Saturday, March 28, 2015

Our place in the universe: Martin Amis's "The Janitor on Mars"

Blinded, betrayed, and bereft, King Lear's Duke of Gloucester cries out, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods./They kill us for their sport."

That pretty well encapsulates the theme of Martin Amis's short story "The Janitor on Mars," appearing in his collection Heavy Water. In the middle of the 21st century, Earth is contacted by an alien intelligence, a Martian "janitor"; the term's full implication is unclear until late in the story, but our point of view character back on Earth is an actual janitor, a largely chaste pederast who works at a facility for at-risk youth . . . if I've understood the organization properly. Things are morally muddy, as consensual relationships, no matter how imbalanced in terms of power, are encouraged and protected. Someone has assaulted one of our main character's charges, however, and he presses the nearly speechless, victimized boy to give him a name. Meanwhile, all of Earth is riveted to TV screens showing the arrival of the human delegation at the appointed meeting place on Mars. It's a juxtaposition that shouldn't work, in part because the science fiction aspect digs deeper and deeper—and for a sizable portion of the narrative—into certain "hard" SF premises having to do with the history and purposes of powerful sentient species. Just when you think the story can't get more grim, it takes another step down its dark path, unrelenting in the logic that governs its universe. Our Earth janitor, for his part, wants to protect one damaged boy from the terrible encounter the whole world is watching.

The story is rich with mordant humor as well as science fictional ideas, and it's deeply humane as well, despite the hopeless framework. What connects the narratives on Earth and in the heavens are the story's ideas about power. Perhaps there is something that makes us stand out against the dark infinitudes, and perhaps, Amis posits, if it's our frailty and weakness, then that may be a good thing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oh, it's a trilogy: THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, Liu Cixin

 . . . or, rather, if you're looking for it on Amazon or in a bookstore, it's by Cixin Liu.

The Three-Body Problem combines politics, international skulduggery, serious physics, computer gaming, and a first-contact event in ways that alternate between creative and clunky. Not only the plot, but the characters and the writing, too, shift from profundity to something that reads like middle-school fan fiction. A penultimate section of the book, containing information that no one in the book should reasonably possess, seems to have been separately imagined and composed, a physics-laden, high-minded space opera that might have been the seed for the rest of the novel . . . or not.

If you're an SF reader, you'll certainly enjoy much of the book, which throws together a host of ideas and which, at least to this layperson, takes its science seriously. That it is a work originally in Chinese, planted in a culture unfamiliar to most American readers, gives it a refreshingly unfamiliar shape—mostly. The Cultural Revolution gives impetus to some characters' actions, but some characters seem to have walked out of Hollywood central casting. Several thought-provoking concepts—political, moral, ecological—lie at the heart of the story, but several truly dumb ideas also propel the plot. Some dialogue is fine, but some is unspeakably bad, the kind of thing one imagines hearing in Communist propaganda films—long-winded, discursive speech no one would say and no one would tolerate hearing. The game that's so important to the novel—a vivid world that fails to prosper in its chaotic three-sun system—doesn't coherently connect with the larger story (obviously, the writer thinks it does, but I found it unconvincing) and also proves disappointing by being more literal than metaphorical in its purposes.

The central character, a woman who, as a young girl, saw her physicist father killed for the sake of the revolution, is compelling, though she leaves the stage quite often, and the characters who displace her never take on the same heft.

The first book in a trilogy (I didn't know this until I'd finished it), the novel can nevertheless stand on its own—unless you're hoping the author is aiming for a happier ending in the long run.