The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin

The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin and translated into English by Ken Liu*, is a science fiction book of enormous scope and stunning imagination. It’s a book that successfully manages to hypothesise fantastic technology and base it in believable science. The Three Body Problem is also frightening. Implications echoing from the revelatory chapters midway through the book had me pause, and made me think again of all of those warnings we read and hear when it comes to the exploration of the universe and the consequences we might unwittingly find there. I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Three Body Problem is the first book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, and begins in the bloody and violent idealism of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I loved the beginning of the book, and the chaos, violence, fear, and blind nationalism so succinctly and horrifically expressed lent a whole new dimension to everything else I had read about that period of Chinese history. It is also fundamental, because all those things; that mess of emotion and idealism, nationalism and fervour, drive the story through the wounds they leave on the heart and mind of one of the key characters Ye Wenji. Her own moral compass so inextricably linked to her experiences, and so brutally damaged by them that the decisions she makes and the chain of events she willingly initiates are both perfectly monstrous and perfectly understandable rolled into one.

As the book shifts from the Cultural Revolution to the modern day we are introduced to our main protagonist, Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher who becomes embroiled in an investigation that slowly peels back the layers of a threat to reveal the terrible truth: it is deeper, larger, and more dangerous than anyone could have believed. I struggled pushing on through the first part of the modern day setting, but as the layers were slowly revealed whatever was holding me at arm’s length relented and I ploughed through to the end.

On reflection it really is a stunning work, and the science fiction aspects are so thoroughly well imagined and imaginative that it really does capture the famous statement from Arthur C. Clarke: “Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” It reads like magic, every technological reveal, every discovery, every revelation, feels like magic. Yet, it is also so grounded in scientific theory, in the concepts of quantum physics, that there is enough of an air about the magic of reality that it is believable. Frightening, and believable.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the story than I have, or give away key plot twists, because the uncovering of them throughout the book is a series of paradigm shifts that are enjoyable to discover. Yet, choosing not discuss the detail, which is where the devil is after all, limits my capacity to discuss the deeper aspects of The Three Body Problem. I will simply state what I believe to be one of the key themes in this book: humanity faces a threat of catastrophic proportions, and yet, the book seems to ask, are we our own biggest problem? Has our legacy sown the seeds of our own destruction?

While I found myself flagging at one point while reading The Three Body Problem, the book really is a wonderful read. The science fiction is stunning, and it asks some big and quite believably relevant questions of us today. I would recommend this book, and for myself, I will be reading the next two. I, for one, welcome our new dehydratable overlords.

*It’s worth noting the translator, Ken Liu, because scattered throughout the book are footnotes and explanations that really add depth and context to the little details that readers not immersed in Chinese history or culture (as I am not) could easily otherwise miss. I imagine there are whole layers in there that for those familiar enough with the period and cultural motifs, would add more diamond sparkle to this gem of a book. Ken Liu is also a highly successful author in his own right, and I plan on picking up his fantasy novel Grace of Kings in my next book order.

Keeping Track…

Sometime in late September I decided it would be a good idea to track how many words I write on a nightly basis. Why? It’s a question I am still wondering if there is an answer to, I think I heard someone mention they do it on a writing podcast, or a social media post, or maybe I dreamed it… who knows.

I started tracking the words I was writing in October of last year, every night after I had finished my work for the evening I’d run a word count and plug the figures into a spreadsheet. I still am, and intend to keep going for the foreseeable future. Not everything I write is in there, copious emails go uncounted, which is a shame in some respects, but writing I do for my freelance jobs, for my own games, and my own fiction, all get counted and added.

Three and a bit months in and it has been interesting. I have found it variously depressing, uplifting, and informative. It has been a spur to action; to get the numbers up. It has also been affirming. One of my goals is to write a novel, and the question hangs like the sword of Damocles: but can you? Well, I knew I could get words on paper, but having some idea of how many has made a big difference to how I think about it. I have learned I can certainly write the required number of words for a novel, so that’s one tick.

Drilling into the numbers has been interesting, and from the outside it looks like no more than a bunch of numbers on a page; very nice, well done. What is has done is to highlight patterns. Importantly, those patterns relate to the types of writing I have been doing at the time. I know for example that I usually write between 1000 and 2000 words a night (in usually between 2 and 3 hours), when I am working on setting material for a role playing game. I know that when I am writing adventure material that rate increases. I know that when I write fiction, it typically decreases.

All of this is useful information that has given me a better understanding of what I am capable of given the tasks before me. I need to write an adventure? I know I can get the words down fast, but I also know that there is more pre-planning involved. Setting material and background? I can be more accurate about how long it’s going to take, but research is fundamental here. Fiction? Well, I really need to work to increase those numbers, but I am reasonably sure that the fact I do less of it than the other two is a factor in the word rate.

