The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
Published November 11, 2014 (originally published 2007)
Objectively I can see why The Three-Body Problem is so acclaimed. The concept behind it is fascinating, the science is well thought out, and although the book is set during and directly following China’s Cultural Revolution, it touches on themes that are relevant today. Personally though, I found The Three-Body Problem a bit of a slog.
There are a few reasons why the book didn’t click with me and the biggest one is genre. Admittedly I tend towards the Fantasy side of Science-Fiction & Fantasy. Much like my general preference for musicals over plays when it comes to live theatre, a science-fiction novel has to be really special for it to speak to me in the same way that a fantasy book does. I’ve read some fabulous science-fiction in the past few years though, including the first two books of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, Lois Mcmaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, and Erin Bow’s YA sci-fi Prisoners of Peace duology, so what was it about The Three-Body Problem that put me off?
Well, Liu’s book belongs to the “hard science fiction” sub-genre, which is characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy. To put it another way, there was too much science in this science-fiction novel for my librarian brain. Hard science isn’t an immediate no for me (I really enjoyed The Martian, I think because it was written with such a sense of humour), but it means a novel has to work harder to appeal to me, by containing a really engaging plot and/or characters who are deep and well fleshed out. I didn’t have that experience with The Three-Body Problem. Physics and math were never strong subjects for me, as evidenced by my Bachelor’s degree in English and my profession as a librarian. For many people who come from STEM-backgrounds, I expect the scientific plausibility will be a selling point rather than a detractor, I’m just not one of those people.
Across all genres, I enjoy reading about interesting, fully fleshed out characters who I can really connect with. Sadly The Three-Body Problem does not offer enough background or depth on its characters to spark a connection. I liked Wang Miao, I was intrigued by Ye Wenjie, and I appreciated Da Shi because his sarcasm and somewhat jerky behaviour at least meant that he had some personality to differentiate him from the other characters, but that was it. Without the emotional connection to characters, the most I could feel was a vague curiosity about three body and the eventual way that events will play out for the human race.
Finally, I found The Three-Body Problem really slow. I think I had read 185 pages in this nearly 400 page book before I felt like I was into it. It is the first book in a series so obviously some leeway is required to set up the world and the action, but I felt like the pacing was uneven throughout. However, it’s not all bad. There were a few things I thought the book did really well, namely:
Trisolaris. The most interesting parts of the book for me were the interludes set in the virtual reality video game world of three body. Liu creates an incredibly interesting and unique world with “chaotic” and “stable” eras, a civilization that continues to rebuild and advance in technology even after facing and being destroyed by various occurrences, and a race who dehydrate themselves in order to survive the volatile chaotic eras. These chapters were among my favourites in the book and I loved hearing about Trisolaris and its inhabitants.
Concept/Themes. It made a lot of sense to me that a character who has experienced tragedy during the Cultural Revolution and who looks around and sees the Cold War tensions of East and West decides that humanity can no longer help itself and needs outside intervention in the form of an alien race. In this day and age where the world seems to get wackier every time I check the news, the concept, while pessimistic, made a lot of sense to me (although I’m skeptical that an extraterrestrial power would be a better option).
Ultimately this just wasn’t the book for me, but I am intrigued enough to see where the story goes next. Honestly if I hadn’t committed to reading the Hugo Best Novel nominees I think I would still pick up the second book in this trilogy, but not for several months. However, I’ll be tracking down a copy and working my way through The Dark Forest in June.