Book Review:  The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is a science fiction novel first written in Chinese and then translated into English by the award-winning writer Ken Liu. The Three-Body Problem has also won its share of awards, including the Chinese Galaxy Award for best science fiction novel and The Hugo Award given annually by the World Science Fiction Convention. It truly is an extraordinary and singular work full of awesome majesty, thrills, terror, a sense of wonder, and amazingly original viewpoints on major science fictional themes.

One of the things that impressed me about this unique novel is its eastern perspective. It is set mainly in China and its main characters are Chinese. It begins, in fact, during the brutal Cultural Revolution of the 1960s when scientists and other intellectuals were being killed or banished to remote wilderness work camps. In the midst of all this chaos, an astronomical facility called Red Coast has been set up to cripple enemy spy satellites. While working at Red Coast, an astrophysicist named Ye Wenjie receives a message from another world, called Trisolaris because it is in a system with three suns. Embittered by the murder of her father and the treatment she has received as an intellectual, she responds to the message, knowing that this will result in an alien invasion that will destroy humankind. These are merely the rudiments of the plot, though; it also includes a dark and complex video game meant to persuade players to ally with Trisolaris, an elaborate organization set up to welcome the invaders and help them succeed, and sabotage of Earth’s scientific progress.

The three-body problem of the title is the motivation for the abandonment of Trisolaris and the invasion of Earth. Nobody can figure out an algorithm to predict the movements of the three suns; as a result, civilizations are continually collapsing when confronted with extreme weather events and have to be rebuilt from scratch.

There are a lot of plot-threads in this story, but Liu deftly weaves them into a complex and compelling narrative. I don’t understand enough astrophysics or history to know if everything that Liu proposes has a basis in hard science, but it has verisimilitude, and that’s good enough for me. The important thing from my perspective as a reader and a writer is that it all works well as a novel brimming with adventure, excitement, emotional depth, and a wealth of coherent and cohesive ideas. It is one of the best science fiction novels I have read in recent years. It encourages me to look abroad for more literary perspectives. Most of the science fiction I read is from American and British writers; part of the reason, I suppose, is the difficulty of getting good translations. Ken Liu, a master wordsmith of his own material and familiar with both American and Chinese language and culture, is the perfect person to bring this novel to an English-speaking audience.

By the way, The Three-Body Problem is actually the first volume in a trilogy called Remembrance of Earth’s Past (alternatively known simply as Three-Body) – so this is just the beginning.

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My Story “Exorcism and Other Requests” Has Just Been Published in the Anthology Tales of Fear, Superstition, and Doom

The anthology Tales of Fear, Superstition, and Doom edited by Ann Wycoff has just been published by Redwood Press. It contains my story “Exorcism and Other Requests” and 26 others. Digital copies are available now on Amazon, and a print copy will be forthcoming. If you have a Prime subscription you can read it for free because it is enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited program. I love the dark, sinister cover. Here is the publisher’s description:

Twenty-seven tales of horror and darkness by a diverse group of writers who conjure up demons, cults, denizens of the deep, sorcery and magic, insanity, lost technology, ghosts, ancient gods, monsters both supernatural and all too human as well as other terrors against which the only weapons are often poorly laid plans, vain hopes, and even the power of love or hate.

A river of superstition flows through this book. Many stories run deep through its waters while others only lightly skim the surface. If you like variety in your dark fiction then you’ll enjoy this book.

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Book Review:  Like a Rolling Stone by Jann Wenner; Part Three: Surreal Lifestyles

When I wrote part two of this review, I was about two-thirds of the way through the book. After moving from west to east and forsaking cocaine, Wenner went through further changes. One of the most monumental occurred when he met a man named Matt, fell in love, left his wife Jane, and married Matt. He and Matt eventually adopted and raised three babies; he and Jane reconciled and the families from his first and second marriages bonded. Wenner bought other magazines such as US Weekly and Men’s Journal, creating a substantial publishing empire. He continued to fly all over the globe partying with the rich and famous, but to his credit in Rolling Stone magazine he also continued to provide topnotch journalism about important issues facing the country.

