The Three-Body Problem

In the midst of the bloody purges of intellectuals in the Cultural Revolution, a teenager’s family is destroyed in front of her eyes by Red Guards. These gripping events set a brilliant premise to The Three-Body Problem. Ye Wenjie, the university student who is mentally crushed by witnessing these events, is shipped off to a remote location near a mysterious radio telescope for hard labour. With her growing hatred of entire mankind, she gets a chance to set in motion events that would put the entire planet at risk of annihilation by an alien force in the present day.

Cixin Liu is supposedly a famous science fiction author in China and this book translated by Ken Liu to English is the first from Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. This is hard science fiction and Cixin Liu is pretty damn good at that. The physics and history at the radio telescope in the past and at an alien planetary system in the present are all in extreme detail and very plausible. Wenjie’s flashback to the Cultural Revolution is just beautiful writing and is actually a pretty good insight to what was happening on the ground during that dark phase of Chinese history. It in the present however that the novel runs into hiccups. Some of the characters, especially Shi Qiang the detective, are not well suited to the grim narrative. I did not like the Three-Body Problem virtual reality game, which occupies a large part of the book. I get that the author uses the game to make the reader understand the history and motives of the alien system, but it is way too long and not that good. The third act of the book is tense, but waters down to a Dan Brown-like chase sequence. Though the vision in this novel is galactic and I had a great time, I do not think I will be picking up the rest of the trilogy due to these reasons.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 9780765377067


Masters of Doom

It almost seems like founder couples have a special success in the computer industry. Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft and the two Steves founded Apple. To that rockstar list can be added John Carmack and John Romero, the founders of id Software and the heroes of the book Masters of Doom. Much like a classic rockband, each John brought a special something to their group, the pair looked invincible at one time in the PC gaming revolution and then fell out due to mutual differences. But in their brief era of hits, they pushed the envelope of what could be rendered and experienced on the personal computer and had a lasting effect on hackers later.

The story of the two Johns begins in the mid-80s, with the boys spending their pocket money hooked on arcade games. Soon the Apple II arrived and invited them to program games on it using Basic. Soon the kids graduated to Assembly and to squeezing out every bit of performance from these early personal computers. Both the Johns were head strong, exceptional at programming and game design. They arrived at that special stage in the PC revolution when a single person could create a new game in a matter of weeks and make money by selling it as shareware. Shareware was a short-lived phenomenon which enabled software creators to cut out the middle men of distributors, publishers and retailers and get a large part of the dollar to themselves. The engrossing games the two Johns were churning out soon brought them together at SoftDisk.

At SoftDisk the two Johns found they had complimentary characteristics that worked well as a team. Carmack by this time was growing hugely interested in the core of the game, the engine, which was getting increasingly sophisticated as games grew complicated and specialized graphics hardware began to appear. Romero turned out to be a good fit as the lead, loud, flashy with his long hair, and was getting to be extremely talented at game design and level design. The dynamic duo would churn out a lot of games at SoftDisk for Apple II and later the PC. The two Johns soon had an exceptionally talented team with Adrian Carmack (no relation to John Carmack) on art and Tom Hall as game designer.

This rock band soon found that they could have way more independence and profit by working on their own. They were contacted by Apogee, a shareware company, and they agreed to develop a series of games for it using a ground breaking technique that Carmack had managed to squeeze out from the simple hardware of that time: smooth scrolling. Working after hours on this secret project at a lake house, this team which called themselves as Ideas from the Deep, would create the iconic Commander Keen series of games. With the success of Keen, the team resigned from SoftDisk and Romero convinced them to move to Dallas. It was at id Software, which was their new shortened name, that they would set out to create a series of hits that set the computer gaming world on fire.