What it doesn’t show is also important, and perhaps there is an easy way to track these things, I haven’t given it much thought. It doesn’t show how much research and reading is involved. How much time I spent looking at maps of San Francisco. How much time I spent finding common Vietnamese surnames (and Vietnamese naming conventions). How long it took me to read about the structure of the UN Security Council. The hours spent finding out details about private military companies. Nor does it indicate the time invested into dubious searches about what materials are required to make various drugs and explosives (yes, I have no doubt I am on a watch list somewhere, probably all writers are).

Tracking the numbers has been informative, and I intend to keep doing it for a good while yet. Some of things I hope to learn include how the time of the year and the various things that happen at those times influence my productivity. January is quiet, everyone is getting back and getting moving. December is full of ‘Nights Off’ a short hand for anything that keeps me away from the keyboard, and at that time of year means functions, family, work and so on, in the build up to Christmas. I’m sure the availability of freelance work will influence my productivity as well, the last few years I have had jobs lined up months in advance and no time for anything else. How that fares into 2019 and beyond will be interesting.

Would I recommend doing something like this? Yes, I think I would. There are nights when I don’t hit 1000 and I feel guilty, like I failed some unspoken agreement. I have to remind myself I’m not racing anyone, and that even a night off, or a few hundred words is ok. It’s something. The last three months of 2018 saw me write about 76,000 words, and a lot of words are not included in that. That information is affirming. I have averaged about 25,000 words a month, and that’s not bad, not that I have a yardstick to compare it to, just my own little self. The point is to keep going, keep writing, keep practicing. The only way forward to improvement is effort, and I feel like I am growing and developing. Keeping track of the words has been something I have enjoyed doing, and while I can sometimes beat myself up over not hitting the invisible benchmark I set myself, it tells me I’m moving forward, and it helps me work out where my strengths lie, and what I need to push harder at.

Annndddd…. at this point in the post I have reached about 925 words… and yes, they will be added to my daily total.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back…

Last post I put on my rose coloured glasses and gazed back into the mists of the year just gone. With the quiet determination of someone desperate to prove to themselves that their time was not wholly spent on Netflix, Twitter, or picking LOL Dolls up off the floor after my daughters, I busied myself with looking at the achievements of the year. That done the next task is at hand, looking forward, setting goals, gazing at the metaphoric mountain peak that lies somewhere in the cloudy distance of 2019 and plotting the climb. Of course, I’ll probably stay at the base camp for a while… It’s warm, has good WiFi, and watching the social media rage of a bunch of people upset that Gillette dared to suggest that being a decent human being is worth the effort is both depressing and amusing, though mostly, I fear, the former.

Where was I? Ah, Goals! A capital ‘G’. Not capitalised for any of the normal grammatical reasons of course, but for it’s significance. Goals are those things we too often tell ourselves we would like to achieve while quietly recognising that, yes, it would be nice to achieve that, but the scones are warm, the beer is cold, and the cricket is on. Tomorrow will be the day I leave the metaphoric base camp…

The beautiful thing about tomorrow, of course, is that it’s tomorrow, and tomorrow, tomorrow will be tomorrow, and so on. Last year I managed to tick off a bunch of things, and I’m glad about that, but did it get me any closer toward my overall goal? What even is my overall goal? My five year plan? Well ultimately I’d like to Write. Write with a capital ‘W’, as in Write for a living rather than a hobby. So this year, my goal is to take some steps in that direction.

Now, I wrote a lot last year, and the year before, and the year before that. Somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 words a year for the last three to four years at least. That’s good. Plus it’s nice to be paid for that work, but it’s not my own fiction, it’s not my own produce, it’s produce for other companies. It has helped me to build muscles I wasn’t sure I had, like the ability to sit down and write every night, to plot and plan and execute, and to hit deadlines. It has taught me to save, save, save, then back up those documents I saved, and make sure they’re backed up, and then just to make sure, save again. It’s taught me that sometimes I feel like writing and sometimes I don’t, and that the words that were dragged from my fingers, a month later, are impossible to differentiate from those that positively flew. Those are all good lessons. But now I need to make sure that 2019 moves me a couple more steps in the direction of my ultimate Goal (note the ‘G’). I need to write more fiction. I need to write more things that are mine.

So onto the goals!

I want to maintain my freelance work. It doesn’t pay brilliantly, especially in the Role Playing Game industry, but I enjoy it, and it has helped me get better. I have made some good contacts, and worked with great people. I’d like to keep all those things up.

I want to write at least one short story a month. Just one isn’t a lot, but there are other goals here, and other writing to do, so one is enough for now. I’d like to edit them, rewrite them, and submit them.

I want to finish plotting out one of the many novel ideas I have. I’d like to select one of those many and write it. I mean actually write it this year. Like hit 80,000 words by the end of the year. They don’t have to be brilliant words, they don’t have to be the best words, but they have to be written words. As the saying goes: you cannot edit a blank page.

