become memory, and cavalry becomes the bus.  Pretty ridiculous but funny.

“Eifelheim” by Michael Flynn


What I heard about this book before reading: aliens crash land in medieval Germany.

Big reveal at end of the book: aliens crash landed in medieval Germany!  Uhhh….wait, what?

To be fair, we, the reader, learn about the aliens fairly early on; but all the characters do not.  This is a multiple POV book, with chapters switching back and forth between the 13th century Pastor Dietrich of Oberhochwald, and the present day adventures of Tom and Sharon, two academics studying historical patterns of settlement and esoteric GUT physics, respectively.  The overarching narrative is that of Tom and Sharon; that’s where things begin (Tom looking into a “missing” settlement where by all accounts there should be one) and end (digging up an alien corpse at the site of Oberhochwald — later renamed “Teufelheim” or Devil Home; abandoned out of fear and then linguistically smooshed [this is a technical term] to “Eifelheim”).  So one story is that of modern-day folk coming to understand wondrous events that happened long ago; but we, the reader, already get these events “as they happened” during the Dietrich chapters.

I understand that this novel started out as a short story, with only the Tom and Sharon parts.  Then the Dietrich parts were added later.  I don’t think it works totally well in the new form, to be honest.

Dietrich is kind of a silly character.  He’s a mashup pre-Renaissance man who knows something about everything; he immediately is able to relate physical science concepts explained by the Krenkl (the aliens) to medieval farming life or teachings from the ancient Greeks.

“Oh, some invisible force, with differing polarity?  Sounds like you are describing what I have observed when rubbing amber with cat fur …. hmmm, I shall call this phenomenon ‘electronika’, after the Greek word for amber!”

“Oh, an acid that is essential for a body to live?  Must be the first or most important thing for life then …. hmmm, I shall call these things ‘proteins,’ after the Greek protos or ‘first’!”

Oh, Dietrich.  You clever cleric.

The aliens’ dialogue is also silly and kind of painful to read.  They have automated speech recording and translation software and devices which they share with the German villagers, but naturally there are no medieval German words for many of the advanced technical concepts that aliens looking to repair their dimension-striding ship may need to discuss.  So everything is converted to analogies of medieval farming or religious dogma.

Eifelheim.  It’s a silly place.

“The White Mountains” by John Christopher

Hmm yet another weird-looking cover.  My wife thinks I read strange books.

I put this on my “to-read” list a while back when I was researching YA books.  This one has great Amazon reviews, but I can’t say I liked it a whole lot.  Probably would have really liked it when I was 9 or 10; now it seems a little simplistic.

It takes place in the future, but humanity has reverted to a medieval existence via an alien invasion and mind control via “capping.”  Kind of interesting to see the boys’ descriptions of the decaying remnants of past technological glory like cars, trains, subway, guns, hand grenades.  Also fun to figure out the geography, which is never explicitly stated – we start in England, cross the Channel, wander through post-apocalypse Paris, end up at the White Mountains — the Alps of Switzerland, free man’s last redoubt.

The idea of capping – surgically induced mind control to keep the people subjugated – reminded me of the similar premise in The Uglies.  In that book, the operation made you beautiful as well.  In The White Mountains, the metal-mesh cap is a symbol of adulthood and just about equally longed for by most of the children.

The ending leaves many questions unanswered; this is most definitely the start of a trilogy.  Like, what’s the whole White Mountain resistance plan?  I cheated and read the synopsis of the series on wikipedia.  Mildly interesting; but I think I’ll skip the other books.  Or maybe send them back to my 9-year-old self if they ever get time travel worked out.

“Singularity Sky” by Charles Stross

Audiobook version.

Has a lot of interesting pieces, but not very well developed as a whole.

