Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oh, it's a trilogy: THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, Liu Cixin

 . . . or, rather, if you're looking for it on Amazon or in a bookstore, it's by Cixin Liu.

The Three-Body Problem combines politics, international skulduggery, serious physics, computer gaming, and a first-contact event in ways that alternate between creative and clunky. Not only the plot, but the characters and the writing, too, shift from profundity to something that reads like middle-school fan fiction. A penultimate section of the book, containing information that no one in the book should reasonably possess, seems to have been separately imagined and composed, a physics-laden, high-minded space opera that might have been the seed for the rest of the novel . . . or not.

If you're an SF reader, you'll certainly enjoy much of the book, which throws together a host of ideas and which, at least to this layperson, takes its science seriously. That it is a work originally in Chinese, planted in a culture unfamiliar to most American readers, gives it a refreshingly unfamiliar shape—mostly. The Cultural Revolution gives impetus to some characters' actions, but some characters seem to have walked out of Hollywood central casting. Several thought-provoking concepts—political, moral, ecological—lie at the heart of the story, but several truly dumb ideas also propel the plot. Some dialogue is fine, but some is unspeakably bad, the kind of thing one imagines hearing in Communist propaganda films—long-winded, discursive speech no one would say and no one would tolerate hearing. The game that's so important to the novel—a vivid world that fails to prosper in its chaotic three-sun system—doesn't coherently connect with the larger story (obviously, the writer thinks it does, but I found it unconvincing) and also proves disappointing by being more literal than metaphorical in its purposes.

The central character, a woman who, as a young girl, saw her physicist father killed for the sake of the revolution, is compelling, though she leaves the stage quite often, and the characters who displace her never take on the same heft.

The first book in a trilogy (I didn't know this until I'd finished it), the novel can nevertheless stand on its own—unless you're hoping the author is aiming for a happier ending in the long run.