Hugo reading 2017: Three Parts Dead, by Matt Gladstone

The concluding episode in my Hugo reading marathon!  Huzzah!

The Craft Sequence, by Matt Gladstone, consists of five novels so far.  We get all of them in the Hugo Voter Pack, and, due to time constraints, I have read only the first one.

By which I mean, I have read the third one, Three Parts Dead..

Gladstone provides us with a rather endearing introduction (this one, more or less) at the start of his omnibus, explaining that he wanted to explore different cities and cultures in his world, from the point of view of the people who lived in them, rather than having his protagonists journey from place to place, interacting with it. So rather than doing a consecutive series featuring the same characters, he wrote five books set in the same world, and planned for each of them to stand alone.  And he started writing in the middle, in terms of the world’s history, so he numbered that book three (he also, helpfully, made sure that each book had a number in its title, so that people could easily figure out the chronology).

For reasons that I’m not entirely sure I understand, he decided to set out the omnibus in publication order, not chronological order.  Hence, I read the third one, which is also the first one, and which is called Three Parts Dead.

This is a world which is recovering from the God Wars.  It’s not entirely clear exactly what happened in these wars, but it seems that the Gods fought the Craftsmen and Craftswomen, and many of them perished in the fight.  Craftsmen are necromancers and lawyers; the Gods have amazing powers, but these tend to be controlled by contracts with other Gods, cities, or undying Kings.  When they die, they can, in some circumstances, be resurrected, zombie-like, to fulfil their contracts in particular ways, but they aren’t really themselves anymore.  It’s fascinating, convoluted, and confusing.

At the beginning of this story, Kos Everburning, the God who rules and protects Alt Coloumb (I had a lot of trouble with that name, it kept making me think of Control-Alt-Delete, or Alt-Right), is dead, possibly murdered.  Tara, who has just begun working for the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, and her supervisor, Ms Kevarian are contracted to defend Kos in court, and make a case for his resurrection.  He needs defending, because if he has died due to negligence in his contracts, then he is liable to his various debtors.  Their opponent is Tara’s former Professor and nemesis, Denovo, who was also responsible for turning the city’s former moon goddess, and Kos’s consort, Seril, into Justice forty years earlier.  Justice contains Seril’s power, but none of her personality or her spirit – this is a worst-case-scenario for a resurrected God.

The plot is complicated, and we mostly see it through the eyes of Tara, the junior necromancer, and Abelard, a novice priest of Kos, and the one who was on altar duty when Kos died. The magic is quite horrifying.  For example, we occasionally see the world through the eyes of Catherine Elle, who works as a Blacksuit – one of Justice’s minions.  Blacksuits have no will of their own when they are on duty, and are controlled absolutely by Justice.  This is something of a high, and whenever Catherine is off duty, she seeks other sources for the high, which… is often not ideal.

I don’t really know how to review this book.  It’s hard to unpick it at the edges without risking unravelling it completely.  It’s complex, and cleverly thought out, and full of politics, the characterisation is great, there are moments of dry humour, and the ending is satisfying – though it did require a fair bit of the aftermath and prologue to make sense of what had happened.  Also, Gladstone managed to make the ending work without cheating, which I initially thought he had done.

I’ll definitely be reading the other books, and I’m now trying to decide whether this goes below or above October Daye on my ballot.  It’s definitely less dark, which is a plus; on the other hand, I know all the October Daye books are pretty good, and I don’t know where this series goes from here.

On reflection, I think my ballot goes Vorkosigan, Craft Sequence, Temeraire, October Daye, Rivers of London, The Expanse.  Temeraire might have been more fun than the Craft Sequence, but I think this was much cleverer.

Here ends the Hugo reading for 2017!  I may read the zines for my own interest, but there’s no way I’m going to have time to review them.  And it would be nice to read something for enjoyment, rather than critically and with the intent to compare it with everything else on the ballot.

Hugo reading 2017: Best Series

“What’s this?”, you say?  “Best series?  What happened to best novel?”

Well.  I was supposed to read Becky Chambers’ book, A Closed and Common Orbit next, but I just thought I’d have a teensy look at the first book in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, His Majesty’s Dragon, and the next thing I knew it was 2am and I was 200+ pages in and realising that I had to work in the morning.