For each game at id, Carmack would create a new game engine that enabled 3D visualizations and gameplay that was impossible before it. Romero and the team would create a game around the engine. It was id that also figured out a new business model of licensing their game engine to other developers. id would go on to create and dominate the first person shooter (FPS) genre with games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. Though Carmack was an exceptional hacker, the dream team would finally splinter due to differences in how to run the company, Romero’s increasing flamboyance, Carmack’s impersonal and aloof working style, and the conflict between Romero’s vision for game design and Carmack’s vision for game engine technology. Romero was the public face of id and was able to found a flashy new company called Ion Storm. But the games he envisioned there, especially the fabled Daikatana, would take too long to deliver and ultimately flop. Carmack too found that games were growing to have a diverse audience and his games, which were all pretty much the same marine shooting up monsters, was having lesser success. Towards the end of the book we see Carmack get interested in rocketry, while Romero settles down to a smaller game studio, much like aging rockstars.

This book by David Kushner is one of the few about the history of the computer industry that I loved. His telling of the two Johns is detailed, rich and meticulously well researched. The two Johns, in just their early-20s, revolutionized PC games, computer graphics and game engines. With its in-depth telling of the burnout of id, the book also holds some important lessons in how not to do software engineering, management and running of a startup. It also gets into the hacker spirit of Carmack, which enabled modding of his games and also the public outcry about the supposed connection between games and violence. Kushner also gets into quite a bit of detail of the masochistic work hours, the non-existent family life and eventual burnout of these game programmers. Even if you knew a lot about id, like I did, this book is still bound to be a very engrossing and satisfying read.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 0375505245

The Buried Giant

One of the best things to do is to read a book without knowing anything about it or its author. So, was the case with The Buried Giant, which I had noted down from a 2015 book list. The story turns out to be set in a fictional period after King Arthur, in an England of knights, ogres and dragons. There is an old couple, who, like the couple in Up, have an impossibly pure love for each other. A strange malaise of forgetfulness has afflicted the lands for many years and this couple finally gather courage to set out on a journey to meet their long estranged son. These are the travelers who keep us company through the pages, as they face grave dangers and become embroiled in a knight’s quest to kill a she-dragon that has been harassing the country.

The actual tale though is wrapped in layers of mystery. The author Kazuo Ishiguro, whose works I’ve never read before, reveals himself to be a master storyteller. His tale is gripping from the beginning, surrounded as it is by so many questions in the reader’s mind. As he spun his yarn, I was drawn more and more into his web of intrigue. The more we learn, the more we realize that there are more secrets, lies and conceit. I fail to recall another book or author who has so expertly put the jigsaw pieces together as Ishiguro does here.

As many of the grand reveals start to happen towards the end of the book, we realize that the scope of this story was much larger that we could have ever imagined. The reprieve that we so egged for throughout the book brings little joy as it forebodes new suffering for the people of the land. As for the couple, author gives them a beautiful but ambiguous ending too. All in all, a gem of a journey to undertake. So good, that the book was unputdownable and I read it in one long sitting. Now that’s rare!

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 9780571315048

The Light Fantastic

The Light Fantastic is the second book in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. At the end of the super-entertaining The Color of Magic, our anti-heroes Rincewind, the wizard who cannot cast a spell to save himself, and Twoflower, the naive tourist, were falling off the edge of the Disc. In true movie-sequel fashion, they are saved at the beginning of this novel and put out on another romp through the Disc here. Harmful spells have been set free that have set the Disc on a collision course with a star. And the only person who can save the world is Rincewind, quite obviously. There are more adventures, more damsels, more knights and more laughter. Pratchett is really good at presenting the technologies and ironies of our world and embedding them in the fantasy world of the Disc. But since this book is essentially the same as the first one, it is not that much fun. Still, this book is guaranteed to deliver some snortling hours of fun.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 9780062225689


Twoflower was a tourist, the first of the species to evolve on the Disc, and fundamental to his very existence was the rock-hard belief that nothing bad could really happen to him because he was not involved; he also believed that anyone could understand anything he said provided he spoke loudly and slowly, that people were basically trustworthy, and that anything could be sorted out among men of goodwill if they just acted sensibly.

It has already been hinted that around this time there was some disagreement among the fraternity of wizards about how to practise magic. Younger wizards in particular went about saying that it was time that magic started to update its image and that they should all stop mucking about with bits of wax and bone and put the whole thing on a properly-organised basis, with research programmes and three-day conventions in good hotels where they could read papers with titles like “Whither Geomancy?” and “The role of Seven-League Boots in a caring society.” Trymon, for example, hardly ever did any magic these days but ran the Order with hourglass efficiency and wrote lots of memos and had a big chart on his office wall, covered with coloured blobs and flags and lines that no-one else really understood but which looked very impressive.

