The Three-Body Problem: and a few other problems too, if I’m honest

Ok, I’ve taken the hit so you don’t have to. The rumors about this being oh-so dry? They aren’t lying.

Three-Body started well, with a fascinating glimpse into the crimes against science committed during the Cultural Revolution. It continued well, setting up a mysterious ‘why are our top scientists committing suicide?’ thriller set in the modern day. It’s an interesting cross-cultural experience with the seeds of good characters and interesting stories.

But. Oh, but.

I think the prose style is partly an artefact of culture, not just translation, and I found it awkward in places – simplistic and blunt. Then there’s the tell don’t show narrative (ironic, bouncing from The Guest Cat to this – opposite extremes of the spectrum), which culminates in a full-on cat-stroking, moustache-twirling villain’s monologue at the end.

In between, the interesting characters exhibit some unlikely motivation and behaviour and the storytelling sloooooooows right down as it gets less and less likely. I acknowledge my scientist friends are all Westerners, not Chinese, but I simply don’t buy that any scientist would cheerfully

SPOILER (mouse over to read)
elect to deify some unknown aliens and try to hand over the planet to them.

Ye Wenjie has evidence that it’s a bad idea – that first message! – yet proceeds anyway. The bit where she
SPOILER (mouse ove to read)
casually murders her husband also seemed less than likely, but top marks for commitment to a cause.

Suspension of disbelief warred with concentration lapses as I struggled to the finish.

I do wonder how/if it reflects Chinese impressions of and attitudes to America before the borders opened. Especially the weird assumptions of a benevolent superpower vs the reality of a threatening hegemony (and the reasons the Trisolaran princeps finds Earth threatening – because they are numerous and learn quickly). Liu has said he writes fiction not parables, but there are some parallels that make you wonder.

I think this could be a good book club / group read – there’s plenty to discuss on and off the page, and moral support would help (as would perspectives from people with more knowledge of (astro)physics) and Chinese literature).

Do: read for curiosity value (for which it gains an extra half star – it’s an interesting cross cultural experience, and not all bad), but keep some strong coffee on hand to avoid nodding off. Don’t: read jet lagged. Oops.

NB this is the first in a trilogy – there’s no resolution here, so you’re either in it for the long haul, or (like me) off for the Wikipedia re-cap.


Edit: reservations and whinging aside, I’m glad Three-Body won this year’s Hugo. Partly because the Hugos got stupidly contentious, and I think this is probably a novel both sides can get behind (it’s certainly science and fiction, not social issues), and partly because it’s good to see the Hugo become more international. There’s some really interesting SFF out there not being published in English, and I think it’s wonderful that it’s starting to get translated and win attention worldwide.