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.


Calvin said...

This is pretty much how I felt about it, too. It seemed to swerve between Dan Brown-ish conspiricy lit and Baxterian superscience.

I actually have read quite a bit of Chinese novels (in translation, naturally), so some of the florid prose felt normal to me. But it could be disconcerting to the unexperienced reader.

Despite the author's insistence this novel is not a commentary...hard not to read it as (unconsciously) containing it. It begins in the Cultural Revolution, and is chock full of savage betrayals (from people of all cultures--I thought it highly amusing that the American character was such a stiff, shallow stereotype).

Still, like you I enjoyed it and am curious about the next volumes...

William Preston said...

I felt the same way about the author's dismissal of the novel's relevance to Chinese politics--as you say, especially given that, at the plot and character level, it's exactly about those things. Then we see Trisolaran culture, which obviously is meant to mirror the Chinese Communist culture--particularly with its punctuated periods of greatness followed by long fallow periods. Is the author trying to put censors off the scent? It's puzzling.