RogerBW's Blog

The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin 23 May 2015

2014 translation of 2006 SF from China. In the long shadow of the Cultural Revolution, various people try to work out why scientists are committing suicide.

This is a perversely fascinating book that gains far more interest from the problems it sets up than from the way it resolves them. After a powerful opening in 1967, there's a jump to forty years later when amazing and inexplicable things are happening, but the easy explanations for them end up having strange inconsistencies.

That's a lovely working-up of tension, but then towards the end we get a massive data dump (which nobody we're introduced to has any reason to create) where everything has the most mundane and predictable explanation possible. This wondrous thing is happening because of that dull reason. The characters are also mostly there to be small mysteries: why does she behave in this way? How will he deal with this problem? Oh. Like that. Oh well.

This is a standard problem that I've seen before, particularly in two-part television stories for shows that normally tell a complete story in a single episode. Part one is almost always much better than part two: it's much easier to work up suspense by creating mystery than to unwind that mystery and keep the viewer/reader interested.

There is a great sense of wonder here, but not from any of the characters, who are mostly ciphers and sometimes inconsistent even in their cipherdom. The character who turns out to be something of a villain is much more interesting and complex than the one who occupies the narrative slot assigned to the protagonist. One has to stand for all, and the author's postscript gives something of a clue to this:

In science fiction, humanity is often described as a collective. In this book, a man named "humanity" confronts a disaster, and everything he demonstrates in the face of existence and annihilation undoubtedly has sources in the reality that I experienced.

It's no Last and First Men, but the characters are definitely types more than people. The sense of wonder comes instead from the technology, in particular what is done to some innocent protons; that comes around 90% of the way through the book, in that data-dump I mentioned, but it's well worth it for the weirdness even if it breaks one's sense of plausibility. On the other hand, if they can do that, well, why are they sticking to such minor objectives? They could be doing vastly, vastly more than they are.

Still, the book is an easy read; Ken Liu has done a good job with the translation, with only the occasional infelicity and the slight flatness of tone which often goes with translated works. There are lots of lovely little bits, set pieces, and so on; they just don't fit together very well.

The worst feature for me was the ending: there isn't one. This is the first of a trilogy, but it doesn't tell anything like a complete sub-story. I don't see much likelihood of a re-read, either: the Big Explanation is so all-encompassing, and unexpected, that it doesn't really matter whether or not you spotted the small clues leading up to it.

This is a solid book for sense of wonder, and I'm glad it made it onto the Hugo list after all, but the first half was very much better than the second, and the whole thing suffers from infodumps, poor characterisation and a shaky plot. I'm certainly not feeling any urge to rave about it the way some people have. I'll vote it above No Award, but it's not in serious competition in my mind against Ancillary Sword or The Goblin Emperor. To be followed by The Black Forest (due out in English in July); I may read it but I feel no particular urge to do so.

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