(OK, I realised that well before this point, but I just didn’t care…)

So I wound up reading that first.  A quick note on the Best Series for me, by the way.  I’ve actually read everything in three of the series (serieses?) nominated this year, so I already know how they are ranked in relation to each other, and will write about them briefly here, but it’s hard to review an entire series, so I probably can’t do them justice.

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Hugo reading 2017: A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Last novel!  Hooray! And I liked this one quite a lot, which means that now I have a problem at the top of my ballot…

But let’s get on with the book.

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, is a very sweet, kindly sort of book.  It feels like an epilogue, and I believe it takes place after another book set in the same universe.  There is not, now I think about it, a lot of obvious conflict.  It still kept me reading until after 1am on a work night because I needed to know what happened to everyone.

The book tells two stories in parallel.  The first story centres around Lovelace / Sidra, a ship’s artificial intelligence system who is now trapped in a synthetic human body.  And she does feel trapped by it – she no longer has unlimited memory and access to the Linkages, which seem to be a futuristic extrapolation of the world wide web.  Her narrative arc is partly about coming to terms with her situation and figuring out how people who are not AIs (humans or aliens) work, and partly about her remaking her situation to a point where she can be content with it and have a purpose that appeals to her.

She is helped in this by Pepper, an engineer who was once a slave called Jane 23, and the second story is hers.  This story starts when Jane 23 is ten, and, almost accidentally, escapes the factory which has been her entire world (quite literally – she does not know what the sky is, and is alarmed by this gigantic ‘room’ without walls).  Running from feral dogs, Jane 23 is rescued by a stranded spaceship and its AI, Owl.  Owl takes her in, and… basically teaches her how to be human.  And, over time, how to repair the ship and get off this planet.  This may sound unlikely, but Jane has been working to sort and repair broken machinery for her entire life as a slave, so while she has few other skills, she is very, very good with engineering.  I must admit, while I liked Sidra a lot, and sympathised with her struggles, it was Jane’s story that kept me up until 1am wondering if – and how –  she would be OK.

Note that Jane’s story is fairly disturbing – the treatment of the child slaves is chilling (we never do find out what happens when they turn twelve, but I suspect they are killed at that point), and she spends years scavenging for metal and for food, and mostly killing and eating feral dogs.  Which is something you may have a visceral reaction to.  (I just tried replacing feral dogs with feral cats in that sentence and was completely horrified and grossed out, so, yeah.)

With half the story being about an AI raised by humans and the other half about a human raised by an AI, Chambers is clearly saying a few things about what makes us human, but I’m not entirely sure what those things are.  It’s clear that humanity is not limited to humans; the AI, Owl, is clearly appalled by Jane 23’s treatment, which, while it was at the hands of AIs called the Mothers, is clearly something that was decided and organised by the humans.  Compassion, empathy and friendship, are clearly important things, and things that AIs can share with humans and aliens.  Another important thread is the ability to lie, something that Sidra can’t do at the start of the story due to programming limitations.  Once she is able to do so, it seemed to me that her relationships with humans and aliens changed for the better.  But it is clear that AIs have free will, at least to an extent.  Sidra can choose what she wants to do and how to spend her time, provided it does not go against one of her programming restrictions.

I don’t know where to put this book on the ballot.  It was far and away the most enjoyable one to read of the novels in this category, but I don’t think that it was as creative as Ninefox Gambit or The Obelisk Gate.  I still want to put it at the top of the list, because I want to encourage books that I enjoy reading.  But I’m not sure if it ought to be first or second.  Then again, I suspect a LOT of people will put Ninefox Gambit first (I’m expecting that one to win, actually), so maybe it doesn’t need my vote?  I shall have to ponder this.

Hugo reading 2017: Foz Meadows

Last of all of the fan writers is Foz Meadows, who has provided us with four nice, long essays in her Hugo Voter Packet.

Bad TV Romance: Could you not?

Her thesis here is that TV writers pretty much feed M/M slashfic in three ways: by making male/female relationships predictably oriented around whether they will get together romantically; by avoiding platonic female/male relationships in order not to distract from the central romance; and by having relatively few female characters anyway, so your same sex interactions tend to be M/M.

