Thursday, March 14, 2024

Jumpnauts by Hao Jingfang: review

2/5 stars on Goodreads

Jumpnauts by Hao Jingfang

Jumpnauts is set in near future where a war has split the world into two factions. In the middle of this, a signal from space is detected that’s fast-approaching earth. Three young Chinese, two men and a woman, with their own interests in the matter decide to investigate.

I was looking for a modern sci-fi with a fresh take from a new, non-western perspective. This wasn’t that book. The premise is tired and went out of fashion with von Däniken in the 70s. The idea that humanity is too stupid to evolve without outside help would require a truly innovative take to make it work. This wasn’t it. Not even our imagination is our own, and the icons of Chinese culture like the dragon (loong) are just reflections of alien cultures. The book doesnt even ask what made those aliens so much better that they can evolve, but humans cant? Moreover, they havent even evolved beyond wars.

The three main characters, Jiang Liu, Yun Fan and Qi Fei, were really annoying with absolutely nothing to redeem themselves. The reader never gets a proper reading of them. They’re emotionless (like absolutely zero emotional response to anything, be it space, aliens or a scolding mother) and don’t have any inner monologues that would explain their actions and reactions. For the first third, we’re stuck with some sort of triangle drama that doesn’t even exist. Yun Fan said no, and the two men weren’t even truly interested in her. They just needed a reason for constant cockfighting.

The story doesn’t really pick up when the three finally manage to get to space to meet the aliens. The past is rehashed again, and then the story pauses for a philosophising of the garden variety. Everything ends with a kumbaya moment where all the humanitys differences are put aside for a chance for space exploration.

But above all, the book is boring. The narrative has no driving force from the inside. The characters react to outside prompts and are pushed by them through the story. Not once do they rise above themselves or evolve (and no, the mind-reading ability doesn’t count.) In the end, the reader is left empty.

Learning from the author’s bio that she’s a physicist and economist explains a lot about her attitude to humans as an afterthought and passengers in their own story—and why Yun Fan would be such a bad archaeologist. But the author is not much of a physicist either. I’m all for innovative take in science when it comes to fiction; it doesn’t have to be based in real world science. But it has to be consistent within the book. Here, it’s best seen like cultivation magic in Chinese webnovel xianxias. Whatever suits the narrative at any given moment.

The writing is only marginally better than in xianxias too (and Ive given five stars for far messier of those), and the translation by Ken Liu can do only so much with the childish narrative. I’ll stick with xianxias with their jumpy narrative and bad translations. At least there’s emotional reward in those.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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