So I have a friend who raved about this book. I bumped it up my reading list because of the raving. What I forgot was that this friend is a smart scientist, and his raving was kinda directed at the universe, not me. I think this kind of science fiction is a lot more fun for a smart scientist. Also more fun for Kim Stanley Robinson (whose endorsement on the cover should have helped clue me in; if Kim's a big fan, this is probably not going to be my kind of book). It wasn't...
- There were kernels of things I liked scattered through the speculative, didactic text, but overall, Liu's technological focus does nothing for my natural sympathies in fiction; to have major character developments and decisions glossed over in a single sentence (e.g. growing affection, love and then marriage = covered in one sentence) did everything to advance the scientific narrative and nothing for me. I could have still enjoyed it still if these fundamental, life-changing and potentially powerful milestones are side-lined, if only there were alternative gateways for accessing the characters. As a result, they serve more as avatars by which to navigate scientific discourse realised. I'm not a big reader of scientific discourse.
- The opening is filled with dramatic, graphic, and tragic imagery. This had me prepared for an entirely different kind of pacing from that which I encountered (the plot is also secondary to the scientific and political discourse). The political content -- most of which may be categorised as questioning and criticising one's government -- probably adds a compelling and more shocking edge to a Chinese text, but for me as a reader in NZ, didn't add either of these things. I tried to empathise, but the fact remained -- challenging authority wasn't compelling or shocking for me.
- (In terms of disclaimers, later there is some crime scene content and there are references to military executions.)
- I was surprised to find a mash-up of lyrical similes alongside aspirational, informative academic prose. What might have been a beautiful marriage for some readers came off as borderline precocious, for me. Or it could be I'm just not smart enough. I'm prepared to accept that. Or the right kind of smart, at the very least. Even with my tastes aside, there is something here that reminds me of a roomful of academics pontificating. Even if that kind of scene took place within my discipline, I don't enjoy it much -- I'd pass by. If it's because I'm out of my depth, so be it... (but I think it's also because it's just not my bag, it really isn't). When it didn't remind me of this kind of room, it was like a political and scientific stageshow, complete with a scientist doing jazz hands and a face that says, "See, differential equations can be fun!" I'm not convinced. I'm so glad if you are.
- There is one line from the text which I felt summed up the entire book's tone; "Believe us, we're scholars." I felt like the whole book I was being fed stuff laced with this assurance; Believe, I'm a scholar.
- One of the things I liked? I got a sort of film noir vibe. If I could have cared about the characters more and had this aspect of the book developed (like a whole separate, fully-crafted spy-story drawn out of this entanglement of narratives), I could've dug that more; that's the part of this that's for me.
- Spoiler: Credit to pay where it's due, I had not ever read anything quite like the human-beings-as-circuitry scene anywhere; it was 100% new to me. It sadly didn't excite me...but it was original.
- It's important that I acknowledge that from half-way I scan-read the scientific portions because I was deriving no pleasure from them. I would pause and fully read anything I felt added to characters or sounded more interesting and less like dense academic text. It is certain that I have underappreciated / underpaid a lot of material from this point... I am confident I would only become more dissatisfied had I adopted any other methodology.
The driving forces of this book are not the things I am driven by. If you love physics or new ideas (a little isn't enough, you'll need to really love it/them) and historical fiction, I have no doubt you could have a polar response to mine, and good for you, the spot in the academic circle / at the front of the stageshow is all yours...