All of this makes for fascinating reading, although it becomes somewhat surreal as he goes on and on about jetting to exotic locations to stay as house guests with celebrities and buying one home after the other, usually mansions in high-ticket areas, whenever the urge strikes. It is a close-up look into a world that most of us only glimpse from afar. One of the strangest aspects of this memoir is the way that Wenner describes his privileged adventures in a casual, almost blasé manner, as if it is a normal sort of existence for most people. Of course, he was the founder and publisher of one of the most important magazines in the world, and as such, he had access for interviews not only to musicians and movie stars, but also to presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and other politicians such as George McGovern, Al Gore, and John Kerry.

Don’t get me wrong, though; the uniqueness of Wenner’s perspective did not detract from my enjoyment of the memoir. When I learned of it and I started reading, I expected something countercultural and raw, which was the same expectation I had when I began, for instance, the Stewart Brand biography I mentioned earlier. That the history of Rolling Stone and Wenner took a different direction than I had anticipated was a surprise, sure, but in a way I should have seen it coming. After all, the magazine wielded enormous power in pop culture; getting on its cover was a huge splash of publicity for aspiring rock groups and singers and also those who were intent on remaining on top. And if you read about the lifestyles of the musicians who break through into fame and riches (an example is the memoir Life by Keith Richards) you discover that money buys them a lifestyle of globetrotting profligacy, for the most part. That’s not to detract from the sincere efforts at the betterment of humankind that some of them attempt (I’m thinking here about accounts in the memoir concerning Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Wenner himself, and others), but for most of us it’s another world, a world as alien as a science fictional universe. Still, I recommend this book. It is well-written and interesting; I merely caution you not to expect a countercultural viewpoint.

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Book Review:  Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir by Jann S. Wenner; Part Two: Life in the Fast Lane

As I read on in this memoir, my impression of Rolling Stone magazine changed. I was never a regular reader because I didn’t have easy access, but I read it occasionally back in the seventies and eighties when I was on the road in Europe and Asia. I envisioned it as a sincere voice of the counterculture, an attempt to counter the conservative rants of the mainstream east coast magazines. Wenner disillusions me somewhat on that score by clarifying that to him Rolling Stone was never about making a difference in the world; it was always about the money. When he wasn’t working on the magazine, he was partying with the rich and famous. Among his close friends were Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Michael Douglas, and Jackie Kennedy, the wife of the former president. He does a lot of name-dropping of powerful people whose mansions he stayed in and whose jets he traveled in. He partied in exclusive restaurants and on semi-private islands in the Caribbean. He even, eventually, bought his own jet so he could zap from one place to the next more expediently. Alcohol and drugs were ubiquitous, especially cocaine, the preferred drug of rock and roll bands and their entourages. Wenner describes how there was always hard liquor and cocaine available in his office; in fact, most of the Rolling Stone staff members were fueled by cocaine, and the office had regular dealers who would keep users steadily supplied.

Somehow, though, despite the drugs, drink, distractions, and dysfunction, the magazine got some good journalistic work done. Much of this was accomplished by Wenner’s skill in recognizing talented writers who would go after big stories that other publications were afraid to touch.

The bulk of the memoir is told in the form of short vignettes about various people Wenner met and interacted with, events he attended, major national or international news stories he and his staff covered, and descriptions of decadent partying with famous and wealthy people. It comprises a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyles of the one percent, the world’s privileged people, who can remain wasted a lot of the time and hop into their jets or yachts and go wherever they please whenever they want.

As the story progresses, Wenner does describe some major changes that he and the magazine go through. For one thing, he moves the entire operation from the San Francisco Bay Area where it began amidst the countercultural movement to New York, where he hoped to ensconce it amidst more established, traditional, and respected journalistic endeavors. In moving from west to east, the magazine shed its pretensions of being a voice of the hippie movement and took its place in the mainstream. On a brighter note, after Wenner and his wife Jane decided they wanted children, they adopted a son and then Jane got pregnant. As a result of contemplating his position as a family man, Wenner decided to give up the cocaine that he had been snorting for decades. He cleaned up and attempted to fulfill his role as a father.

(To be continued.)