Then the chieftain turned respectfully to his guest, a small figure carefully warming his chilblains by the fire, and said: “But our guest, whose name is legend, must tell us truly: what is it that a man may call the greatest things in life?” The guest paused in the middle of another unsuccessful attempt to light up. “What shay?” he said, toothlessly. “I said: what is it that a man may call the greatest things in life?” The warriors leaned closer. This should be worth hearing. The guest thought long and hard and then said, with deliberation: “Hot water, good dentishtry and shoft lavatory paper.”

“He’s mad?” “Sort of mad. But mad with lots of money.” “Ah, then he can’t be mad. I’ve been around; if a man has lots of money he’s just eccentric.”

“I know you don’t. Rincewind, all the shops have been smashed open, there was a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments, can you believe that?” “Yeah,” said Rincewind, picking up a knife and testing its blade thoughtfully. “Luters, I expect.”

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle turned out to be one of those highly acclaimed books that do not impress. I am familiar with Philip K Dick through the movie adaptations of his works like Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly. Let me not kid, he lays out an appetizing premise in this book: the Axis powers Germany and Japan have won and divvied up the world between themselves. USA has been split into three: the East Coast controlled by Germany, the West (Pacific States of America) by Japan, leaving the middle (Rocky Mountain States) is free. Hitler’s rule is over, but his other Nazi lackeys are running an efficient, technologically advanced but totalitarian state. Jews are still being hounded, whites are second class citizens to the Japanese in USA and blacks and Chinese are slaves.

In this compelling alternative history, we meet a puzzling choice of story arcs and characters. The PSA arc is beautifully written and somewhat interesting: the interplay between Childan, a white guy who deals in American artifacts and Tagomi, a high ranking official who is one of his unhappy customers. We slowly discover there is a plan by the Germans to create a disturbance in PSA and use that to defeat Japan and takeover the entire world. In addition to this weak arc, there is a further more boring arc happening in RMS, where folks are ga-ga-ing over an alternate history book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the Allied powers have won the war. The female protagonist here is out to meet and save that book’s author, this is the dude in the high castle, from assassination.

The world Dick creates is amazing and his writing skills are top notch. However, I found it very hard to like most of his characters or empathize with their stories. The characters of the book are all devout users of a Chinese divining tool called the I Ching and use it excessively to guide them through the day. Too many pages are used in characters discussing the Grasshopper book and describing the details of how Allied powers lost the war. It all feels a bit heavy handed and forced. I guess that fans of the book will claim that I cannot yet see the “alternate history within an alternate history” that Dick creates or his hints that this Nazi world is not the reality, but maybe the hallucination of one mind. All very handy and dandy, but sadly not convincing. While its compelling setting will no doubt lead to many TV and movie adaptations, as a book it is a bit underwhelming.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 9780547572482

2010: Odyssey Two

2010: Odyssey Two

If what you liked most in 2001: A Space Odyssey was all the nitty-gritty of being aboard a space ship and the exploration, then you might love the second book 2010: Odyssey Two in Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series. It has been nine years since the fatal trip to Jupiter to explore the alien monolith when HAL 9000 killed the astronauts and David Bowman became a star child. The spaceship Discovery is still stranded around Jupiter near the monolith. So, the Americans and Soviets embark on a joint trip to explore the monolith again, check out Discovery and possibly also use the trip to examine some of Jupiter’s moons. While a lot of the story is the same as before, there is a lot more of crew dynamics on long space journeys, interesting space problems, more mysterious behavior of the monolith, life forms discovered in our Solar System, more analysis of HAL’s behavior, more hand-wavy star-child happenings and a final escape from catastrophe for our protagonists.