“Thus: having firmly invested your audience in the importance of a romantic relationship, you then proceed to use all the juiciest romantic foundations – which is to say, shared interests, complex histories, mutual respect, in-jokes, magnetic antagonism, slowly-kindled alliances and a dozen other things – in male/male scenes and then affect gaping surprise when your fan base not only notices, but expresses a preference for it.”

I think she hits the nail on the head there.

She also queries why ‘will they, won’t they’ is the default, and suggests that this is rooted in an idea that having romance as a primary narrative is too feminine and thus devalued. As a romance reader, I can only nod along wisely and sadly.

It’s a good essay, and pointed out several things I hadn’t thought of before.

Dragon Age: Meta, thoughts and feelings

This is mostly a post about a video game, and since I don’t play video games, it’s a bit lost on me. Foz talks about the delight of getting to play a queer character in a video game. She then talks about the game’s portrayal of slavery, of race, of terrorism, and also about the game’s implicit biases.

It’s a strange and illuminating article. I didn’t know there was so much storytelling in video games, or that romantic relationships were a big part of them. I didn’t get a lot out of it – it’s hard when someone is writing in depth about issues with something you’ve never heard of – but it’s a good piece, even if it isn’t for me.

Diversity: more than white women

This piece talks about how women tend to be pitted against each other in media – put explicitly or implicitly in competition for the heroes or for the audience – and how this comes from an idea that telling stories about people other than straight white men is doomed to failure. All other characters exist only in relation to them.

Meadows points out that while this is slowly improving for white women, it’s not working so well for other groups. And that when other minorities appear on shows, they get killed off at a much higher rate. I hadn’t realised that the old motion picture production code actually required depictions of queerness to end in tragedy (so that viewers would not think that queerness was acceptable).  Of course, this is no longer the case, but people still tend to do it.

Gentleman Jole and the Vorkosigan Saga: Thoughts

Oh, this is fun! Meadows starts by comparing the revelations about the central relationship in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen with the fanfic written by my friend Dira Sudis – hooray, I have read both the novel and the fanfic! – and then she goes back and traces Joel’s appearances in previous Vorkosigan books, pointing out the hints that one can find, if one knows what one is looking for (or if one is as clever and intuitive as Dira Sudis evidently is), that suggest that Bujold planned this quite some time ago.

Meadows then moves on to talking about the women in Bujold, and honestly, I’m just having a heap of fun now, and not reading critically at all. I love her vision of Gentleman Jole as the final, cathartic, closing bracket of the story which started in Shards of Honor.  Miles takes over for so long that one can forget that Cordelia was the protagonist first, and the voice which carried us into the series. Reading this essay makes me realise that Gentleman Jole probably is the last word from Barrayar (though Meadows doesn’t think so). Cordelia’s story is complete, and it was her story to start with.

I love this essay. It makes me want to go read the whole Vorkosigan saga again, which is never a bad thing.

And now I’m conflicted about where to put Meadows on my ballot.  I loved Luhrmann’s essay about romance; I loved Meadows’ essay about Bujold, and I think by now everyone knows how I feel about Chuck Tingle.  I think I shall stubbornly put Tingle first, and Meadows second, with Luhrmann coming in at third and Nussbaum at fourth.  I wish I could somehow indicate the big gap between fourth and fifth place on my ballot, but it isn’t a No Award-sized gap, so the rankings will just have to speak for themselves.

And here endeth the Best Fan Writer reviews!  One more novel, and then a quick fly through the voter packets for the three series that I haven’t read yet, and I’m done!

Hugo reading 2017: Mike Glyer / File 770

Fan Writer number 5 is Mike Glyer, who writes File 770.

His Voter Pack starts with two brief articles from File 770, one about terrible holiday ornaments on sale in July, and one about why we shouldn’t erase people who finished below No Award in the Hugos from the nomination list (his argument amounts to – not everyone who has ever finished behind No Award is a puppy, and also, we should acknowledge our history.

He then provides us with a couple of obituaries he wrote last year, one for Bill Warren and the other for Ed Dravecky. They are very nice obituaries. I didn’t know anything about either man, and now I know a little. I don’t really know what else to say about these.