For some reason or other I started writing a role playing game last year, rules, setting, the lot. I’d like to finish that this year. I’d like to finish it, and then decide what I’m going to do with it next, maybe not in that order. If it feels good I may look for a publisher, I may look to Kickstarter, I may just publish it as an indie game online, but I want to do something with it. It feels good right now, and I want to explore it further. I like the foundation, I like the setting concepts and themes, I like this beginning I have, and now I need to add flesh to that skeleton and see if I can bring it to life.


I want to keep up with the writers group thing I started doing with a friend of mine. It’s been good, and encouraged me to write more, even if just to keep up. Meet up every fortnight, and maybe connect to other writers in our area, who knows.

I want to read, I know it seems silly, but it’s easy to relegate the things you assume you’ll do at some point to some other point that isn’t now. I read more last year than I have for many years, and I want that to continue. I used to read voraciously, and while I have other ways to spend my evenings now, the curse of being an adult, I need to read.

I want to role play on a regular basis. I managed it for most of last year, so it shouldn’t be too hard to replicate that goal. Testing the adventures I am writing for other companies, testing the system I am developing for my own RPG, playing another published game, whatever, just playing.

I want to make sure I game with my family, that’s board games, of which I have too many by any reasonable standard. But a game every night or every couple of nights as a family is the goal. Oh, and gaming with my wife, just the two of us. We used to game a lot together, and then we had kids and that became less, so making sure we spend the time to reconnect over that shared passion, a board game and the occasional movie of course.

Well, I think that’s enough for now. Some goals laid down for the coming year, hopefully achievable. We shall see!

Goodbye and Hello

2018 has come and gone, and as the dust of the year passing settles, it is time to look back and examine what I set out to achieve, and how I fared against that target. It is also time to take pause, and think about the things to come, the things I would like to accomplish by the end of the year ahead.

At the start of the year I set out a number of goals I wished to achieve on my other blog, Castle by Moonlight. There I wrote down a number of somewhat lofty goals – to keep up the freelance work, to blog twice a month, at least, and to draft a novel. Hmm… Let’s start with the negatives, and hopefully end on a better note.

I completely failed at my goal of writing a novel. I have outlines for two novels, wrote a novella, and a couple of short stories, but I did not make tangible progress on a novel. Why? It is partly due to vacillation. Not picking a story idea and running with it. It is partly due to prioritising freelance work, and not making time for my own fiction. It is partly due to procrastination, not using the time I did have effectively. All of these are things I need to change for the coming year, because yes, writing a novel is going to feature in my goals for the coming year. I’m like a moth to a flame… as they say.

My blogging goal was to write at least two blog posts a month, and then I went and starting this blog, splitting my attention between Castle by Moonlight and here. It did not go well. Sure I wrote 18 posts on Castle by Moonlight (petering out in July), and 19 posts here. Sure, combined that is well more than two posts a month. But I haven’t felt settled. I’m not sure still whether to maintain both blogs, abandon this one, or that one, and focus on the one remaining. I get more readers on Castle by Moonlight, but I also wanted to start a blog that was less gaming orientated and more the beginnings of a vaunted ‘Writer’s Website’ (capitals required). I’m not sure what to do on this front, perhaps me posting this here is a subconscious clue I should pay heed to, but I’ve never been much good at introspection.

Freelancing. This fared better in 2018, and I submitted somewhere around 135,000 words all told, pretty much all for the Infinity RPG from Modiphius. This included a campaign of five adventures, and various contributions to about seven books. How it will fare in 2019 is anyone’s guess, the list of books to be written for the Infinity RPG is nearing completion. I have work (I hope), for Red Scar that I am looking forward to immensely, but as for more, who can say.

Unforeseen projects… Somewhere around November last year I was wanting to role play some more, I was between projects, nothing to playtest for Infinity, and the prospect of work for other companies upcoming, but unsecured. I didn’t want to start a new campaign (though I have plenty of unplayed games on my shelf), in case work did pop up that required testing… what to do? Ahh, the obvious answer: write your own setting and role playing game!

Well, I didn’t see it coming, but around mid-November last year, in whatever fit of madness took me, I started to write my own RPG. I have a number of complete and semi-complete games sitting on the shelf, but this is a project that draws on the experiences of the last five to ten years working in and around the games industry, and particularly the last three to four in the role playing sphere.

Within a short space of time I hammered out about seven or eight dice systems (I have finally settled on one, though further testing may change this), and developed a setting I rather like. I wrote the system, some setting notes, and the character creation system, and have managed a test session with my local group. I am thrilled with how it is coming together, and there are some aspects of character creation that tie to world building that I am particularly proud of. How this will develop, or where it will go, is something I haven’t decided as yet, but it is in development, and I look forward to developing it further.

Well, that is the introspective stuff done, the goodbye to 2018. I think I’ll save my look forward, the probing prognostication regarding the coming year, till the next post. I hope you don’t mind, gentle reader, but you will have to wait with baited breath…