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Book Review:  Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir by Jann S. Wenner; Part One: The Era

I have recently read several histories and memoirs of the 1960s and 1970s, some of which are newly published. For instance, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand by John Markoff tells of the entrepreneurial creator of the influential Whole Earth Catalog in the sixties; Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee concerns an architect and author widely respected by the sixties counterculture; A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally is about the acid rock band most closely associated with Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and the Acid Tests; and Rock Me on the Water: 1974: The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics by Ronald Brownstein studies a brief period in media history when the ideals of the 1960s sprouted forth into the mainstream in the form of provocative films, TV, and music. The era of the late sixties and early seventies fascinates me because it was so influential in the evolution of my own thoughts, impressions, and life direction.

And now we have another fascinating tome written by a germinal figure from that time. Like a Rolling Stone is the memoir of Jann S. Wenner, the man who founded Rolling Stone magazine in 1967 and continued to publish and edit it until recently. I’m less than a hundred pages in so far and I can already tell that it is my cup of tea. I haven’t even got to the creation of the magazine yet but Wenner has already plunged readers into the political and cultural heart of the 1960s. He was there at precisely the right moment in time to be immersed in the prevalent usage of marijuana and LSD and other drugs, the rise of now-famous Bay Area rock bands, the Acid Tests, Ken Kesey’s psychedelic and anarchistic hangout at La Honda, and the Free Speech Movement and other protests at the Berkeley campus of the University of California. When he was still an adolescent Wenner decided to be a journalist, so he was able to see all these changes around him not only from the perspective of a hippie heavily into psychedelics and other drugs (which he was), but also from the viewpoint of a writer chronicling the events of a certain significant historical era.

As I said, I haven’t even reached the part where he starts up the magazine yet, but already the story has swept me back to a time that was intensely formative for so many Baby Boomers. It reminds me of the relaxing vibes of hippie enclaves, abortive attempts to practice free love, confusing over-usage of hallucinogenic substances, the dark threat of getting drafted and sent off to Vietnam, and the ultimate assimilation of the trappings of hippie culture into the mainstream. Personally, in the mid-seventies I left the United States to find my voice as a writer and discover what the rest of the world was like, and I didn’t return for thirty-five years. In the meantime, Wenner created one of the most influential and iconic magazines ever published.

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Another Look:  America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad by John Walters

Update February 25th, 2023: The U.S. political and social landscape continues to quake, and this book retains its relevance.

Update February 15th, 2020: For some reason I had a strong urge to repost this description of the memoir I wrote upon returning to the United States after spending thirty-five years overseas. Perhaps it’s due to the sense of displacement and culture shock that I still go through from time to time; perhaps, however, it’s also due to the political and social upheaval currently erupting across the U.S. landscape, a displacement and loss of identity that is causing everyone to question their core values and beliefs.

A memoir of my culture shock after living for many years overseas. Here’s the back cover copy:

In 1976 John Walters left the United States in search of adventure and literary inspiration. He lived for many years in India, Bangladesh, Italy, and Greece. He married and had five sons. Finally, faced with the economic catastrophe in Greece and the lack of opportunities for his sons, he returned to the land of his birth. Without home, without job, without resources, he confronted his own country as if for the first time.

This is a memoir of someone who, late in life, was forced to leave everything behind and start fresh in what for him had become a new land. It will appeal to those who are confronted with major life changes in these troubled economic times; to those who, though they may desire rest and retirement, must continue toiling to make ends meet; for those who desire insight into the vast, multifaceted culture of the United States from a fresh perspective, unencumbered by familiarity.

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Book Review:  Rock Me on the Water: 1974: The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics by Ronald Brownstein

Whether or not its premise is entirely accurate, this book is brilliant. The premise is embodied in the subtitle. According to Brownstein, 1974 was the pivotal year in which Los Angeles became the epicenter of the entertainment industry and radically altered perceptions and directions in films, TV, music, and politics. Each month has its chapter and focuses on a distinct industry. To prove his points, Brownstein elicits examples of major players such as Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, Bert Schneider, and numerous others in film; Norman Lear, James L. Brooks, and others in television; Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in music; and Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and governor Jerry Brown in politics. He delves into the making of such hits as Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, Nashville, Shampoo, Jaws, and Hearts and Minds; All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and MASH; and several of the rock albums that defined the era.