And… that’s all, apparently.

It’s perfectly serviceable writing. There’s nothing wrong with it. There’s also nothing much that holds my attention. It goes above Puppy Jeffro Johnson and No Award, but below Tingle, Luhrs, and Nussbaum, all of whom provided me with far more entertainment.

Hugo reading: Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Today’s novel was Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee.

I really didn’t expect to like this one, since it is military science fiction, which doesn’t generally appeal to me.  And, to be honest, it was rather like reading a book in another language – French, perhaps, because I understood most of it, but I had to work at it, and I felt as though there was vocabulary that eluded me.  I suspect one needs quite a visual sort of imagination to follow what was going on with the various battles and campaigns, and I just don’t have that sort of brain.

But despite all of that, I really liked it.  I didn’t quite love it, mostly because of my difficulty following the action sequences, but I’m definitely going to want to re-read it, and then go and read the other books in the series.

Also, let it be known that Yoon Ha Lee did not kill the cat.  And about time, too, if you ask me.  This alone would push Ninefox Gambit up the ballot for me.

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Hugo reading 2017:

Powering through the Fan Writers here! And we now reach Natalie Luhrs, who apparently has a website called . This is an excellent website name and I endorse it.  For the Voter Pack, she provides five essays,

The first essay is called Who lives, who dies, who tells her story? and is about Hamilton, which she evidently loves to bits.  She compares it to Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Miserables (which she feels are essential viewing before going to Hamilton). Since these are my two favourite musicals, I suspect I am the right target audience for Hamilton.

I love her enthusiasm, but I find myself wincing at some of her sentences. And there also seemed to be some odd little gaps of knowledge, given the things she did know, particularly about how musicals / opera work. Hard to put my finger on, but so far, I find her adorable but not very incisive. She does make me want to see Hamilton, though.

Next, we have A brief analysis of the Locus Recommended Reading List, 2011 – 2015. I think I may have read this before.  It is an analysis of who and what make it onto the Locus reading list. Luhrs prefaces it by saying that she does believe the staff at Locus work very hard on this list and intend it to be comprehensive, and that there is a lot of new work each year to review. But she also thinks they do need to start being aware of their biases.

This is a nicely scientific study, in that she starts of by explaining her methodology and how she categorised people, noting the reasons for categorising them the way she did, and the possible problems that arise from this. There are charts. And tables! And I am suddenly thinking of the tutorial I did last week on Pivot Tables in Excel, and I really want to get my hands on that data and play with it in Excel. But I digress.

Her findings are not surprising for anyone who ever looks at any of these lists. Male authors and editors dominate every category except for first novel and Young Adult, and non-binary authors are largely absent (and only appear in the short fiction categories). White authors also dominate every category, though people of colour are slowly increasing their minority, and it’s an even worse ratio than the Male / Female one. She also looked at repeat appearances, and found that once you’ve been on the Locus list once, you are much more likely to appear there in subsequent years. And then she links to the dataset, which means I CAN go at it with my Excel Pivot tables! Yippee!

(But I probably won’t.)

Essay number 3 is called Is this a kissing book?, and oh, bless you, Ms Luhrmann, you’ve actually written an essay about romance novels which respects romance novels and their readers! You just overtook Abigail Nussbaum on my Hugo Ballot. (But not Chuck Tingle. Nobody overtakes Chuck Tingle.). Basically she has a list of things that people should do before they write an article about romance novels and yes, yes, yes, PLEASE do all those things. The list (which I think I may have read before, actually) includes handy things like: try reading one. Particularly, a recent one. Maybe even more than one! And: try visitng the online romance community and see if they’ve already written about this. Pro-tip: they have. Use this as a starting point. And: don’t blame rape culture and sexism on romance novels, for goodness’ sake.

I want every journalist who decides to write something stupid about romance novels for Valentine’s Day to read this article. Please.

Essay four is called Silencing Tactics and You. This is a nice dissection of what silencing tactics look like and why they are a pretty awful thing. I especially like the attention she pays to different disadvantaged groups using these tactics on each other, partly because of an idea that there might not be enough justice to go around. She then talks about coping tactics, but acknowledges that really, cope however you have to, because this stuff is nasty.

