As someone who is only trying to get into sci-fi this year, I know my limitations well and I would never have picked up this critically acclaimed award winning book by my own volition. But one of my book clubs chose this as our May BOTM and I decided I should atleast give it a try. And after finishing it, I’m both blown away by it and also a bit sad, so let me try to articulate my thoughts.
It has not been easy to maintain focus for long periods of time on a book during this pandemic. Part of why I have been gravitating towards more short fiction these days, but when I committed to this book, I wanted to see it through. For someone who almost always finishes any sized book in just a few days, this one took me almost 20 days to read. While one part of the issue was the external circumstances, the other was the subject matter of the book itself. I found the idea of first contact with extra terrestrials very fascinating and there were some chapters which completely held my interest, but I couldn’t sustain that for the whole book.
The translation of this book is excellent and it never had that choppy feeling that can sometimes occur in translations. And however it might have been in the original, the book never felt difficult to read (which was how I thought it would be for me). Even the story being told in two timelines felt very easy to follow. I especially found the chapters during the Cultural revolution very fascinating, because I’m not much aware of Chinese history and it felt like a very honest look at the struggles and lives of the people of the time, on both sides of the civil war. The book is also extremely science heavy, and while I could understand what was going on in the context of the story, I could not tell you a single thing about the physics that was discussed. There were paragraphs and chapters devoted to physics discussions, most of them going over my head.
What really impressed me and what I feel is the soul of the book is the philosophical questions it asks. We have a group of humans who are fed up of humanity because we are destroying nature and environment without a care; we have another group which still cherishes humanity and wants to do anything to survive. And the author discusses both their POVs without clearly judging any of them, because they all have their valid points to make. And then there is the important question of what will happen if we do make contact with extra terrestrials – should we expect them to be a higher evolved intelligence than us and hope to learn from them?? Is it even possible to coexist with an advanced civilization? And why do we humans who can’t coexist with the people who live in other countries, who wage wars constantly and perpetuate mass killings of people, expect an outside civilization to be benevolent and grant us knowledge? These are some very interesting questions to ponder on and I know I’ll be thinking about them for a while.
I was initially intimidated when I saw the cast of characters at the beginning, but I quickly understood who were the main influencers in the story and was able to follow along. However, being used to first person POVs, this third person narrative felt very distant and I couldn’t connect to anyone. Even when I could objectively understand that something bad was gonna happen, I wasn’t emotionally attached to any of them to care enough. Also, except one main protagonist, there are hardly any female characters around which I thought was a real miss; and among the ones who were present, I felt that none of them were shown in any good light.
In the end, this is a book that definitely deserves all the prestige bestowed on it because of the concepts and philosophies it discusses, in a mostly accessible manner. It is more of an introspective book than an action packed alien invasion adventure novel, so you should keep that in mind before deciding to pick it up. If you are someone who is new to sci-fi like me, I would suggest reading more science fiction novels before venturing into this series. But if you are a science/physics nerd, then this would probably feel like home. I still haven’t decided if I want to continue with the series, but we shall see.