This book is an excellent sequel. If you liked the first one, you will most probably love this one. The weakest part is, yet again, the David Bowman star-child, who is used to transition some of the story, which he does by communicating with Floyd (the main character) and HAL. Also not quite satisfying, is the behavior of the alien monolith, which in the end gobbles up Jupiter, creating a new star. Clarke wants to push the idea that these monoliths are left as beacons by superior alien forms to discover intelligent life, test it and aid it to higher intelligence. If so, its behavior in the novel is quite a bit of hand waving. But as always, Clarke is on strong footing with actual space travel. It is engrossing to be a part of his spaceship and observe the daily life on it and the many personal, social and relationship problems that can occur. Whether he can keep the magic going for the third book or not, his masterful story telling made this second one a delightful read.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 0345303059


You think the Agile daily standup meeting is a new concept? Here it is, aboard the spaceship Leonov, on its journey to Jupiter:

Every day at 1800 GMT the crew of seven plus one passenger gathered in the tiny common room that separated the flight deck from the galley and sleeping quarters. The circular table at its centre was just big enough for eight people to squeeze around; when Chandra and Curnow were revived, it would be unable to accommodate everyone, and two extra seats would have to be fitted in somewhere else. Though the Six O’Clock Soviet, as the daily round-table conference was called, seldom lasted more than ten minutes, it played a vital role in maintaining morale. Complaints, suggestions, criticisms, progress reports – anything could be raised, subject only to the captain’s overriding veto, which was very seldom exercised.

An interesting note by Clarke, on how the book was written:

This book was written on an Archives III microcomputer with Word Star software and sent from Colombo to New York on one five-inch diskette. Last-minute corrections were transmitted through the Padukka Earth Station and the Indian Ocean Intelsat V.

Nectar in a Sieve

Nectar in a Sieve

The sad, hard and futile life of the rural poor in British Raj India pervades Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. It begins with the marriage of the narrator Rukmani to a landless farmer named Nathan at age 12 and ends with his death by her side. What fills the in-between is a few years of happiness with good harvests and young children and many years of deprivation, starvation, disease and death due to drought and floods. Urbanization also rears its ugly head in their tiny village in the form of a smelly tannery and a British doctor named Kenny. Rukmani hates the sight of the polluting and crowded lifestyle brought about by these changes, but poverty drives her children to work at that very tannery and later sail off as labourers to British plantations in Ceylon. The middle-aged couple is hit hard when their landlord sells off his land to the tannery and they have to eke out a hard life in the nearest city.

Published in 1954, this novel is supposedly the first novel about India to get popular in USA and in its textbooks. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Markandaya was born in Mysore, studied in Madras and later settled in the UK. Though no places are named, the characters and settings are quite obviously of the Mysore-Madras region. The story is quite similar to The Good Earth, which I recently read, and the writing is similarly achingly beautiful, though the focus here remains on Rukmani and her family and not so much about the happenings in her country. The India here is somewhat unimaginable now in some its dimensions: an age before electricity, literacy and modern medicine. Caste is somehow absent, which is surprising. The onus is the plight of the rural (and later urban) poor and their hapless existence as mere pawns in a grand game played by nature, fate and the rich. The landless, illiterate, uneducated characters swallow whatever comes their way without a protest because neither do they have the means nor the social structure to do anything about it. This slim novel is laden with incredible prose and filled with many unforgettable characters like the Old Granny.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 9780451531728


While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for? My heart sang and my feet were light as I went about my work, getting up at sunrise and going to sleep content. Peace and quiet were ours. How well I recall it, how grateful I am that not all the clamour which invaded our lives later could subdue the memory or still the longing for it. Rather, it has strengthened it: had there not been what has been, I might never have known how blessed we were.

Nathan prepares the bier, I see him lifting the body on to it. Then he goes out, walking towards the town. At dawn the funeral drums begin, and soon after our friends and neighbours come. Granny first, though hardly able to walk; then Durgan; Kannan with his wife, bearing a few jasmine buds; and Kali, bringing with her a muslin cloth to cover the bier. They pay their respects in silence, and when the sun has risen, the men pick up the bier and depart; but the women stay behind, for this is the custom. All that morning the sound of the drums comes faintly to us, rising and falling, rising and falling with the wind; until at last a final beat comes quivering through the air and we strain our ears for the next, but this, this sound which has already gone, is the last. Now not even a heap of bones: only a few ashes to show that once a man has lived.