Also, I like her conclusion.

I hate that I keep on having to point this out but: being marginalized or oppressed does not give you a bonus to your saving roll against being an asshole. And it’s beyond shitty to use those parts of your identity as either shields against criticism or weapons to attack others, particularly when they are trying to speak or be heard.

The last essay in the booklet is called Three Easy Steps to Fix the World Fantasy Convention. I can already tell I’m going to like this, because I have a secret and unhealthy fascination with watching the inevitable online fallout from every convention ever.  There is always someone doing something awful, someone else enabling it, someone justifying the whole thing, and a whole lot of people shouting about it.  I should not enjoy this.  And I do, really and truly, feel bad for the people who are hurt in every go round.  But despite all of this, it’s very relaxing to watch a trainwreck unfold that one really has absolutely no way of affecting and thus no responsibility for (I know this sounds heartless, but I’m the sort of person who feels guilty every single time I don’t manage to write the magical letter that stops my government from doing something awful.  Some part of me feels that if I could just find the right words, I could fix it.  But apparently, I have absolutely no delusions about having the write words to fix SFF convention drama, and the bliss of it being Someone Else’s Problem is unparalelled…).

Anyway, Natalie Luhrs might actually have the right words, and she is using them.  She summarises the various issues at the World Fantasy Convention over the last five years, briefly notes some of the reasons for these problems, and then suggests steps that can be taken to fix things.  These steps are sensible things like paying attention to accessibility, having a Code of Conduct, improving communications, and becoming an incorporated organisation or a limited liability company.  Basically, she wants them to behave like proper, professional event managers.  Which doesn’t seem unreasonable.

I really enjoyed these essays.  As previously mentioned (many, many times), it’s going to be hard work for anyone to beat out Chuck Tingle (count the double entendres in that sentence if you dare), but Luhrs is coming a close second. So to speak.

Hugo reading: The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin has offered an excerpt from her novel, The Obelisk Gate, which is the second novel in what I believe is going to be a trilogy. Normally, I get frustrated by excerpts, but with the voting deadline breathing down my neck, and having read so many works that I really did not like, I am feeling rather more benign about the whole idea.

Of course, having said that, it turns out that this is the only novel of the four I’ve read so far that I’ve really *wanted* to read more of. This is probably partly because I prefer fantasy to science fiction, but it’s also because I really love the narrator’s voice, which reminds me a bit of one Ursula Vernon’s narrators – knowledgeable, chatty, a little bit cranky, but with your best interests at heart.

Here’s the very start of the novel:

Hmm. No. I’m telling this wrong.

After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being. I am me, and you. Damaya was herself and the family that rejected her and the people of the Fulcrum who chiseled her to a finne point. Syenite was Alabaster and Innon and the people of poor lost Allia and Meov. Now you are Tirimo and the ash-strewn road’s walkers and your dead children . . . and also the living one who remains. Whom you will get back.

That’s not a spoiler. You are Essun, after all. You know this already. Don’t you?

It’s as confusing as hell, but I somehow want to keep reading.

I’m still not entirely sure what this novel is about, to be honest. At the end of the excerpt (which is the first hundred pages or so of the book), I do have a sense of the world, but it was harder to jump into than Death’s End was, so it doesn’t work quite so well as a standalone. What I know is that there are people called orogenes, who can sense and influence minerals in a variety of ways, up to and including causing or preventing earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. And the general population fears such people to such an extent that they will kill them in infancy if they find out about them. There has clearly been some cataclysmic event (I suspect in the previous book) that has sent the whole world into a Season, which seems to be something like an Ice Age, or another inhospitable geological Age.

There also seem to be untrained orogenes running around who can potentially do different things.

Our main characters are Essun, an orogene who has taken shelter with a community that also shelters a former lover of hers, Alabaster, a powerful orogene who seems to have caused the recent apocalypse and is now dying, and Nassun, her daughter.  The two are separated – Nassun’s father discovered that his children were orogenes, and killed Nassun’s younger brother, but can’t quite bear to kill Nassun, his favourite.  Instead, he took her with him, and left.  Nassun, for her part, loves her father and was desperate to get away from her mother – but she is also now more than a little afraid of what her father might do to her.  And Essun wants her daughter back, but does not know where to look for her.  And anyway, the priority right now is survival, and possibly – assuming it is possible – doing something to stop this season.