In 1974 I was twenty-one years old. I was back living and working in Seattle after my one drug-suffused year of college in northern California. At that time I had substituted drinking for drugs, for the most part at least, and on the weekends I’d go out with a buddy and one girlfriend or another to bars and parties and invariably over-imbibe. I was in a stage of transition – aimless in a sense I suppose, but I already knew I wanted to be a writer, and the thoughts and ambitions I was formulating would eventually, in a year or two, propel me out onto the open road to Central America, Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent. In the meantime, besides the books that I voraciously devoured, I followed what was happening in popular culture. I remember most of these artists that Brownstein tells of and what my attitude had been towards them. What fascinated me as I read the back stories behind the seminal works of the period is how Brownstein amalgamates all these efforts into a coherent picture of what underlying artistic and historic trends were the motivations for these outstanding efforts. His research is exhaustive. When writing of Shampoo, for instance, he delves into producer and actor Warren Beatty’s entire career and the decisions that brought him to create this singular film. Likewise when telling the story of the radical political efforts of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, he traces their personal histories so that readers understand what brought them together and caused them to unite romantically and in protest of the war in Vietnam. He also delves into the difficulties that women and Black artists experienced, as for the most part during this era they were shut out of positions of responsibility in the entertainment industry.

I experienced intense nostalgia as I read this book. Not that things were so much better for me back in 1974. I was messed up in a lot of ways; one of the main reasons is that I was clinging to the past and had not yet cut loose and gone out to seek my destiny. But there were good times too, and some of those good times were when I would get lost while experiencing absorbing films, TV, and music.

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Book Review:  Miracle Country: A Memoir by Kendra Atleework

The discovery of a wonderful new book and writer is always cause for rejoicing. This book I came across by accident. I was looking for another volume in the same section of the library; the title caught my attention, I briefly browsed the blurbs, and I grabbed it. These days I have become pickier in my reading; I am more likely to begin a book and toss it aside if it doesn’t draw me in. For this reason, for every book I read I bring two or three home from the library. I peruse them carefully when I get home, and try to feast on only the best.

This book, as I said, was a revelation. It celebrates California, but not all of California. It focuses on the particular area where the author was born and raised, which is Owen Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, a desert land with extremes of hot and cold, magnificent mountains on either side, and a proclivity for natural disasters such as drought, flooding, and wildfires. Owen Valley used to be verdant and productive, but as Atleework relates, William Mulholland, the hero of Los Angeles, decided that the valley’s abundant water could better serve “the greatest good for the greatest number” by being diverted via pipelines to feed the growing city of Los Angeles. As a result, Los Angeles became the well-watered city of the stars and Owen Valley became a wasteland where only certain peculiar types of people, as well as the Native Americans who were there before anyone else, preferred to live.

Atleework chronicles the horrendous theft of the valley’s water by the greedy Los Angeles municipality and describes how harsh the land became because of the subsequent aridity. However, that is not the main point of the book. To her Owen Valley, and in particular the towns of Swall Meadows and Bishop, is home. To her it is not a barren wasteland but a marvelous landscape with incredible depth and beauty, a place to which she is drawn despite her wanderings for education and work to L.A., San Diego, and Minnesota. She is emotionally attached to the land, and when she writes of it, the narrative takes on the nature of a love story: love of family and home.

She tells the tale of Owen Valley through her own stories and those of her father, mother, sister, and brother. Her father and mother both fell in love with the land before falling in love with each other. They raised their children with the same reverence, taking them on outdoor activities such as hiking, swimming, fishing, dirt biking, and so on. Her mother died young, but Atleework honors her spirit in these pages. Her brother was adopted. Her parents did not know his background at first, but he turned out to be descended from the local Paiute Indians, and as he grew up, he began to spend more and more time on the nearby reservation. He frequently got into trouble and was relegated to juvenile detention centers and to prison. While telling of her brother, Atleework describes the horrific way that the First People in the area were treated, but also how their love of the land caused them to stay where they were despite their abuse by authorities and the desiccation of the landscape.

All of these threads of descriptions of the landscape, the history of the area, the gruesome treatment of Native Americans, the traumas and triumphs her family went through, and the author’s journeys that always led back home are woven together into a complex yet compelling narrative. Atleework is one hell of a writer; her style is poetic but accessible, meandering but focused, and intensely personal but at the same time universal. She is an excellent writer who has written an excellent book. I can only hope that there will be more.