The historical premise is that the Eschaton, a God-like AI civilization, scattered humanity across the galaxy several hundred years ago.  Their only commandment is to not violate causality (ie don’t do time travel), presumably to protect them from someone going back and deleting the Eschaton from history.  The New Republic, composed of ethnic Russians and pretty much modeled on pre-Soviet Imperial Russia, is under attack by the Festival, a mysterious entity besieging one of the Republic’s remote colony worlds.  A fleet is dispatched with a sneaky plan to go into the future several thousand years, learn about the Festival, then go back in time to just before the Festival arrived at the colony.  This plan is sure to attract the attention of “Big E,” so Rachel the UN weapons inspector and Martin the engineer are determined to stop it, lest the Eschaton over-react and supernova humanity out of existence.

That’s piece one.  Lots of “military SF” bits with scenes on the bridge, “fire torpedo 1!” and all that.

Second piece is what the Festival really is – an automated information collection and trading machine.  It gives the people of the planet whatever they want in exchange for “entertainment” or information.  Naturally this wrecks the economy and the whole social structure of the New Republic on the world.  Some weird stuff goes on too, like the former governor who is granted his wish to be young and have a life of adventure – unfortunately adventure is dangerous, with zombie clowns wielding nanobot-disintegration pies and the like.  And there’s a Soviet-style worker’s revolution trying to break out until the people realize they don’t need any government when their every wish is granted immediately by the Festival.

Piece three is the romance between Rachel and Martin.  Both are tired and weary of long lives extended by advanced medical techniques, but believe in what they are doing.

As I said earlier, these pieces didn’t quite gel very well for me.  I never really got into the story, even though the premise seemed pretty interesting.

The idea of the Eschaton scattering humanity reminded me of “Riverworld.”  Only in that book, the scattering is after death.

“Axis” by Robert Charles Wilson

Kind of a ho-hum book; I thought the story never really went anywhere.  Definitely did not answer any of the lingering mysteries left by the book’s immediate predecessor, “Spin,” which I read several months ago (before starting this blog).

In “Spin,” which begins more or less in the present day, the stars disappear without warning one night.  Panic ensues for a while, but then people realize they are safe and nothing immediately dangerous is going on.  I don’t want to spoil the story, but the Earth has been put into some kind of a slowed-down time stasis bubble – thousands (millions?) of years pass by on the outside for every minute on Earth.  Obviously some higher intelligence is responsible, and most of the book focuses on humanity’s effort to figure things out….which they do not do.

I had hopes that this sequel, “Axis,” would explain more of the “Hypotheticals” intentions, but it really doesn’t.  I think that it would be just as well for the reader to enjoy “Spin” and skip “Axis.”

“The Gods Themselves” by Isaac Asimov

Sort of a yawner….usually I like Asimov…really like the Foundation series.  In this book, aliens in a parallel universe develop an “Electron Pump.”  By way of exchanging matter between their universe and ours, both sides are able to gain energy as the matter reacts to the new fundamental physical laws of the universe it has just entered.  Humanity rejoices at free, clean energy.  However, some scientists soon raise a voice of warning… they discover that the fundamental laws of our universe and the parallel universe are approaching equilibrium – kind of like when a hot object comes into contact with a cold one: the hot one gets colder, the cold one gets hotter.  Anyway, the consequence is that the strong electromagnetic force in our universe will change such that the Sun will explode.  Oh noes!  Humanity at large ignores and shuns the scientists who bring this up – they like their free energy, and the scientific community as a whole doesn’t want to disappoint them.  The smart scientists who understand what is going on are disbelieved and shunned.  Eventually, however, they save the day by figuring out how to open a channel from yet a third universe, which has the opposite set of laws from the first parallel universe.  By setting up a pump into this universe as well, the net effect on our universe is constancy and no exploding Sun.  Yay!

The bizarre middle part of the book is probably why it won a few sci-fi awards back in 1972 when it was published.  It’s a pretty involved description of the first parallel universe which starts the whole electron pump thing.  In this universe, the rational, emotional, and parental components of a single individual person are split into three separate entities.  Wouldn’t that make for a fun sitcom!

I read that Asimov got the idea from this book when another Sci-fi author mentioned “Plutonium-186” in a conversation.  Asimov, the trained physicist, thought, “That isotope can’t exist!” and then proceeded to imagine what physical laws would have to change for it to be able to exist.  Yeah, Asimov was a smart guy.