And that’s it, really.  I like the worldbuilding a lot, and the characters, and I want to know more.  It’s hard to judge where to put this on the ballot, given that it is an excerpt where the other novels in the voter pack are complete, but I’m inclined to put it at the top, because I actually do want to keep reading, and in fact, would like to go back and start with The Fifth Season first.  None of the other books on the list have made me want more, so I think that probably means that this belongs at the top of my ballot for now.

Hugo reading 2017: Asking the Wrong Questions, by Abigail Nussbaum

Abigail Nussbaum apparently has a blog called Asking the Wrong Questions, which is an appealing title at least.  She lives in Israel, and may be the first Israeli ever nominated for a Hugo Award.  God knows what sort of politics this is likely to add to the Hugo ballot.  Hopefully we’ll never know.

Nussbaum provides us with 6 essays as her Hugo Reader Packet.

In Ex Machina. Nussbaum talks about how giving robots gender (which always means making them female, since male is a neutral quality here) reflects anxiety about women and what makes a woman really a woman.  Nussbaum then looks at this through a trans lens – after all, the anxiety and feelings about gender that underlie the question of whether a feminised robot is a ‘real’ woman are not too far from those that underlie the question of whether a transwoman is a ‘real’ woman.  Also, of course, an artificial intelligence who is created to look and feel female has had gender (and its restrictions) imposed on it in ways that it might not have chosen.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, adapted by Russel T Davies is a fun review that makes me want to watch the adaptation.  Nussbaum outlines the (many!) problematic aspects of Shakespeare’s text, and then suggests, amusingly, that Davies’ solution to these problems is to present the story as if it were an episode of Doctor Who, which “oddly enough, turns out to be an endlessly rewarding choice.”  I’m not sure I understand what makes something seem like an episode of Doctor Who, but I’m amused by the idea. I also like her remark that “honestly, if you’re putting on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in two thousand and fucking sixteen and you haven’t made it even a little bit gay, you’ve done something seriously wrong.”  This fits right in with our Shakespeare reading group’s hermeneutic of ‘if in doubt, assume innuendo’.  I really enjoyed this essay.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead Westworld, Season 1, and Marvel’s Luke Cage, Season 1, are all interesting and extensive reviews things I don’t have any particular interest in.  Nussbaum does a meticulous job of unpacking the ways in which racism is addressed – and the ways where it is left unaddressed – in The Underground Railroad and in Luke Cage.  She is particularly interested in the ways in which Luke Cage distances itself from the Black Lives Matter movement, despite being a show that is intentionally about black stories and about crime, and thus sitting squarely in a place where it could do a lot with it, and concludes that a large part of the problem is that the show is very loyal to its genre, and misses opportunities as a result.  As for Westworld, she doesn’t think highly of it, and definitely doesn’t sell me on it either.

Nussbaum’s article on Arrival (2016), and how it adapts Ted Chiang’s story “Story of your life” is perhaps my favourite piece in this packet.   I enjoy the way Nussbaum reflects on the choices made by the director, particularly speculating on which were made essential by the different medium, and which were less so.  Book and film are two quite different stories, it seems, but they both sound fascinating in their own ways.

All in all, these are interesting essays, though I don’t think my tastes overlap a lot with Nussbaum’s.  Definitely a worthy contender for Best Fan Writer, but I’m still putting Tingle first at this stage, because he is so much fun, and has, in my view, provided a real service to the community over the last year.

Hugo reading 2017: Death’s End, by Cixin Liu

Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, is, I think, very good, but not for me.

I should start by mentioning that it is a very long novel, and I did not manage to finish it.  It didn’t enrage me or anything, it just was not my thing.  It’s very dense, hard SF on an epic scale, and I was finding that the only characters I really cared about or identified with were the ones who were in the wrong, at least as far as the philosophy of the book goes in the first half.  I think I gave it a pretty fair chance – I read Parts 1 and 2, and part of Part 3, which amounted to just under 300 pages all up and took me nearly to the halfway point.  I couldn’t face another 300+ pages.  Sorry.