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Another Look at Bedlam Battle: An Omnibus of the One Thousand Series

Four science fiction thrillers in one volume

This omnibus includes:

The One Thousand:  Book 1

It is the late 1960s…

What better place than prison to recruit psychopathic killers?  So thinks Benny, possessed by a thousand alien entities which he intends to share around with the other inmates before unleashing hell on Earth in the form of a murderous rampage.  Only William Stafford, a Vietnam War veteran unjustly convicted of killing a girlfriend, can stop him.  But to do so he has to break back into the prison he has just escaped from…

The One Thousand:  Book 2:  Team of Seven

A team composed of countercultural humans and benevolent aliens based out of Haight/Ashbury hunt for murderous, alien-possessed convicts with enhanced powers who have escaped from prison.  They discover that this fellowship of psychopaths is preparing an elaborate party for hippies and other street people in a remote mansion built to simulate a Medieval castle, and that they are planning to slaughter everyone who attends.  Now the seven are faced with the task of locating the mansion and stopping the killers…

The One Thousand:  Book 3:  Black Magic Bus

To escape pursuit, the fellowship of psychopaths has fled to Europe.  In the mountains of Italy they customize a psychedelically-colored tour bus, intending not only to pick up and murder unwary young travelers, but deliver a cargo of lethal pathogens to a major city in the East.  Only the Team of Seven composed of enhanced humans and benevolent aliens can find and stop them…

The One Thousand: Book 4: Deconstructing the Nightmare

Their hunt for a group of alien-possessed psychopaths intent on igniting a rampage of mass murder leads the Team of Seven to a prison in Turkey, war-ravaged Vietnam, a luxurious nuclear fallout shelter, and finally to direct confrontation with their enemies.

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Book Review: Haven: A Novel by Emma Donoghue

Haven is a unique and extraordinary book. It is in the nature of a quest, a hero’s journey undertaken by three monks in the seventh century in Ireland. A man named Artt, a renowned visitor to a monastery on the mainland, claims to have had a dream in which he and two followers embark upon a journey in a small boat down the river to the sea and there discover an isolated island they can dedicate to the Lord. He chooses Cormac, an old monk with abundant practical skills, and a young monk named Trian to aid him in his search. With few belongings they travel southwest along the river and out into the open Atlantic Ocean, where they find Great Skellig, a rocky island full of crags and cliffs.

Donoghue has based her novel on historical and geographical facts. Great Skellig, also known as Skellig Michael, is a real place, and the remains of an ancient monastery rest on a plateau high above the sea. If you’re a science fiction fan, you’ve probably seen it, because scenes of Luke Skywalker’s exile in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi were filmed there. The movies offer a good view of the grandeur and isolation of the steep, forbidding island.

In Haven, Donoghue posits that the three monks in her story are the first to reach the island. They climb the steep hillsides and cliffs without the benefit of stairs and sleep out in the open air until they have constructed a stone shelter. To survive, they plant a garden in the meager soil, go fishing, and hunt for seabirds and their eggs. Whatever they need they have to find on the almost bare rock.

The conflict in the tale comes from Artt’s arrogance, pomposity, and self-righteousness. The other two men have sworn obedience to him, but he cares little about their trust and devotion. Instead of seeing to the needs of his miniscule flock, which is struggling to survive in a harsh environment, he cares more about sculpting stone crosses, building a chapel, and copying passages of scripture. He refuses to allow the monks to make trips back to the mainland to trade for food, fuel, and other needs, instead claiming that God will provide while their supplies dwindle and disappear. For a time they are able to improvise, using driftwood for fuel and then the bodies of oil-rich birds, but when the weather begins to turn chill and most of the birds leave, they are left without sufficient sustenance or the means to cook whatever they manage to find. Through it all, Artt remains haughty and indifferent, claiming that the hardships his monks endure are good for their souls and doing nothing to alleviate their suffering. In the end… Well, I won’t give away the ending because it is dynamic, unforeseen, and inevitable.

This book succeeds well on two levels. First of all, it is a fascinating tale of an adventurous quest and survival in a forbidding environment. In addition, it vividly portrays the conflict between legalism and grace, and between self-righteousness and mercy, as opposing ways to look at religious issues. All in all, it is a powerful, well-written book and I recommend it.

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