The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

First book of 2017! And, boding well for times ahead, one causing a lot of interesting discussion… so I’m going to struggle to keep this around the 1000 word rough estimate I aim for, but I shall do my best.

I didn’t know anything about this before I read it, other than it was quite widely well-regarded. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t, because I’m not sure I’d have wanted to read it, had I known more… but would have had to, since it was the book club book for the month, and I wasn’t going to skive. At least this way, my dislike was a surprise. Yeah, it’s a shocker isn’t it? I dislike the SF book. We’re back to this again.

Well, I say that. There were parts of it that I really, really enjoyed. But there were also parts of it that I really, really didn’t. Both aspects were massive tropes of SF as a genre*, but it’s interesting that in this book, some of those tropes were handled in a way that made me actually enjoy them. Particularly, this is the emphasis on “so I found this cool science thing I want to talk about”, rather than plot or characters. As far as I’m concerned, the best bits of the book are where I’m learning about the three-body problem and Alpha Centauri and background radiation and so on. Which is weird for me, but hey, clearly the author is good at sharing ideas. I’ll go with it. What I desperately didn’t enjoy is the fact that, when you do get bits with characters in, the characters are just featureless voids upon which the story is tacked. There’s no humanity to them, no personality or charm. And it’s by far the worst example of that I have ever read, to the point where I am mixing the  characters up because the way they are written, there is absolutely nothing about them which distinguishes one from another, save the names, and I am terrible at remembering names.

And, as I think is pretty obvious from some of my previous posts, this is basically a dealbreaker for me.

Even were it not, there are other issues. The plot is… not the best conceived, if we’re honest. Parts of it are clever and fascinating, particularly those set in the flashbacks of the book… but part of it stray from the weird and futuristic into the plain ridiculous. I  suspect I’m going to remember this as (spoilers) “that book where they cheese-wired a boat in the Panama Canal”. The fact that it’s awkwardly paced doesn’t help either; we get such an intense info-dump at the end of the  book that you can’t help being surprised that it’s over. There’s no buildup to it, it’s just “BAM” and suddenly it all makes sense. And then there are the bits where the author tries to write about interpersonal politics… oh my god no. There’s no subtlety to it. It’s completely artless and as unnaturalistic as it’s possible to be. People just don’t behave like they do in his book. We go from confusion to ardent belief in a new political ideal without the person having much in the way of explanation of it, let alone any of the intervening thoughtful steps. The author clearly knows where he wants events to go, but is having to crowbar his people in to fit into it, because he doesn’t know how to write them so they reach those places on their own. It’s jarring and awkward and artless, and it was a major bar to me enjoying reading it.

Though not the  biggest. I am pretty sure the biggest was the translator. Apparently, he made the deliberate choice to keep the English intensely formal and awkward, to mirror the Chinese. Which is a totally valid decision to make… except that your average English reader won’t know that, and so will just be left with this awful, clunky narrative with dialogue that hurts the soul. I find this particularly odd because he’s an English-language SF author in his own right, and a very well-regarded one (Ken Liu), so presumably he knows what he’s doing… right? And yet.

I’m being quite negative. And in many ways I think it’s warranted, but it’s probably giving the impression I have this book as maybe a… what, 2/10? Definitely not true. I think it’s a solid 5, or 6 if it’s lucky.

And this is because those bits of it which are good, like I mentioned before, where he’s got some exposition about some maths he likes, are genuinely excellent. I lamented that I don’t have the maths background to appreciate some of them. I found myself reading up about dimensions and protons and quantum entanglement… which I still don’t understand in the slightest but hey, I had fun. And there is something really skilful about being able to sell complex scientific ideas to a lay audience and have them genuinely hooked. I cannot praise him enough for those parts. Likewise, the parts of the story set in the Cultural Revolution are fascinating, both for the context which I know nothing about, and for the fact that it is in these parts that any sort of plot realistically happens. Because what we have in the narrative of the present is just the outcomes of the decisions made by Ye in that past. Which renders the modern narrative kind of pointless. No one’s actions have any meaning. They could make completely different choices, and nothing would change. And… I don’t enjoy reading that, it turns out. Whereas the past, where Ye makes decisions and actually acts? Yeah, I’m into that.

It’s not without its flaws, though. Just like the rest of the book, the character of Ye is flat and lifeless, and her decisions sometimes unfathomable and alien to me. I don’t feel for her, like I don’t feel for any of them, and so even though I enjoy her narrative more than most, I still can’t say that I connect with it in any meaningful way.

And that for me is the crux of the problem. The author would be so much more suited, at least in terms of my enjoyment, with just writing about some cool bits of science. I’d read it, I’d be happy, and he’d have achieved what it felt like he set out to do. Whereas here… he’s trying to write a story, he’s trying to build a world and characters and a plot and peril… and it’s not really totally succeeding. Not completely failing, but failing fairly comprehensively. Like a lot of SF, it sacrifices plot and people for the sake of ideas… and I just can’t get behind a novel that doesn’t realise it has to be a novel too. As with Dune, I want to connect with it, but there’s such a complete absence of emotional substance that I can’t, however hard I try.

Apparently the author has won awards in China. I’m perfectly willing to believe that what this means is I’m just the wrong person for this book. And that’s ok, literature in translation is a tricky thing. But if you do translate a book, I guess you have to be prepared to accept that people reading it in translation will never fully access the book you wrote… and so maybe it’ll never be as good. I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure here, because the likelihood of me becoming fluent in Mandarin is… fairly low. But you never know.

I’m glad I read it, even so. Reading outside my comfort zone and outside of my enjoyment is good for me, and, in many ways enjoyable. So there’s that at least.

*So after I read this, I spoke to someone who knows more about Chinese literary tradition than I do (tbh, this group constitutes “nearly everyone” but you know what I mean). As it happens, one of the big things I really disliked about the book, the fact that the characters are essentially characterless, is kind of possibly a thing of Chinese literature in general. While reading, I mostly took it to be part of “slightly poorly written SF”, and that informed a lot of my feelings about the book, so it’s interesting to look back and wonder how my thoughts would have been different had I known in advance. But ultimately, I didn’t know it while I was reading, and set the book into context I knew, rather than trying to guess at what might be causing it when I had no knowledge upon which to base my guesses. Much like a lot of literature in translation, I suspect I just lack the proper context to appreciate how it goes about some of what it does – the lack of individuality and emphasis on inexorable fate rather than directed, character-driven plot – as well as some of the background knowledge to properly appreciate the story. Particularly, I don’t know anything about the Cultural Revolution, and I really really needed to. Sometimes, this doesn’t stop me enjoying a book – like The Night Watch, which is definitely weird and definitely alien to my understanding, but even recognising it as I read, I had fun with that. In particular, The Night Watch shares a sort of… philosophical tone with The Three-Body Problem, but where in the former it just manifests as occasional monologues about communism (which I don’t like, but can easily get past), in this, it’s just… it’s just the whole of the thing. It’s so much a part of the book that you can’t escape it. So if it’s not something you can wholly grasp and get behind, it’s definitely going to hamper your enjoyment, I think.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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