Death’s End is book three of the trilogy that started with The Three Body Problem.  It stands alone quite well, which is to say, I had no idea that it was the third book in a trilogy, and certainly had no sense that it wasn’t a perfectly self-contained story, at least in the half I read.

There is a LOT of plot, and I don’t quite know how to summarise it.  There is a lengthy synopsis here.  Essentially, Earth has been under attack by the Trisolarans, but eventually the two sides settle into a sort of Cold War / mutually-assured-destruction scenario which allows both sides to prosper peacefully.  This goes on until Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer who originally worked on a problem at the start of the Trisolar Crisis and was in hibernation for two hundred years before being woken up to address a completely different problem, is elected the new Swordholder.  During the time Cheng Xin has been asleep, the world has become very feminised (initially she can’t tell men from women), and Cheng Xin, is viewed as a reassuring, Madonna-like figure, who will keep the world safe.  Alas, when the Trisolarians attack, she is unable to press the button that would lead to the destruction of both worlds, and Earth is invaded.

And that’s really just the first quarter or so of the book.

There are some fun things in here.  As an Australian, I got a certain kick out of the fact that when humans are restricted to reservations, the reservation is Australia.  And it was amusing having the Australian government being in charge of the human portion of the world, at least for a while.  Even if they did give Melbourne away.  I was also amused that AA, Cheng Xin’s assistant is excited to meet an Aboriginal Australian man, Fraisse, and enthusiastically performs a Haka, and Fraisse just smiles and gently points out that no, Hakas are a Maori dance, before performing an absolutely terrifying one to demonstrate.

There’s also some fairly cool fourth-dimension stuff, which I don’t understand very well, but which I enjoyed nonetheless.  The descriptions are fantastic, and the translator, Ken Liu is clearly a very gifted writer in his own right.

There are also things that annoy me.  There seemed to be a pervasive sort of theme that women are nurturing and peaceful and that if men become nurturing and peaceful and too feminised, then this will inevitably result in destruction.  Everyone forgives Cheng Xin in a rather patronising way, because she couldn’t help being sweet and gentle, and it’s the fault of others for electing her.  It’s the Manly Men of the 21st century, the ones who came out of hibernation into this feminine world and didn’t fit in, who tell Cheng Xin not to run for election as the sword holder, and it’s the Manly Men who turn out to be right, and who are able to run the resistance.  More Manly Men on spaceships are the ones who save the world (and even make a passing comment about how there really aren’t any Real Men on Earth any more).  Even the gentle Fraisse takes the opportunity to point out to Cheng how it was that she could not intimidate the Trisolarians, because he might be gentle, but he is still a Man and therefore capable of expressing aggression in a way that Cheng Xin can’t.

Now, it’s possible that this gets turned around by the end of the book, but honestly, I found this quite frustrating to read.  There really aren’t any other female protagonists, and it frustrates me that Cheng Xin is so consistently portrayed as being so emotional and soft compared to everyone else – at one point the Trisolarian calls her the only true innocent when it comes to their invasion, because Cheng Xin only did what she had to do.  It’s the fault of the rest of the world for putting her there to fail.  Which is only true if one assumes that Cheng Xin had no ability to say no to taking up the role of Swordholder or insufficient self-awareness to realise that she would be unable to do the job.  Again, it’s a really patronising attitude, and it annoyed me a fair bit.  And it smells a little bit like ‘women can’t be leaders because they aren’t tough enough to go to war’.

Aside from the sexism, I was uncomfortable with the the way the book seemed to be glorifying the sort of military hard choices that destroy worlds, and suggesting that without such choices, if people try to live peacefully, they are doomed.  This is not a worldview I am comfortable with.

In conclusion, it’s a clever book, and it’s well written.  I suspect that if you are a hard science fiction person, you will really enjoy the world building and the technology.  But I don’t like it’s philosophy, and I don’t like it’s gender essentialism and underlying sexism.

Currently, it’s coming in ahead of Too Like The Lightning because my primary complaint was boredom rather than rage, and because it does, at least, have the virtue of being a self-contained story.  But All The Birds In The Sky is still winning, because it managed neither to bore nor infuriate me.