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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu - A Book Review

[caption id="attachment_4713" align="alignright" width="316"]Published November 11th 2014 by Tor Books (first published January 1st 2008) original title 三体 (ISBN 0765377063, ISBN13: 9780765377067) Published November 11th 2014 by Tor Books (first published January 1st 2008) original title 三体 (ISBN 0765377063, ISBN13: 9780765377067)[/caption]

This is the first Science Fiction book written by a Chinese author and published in the west I've ever seen. It is a nebula award nominee, and after listening to it I know why. I'd like to share with you what I think makes this book a Nebula contender, and where I think it falls a bit short - or at least where the author perplexed me on why he did a thing that seemed odd and was disconcerting. This could just be my ignorance about Chinese culture, or it could be a flaw in how the book was written. I am not expert enough in either area to say, so I will present it to you so you can make your own conclusion.

To start, here's the publisher's summary. The book was published by Tor Books last year.

With the scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence Day, Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

I've included the first paragraph because I feel it is important. That paragraph sets a high standard for this book to reach. I've read Dune; more than once. And I've seen Independence Day, more than once. After seeing that paragraph I had high expectations of this book. And frankly, I didn't think it could be all that and a bowl of Szechuan sauce. Comparing a book to Dune is most often marketing hyperbole.

So let's address that right now. Does this book have the scope of Dune? The tl;dr is no, it does not. There are no plans within plans within plans. There is political intrigue, but it is set within the confines of well-known and accepted events in Chinese society. It was not extraordinary even though it was well used by the author to set up the main plot. The plot and subplots are straightforward and uncomplicated. At no point in the story could I say, "I didn't see that coming." This is not a bad thing, and I will explain that in a bit. But in the end, The Three-Body Problem does not come close to Dune in complicated character interactions and motivations. There is no feeling of schemes played out over millennia as with the Bene Gesserit attempts to breed the Kwisatz Haderach. There are some really long-range plans to be sure, but not like Dune at all.

Now for the second claim of the introductory paragraph. Does The Three-Body Problem have the commercial action of Independence Day. Short answer - yes. There are very exciting moments about every other chapter it seemed. And there was a variety of excitement, not just the same excitement over and over. Let me explain. In Independence Day, it was all about one thing: fighting the aliens. We fought them in the Sky. We fought them in space. We even fought one in a lab. But it is the same excitement repeated: fight the aliens. In The Three-Body Problem there are four arcs of excitement to my way of thinking. Each one different from the others. Some happened directly because of previous excitement, and others simply made what was to come inevitable. But believe me, it wasn't just fight the aliens; rinse, lather and repeat. So yes, The Three-Body Problem does live up to the second comparison.

Personally the issue I had most with this book is that it seemed like three separate stories threaded together. It was a bit jarring to make the first shift from what I'll call part A to part B. I'd just gotten the characters Cixin Lie had introduced straight in my head when, BLAM, there was a completely different set of characters in a different setting and a different time even. It was very disorienting. But to his credit, Cixin Liu knitted it all back together, though it still seemed more like an afghan than a quilt. But in looking at the title from a different angle, there could be a tie in these these disorienting shifts in time and space. If this is what the author intended... wow; I am not worthy.

Now, let me tell you about what really made me smile while listening to this book: the science. OMG, it was a smorgasbord of the doable, the probably, the theoretical and the wildly speculative. I loved every bit of it. I certainly will not tell you what I specifically loved about it, because figuring those things out for myself was a lot of the enjoyment. But I can say the overall favorable light shown on science, and the overall message about the goodness of science, was incredible. It pleased me greatly as I often feel I live in a culture that is turning its back on science. That said, like any good science fiction there was a point where I most certainly had to suspend my disbelief. But I think it was because I couldn't imagine how that "thing" Cixin Liu just wrote could be, not that it wasn't theoretically possible. There are concepts Cixin Liu explores in this book that are beyond the human ability to comprehend. Seriously. It's like trying to imagine how large the universe really is. No matter how large you can imagine, it's larger than that. If you're a science geek like me, forget everything I've written up to now and keep this paragraph as your only recommendation. You'll not regret it.

That really says something about the research ability of the author and his intelligence. He wouldn't have been able to relate what he described in many scenes without a firm understanding of the science involved. But what about Cixin Liu as a writer? Well, let's go back to the Dune analogy his publisher made. The story might not be up to the scope of Dune, but the characters are more real. That may be because the story mostly takes place in the here and now and I can relate to those people as peers. Nevertheless, I really think it's more than that. Cixin Liu seems to understand people, and his characters benefit from that understanding. Not one character is flawless. I can't point to a single hero. I can't even point at a single villain and say, "It's his fault!" There was no black and white. Even the aliens acted as they did because reasons - good ones. This seems most Chinese to me, and I was pleased to see it played out in this story. It was fresh air in the sometimes stale room of western hero-worship. Don't get me wrong. I love Captain America, but you can't eat red meat every night. Well, I can't at least. If you feel that way too, order The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu and enjoy the variety in your reading diet. When the second book, The Dark Forest, arrives in June I'll be ordering seconds.


  1. I don't know why Tor chooses that plot summary which tells too much about the story. It evens tell you that aliensare coming, which is the most surprising finding in the plot. As Chinese readers, they enjoy much more from the first book I think since they do not know what will happen next and most of them are shocked by the "DO NOT ANSWER" reply from the aliens.
    As a reader who read all three books, I suggest that do not read any plot summary or interview of Cixin Liu before you read the second book. Tor and the author seem to like to talk too much in these advertisement promotions. Cixin Liu is very good at setting surprising but conveicing conclusions during the plot. Therefore, if you start to read his work with nothing known before and find thoses conclusions by yourself with the help of the plot, you will enjoy much much more! I must say the final conclusion often makes me feel dizzy when I read this series.
    May you have fun with three body!

  2. I too dislike spoilers and am put out when publishers do such things. I never look for such descriptions on purpose and should have redacted the spoiler in that summary. However, I must say I did not find the aliens all that much of a surprise. The minute Cixin Liu described Red Coast Base I knew what it had to be. And since this was a science fiction story, I made that leap. I guess I watch too many kill-the-aliens films for that ever to be a surprise. I almost come to expect it in American science fiction. More's the pity. I will certainly take your advice and not ready anything about the next two books. I am looking forward to seeing how the bugs adapt. ;)


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