Synopsis: A secret SETI-equivalent Chinese program makes radio contact with an alien species.
Book Review: The Three-Body Problem starts out with a bang, dropping us right into the middle of China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 60s, from the perspective of a persecuted intellectual. The emotional impact is high, the politics are gripping, and the gradual revelation of a mysterious government program reels you in. Unfortunately, Cixin Liu isn’t able to keep the emotion going once we flash ahead to the modern day. He switches gears to focus on the alien-contact conspiracy and the exploration of a scientific problem, and only halfway pulls it off.
One of the great things about SF, that sets it apart from other genres, is the wonder of discovery. The intellectual excitement of running into a puzzle and working through it via experimentation and deduction. Or the exploration of how a culture would have evolved to handle vastly different circumstances. When Liu sticks to these he does a damn good job! Aside from the Cultural Revolution, the most exciting parts of the book are when we’re being shown the alien’s world and brought through their struggle for survival and quest for knowledge. Unfortunately, this is only one aspect of storytelling, and everything else that goes into making a good SF story seems to be ignored.
For a start, the characters are almost undifferentiatable. The only one who sticks out is the hard-boiled cop. Everyone else is a young, single engineer. It’s worth pointing out that the protagonist is actually a married man with at least one child, and yet he’s written exactly like someone with no family at all. If someone else hadn’t reminded me of the brief scene where his wife and child are introduced I would still be under the impression that he was a single young man. And even the hard-boiled cop is basically just a hard-boiled, sarcastic version of the same character template.
There is no discernable emotion after the Cultural Revolution section. An author isn’t just supposed to show us cool gadgets and interesting puzzles, s/he is supposed to make us feel something. Or at least convince us that someone in the novel is feeling something. The Martian was non-stop puzzle-solving challenges, but the entire time there was a joy to it, or excitement, or some sort of relatable emotion. Three-Body Problem is flat in affect throughout.
The dialog can be taken as an example of this problem. It never feels like the sorts of things real people would actually say to each other (with the occasional exception of the cop, Da Shi). Rather, in almost every case it is little more than a way to give us exposition or tell the plot. It feels like people are being forced into verbalizing info dumps rather than actually interacting with each other, and it’s wooden and awkward.
Finally, there is prodigious amounts of telling-rather-than-showing. As a single example, here’s how the after effects of severe radiation dosing is handled:
“However, like everyone else who remained in the cafeteria after the explosion, Shi suffered severe radiation contamination.”
The entire book is like this. Contrast this to the handling in Leviathan Wakes, where the two characters are shown nearly panicking when their radiation counters go red, grimly joking about it afterwards, and later on we see them taking a cocktail of anti-cancer drugs which they’re informed they’ll have to take regularly for the rest of their lives. It took a few extra paragraphs to show that, and make us feel both the panic of the exposure and the consequences of it. It involved us emotionally with the characters. Liu’s line was little more than an acknowledgment that he knows radiation exists, and added nothing.
I will say that this may be intentional. Perhaps the Chinese style of writing is far more sedate than the American style, and to have characters who feel things is considered crass and readers hate it. This could be considered a fantastic book by Chinese critics, for all I know. But at the risk of being culturally insensitive… I consider this poor fiction. This sort of flat, bad writing – wrapped around an intriguing idea with a great puzzle and fun discovery at its center – is what I think gave SF it’s bad rep waaaaaay back in the day. It is entirely possible to write SF that’s based around a mind-blowing idea with a fantastic puzzle, full of all the wonder of discovery and exploration, while also having a story arc, compelling characters, realistic dialog, strong writing, and emotional resonance with the reader. Sure, it’s a lot harder. But if it was easy everyone would be doing it. Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: The lack of engagement and emotion really hurt this as a Book Club book. Once the puzzle is solved and the mystery is revealed, what is there for readers to discuss? The characters, the emotion, the themes. What we think the author was trying to say. In a story that doesn’t have any of those things, the discussion was a bit forced, and didn’t last very long. Not Recommended.
Puppy Note: This book was not on the Puppy Slate. When I thought to myself “How did this book make it onto the Hugo Ballot?” my first thought was the same uncharitable thought that the Puppies normally have. I thought “This is cultural inclusiveness being taken too far. The liberal thought-leaders want to show they are racially/culturally diverse, and they know that this book is CRAZY popular in China! For it to be so popular among so many readers, it must be fantastic! So let’s make sure it gets a nomination regardless of its merits.” Thus a type of affirmative action – signaling your awesome cultural acceptance and diversity at the cost of nominating a book that would have been much more deserving of the Hugo on its merits.
Except that the Puppy Leaders have come forward to say that they love this book, and would have put it on their slate if they’d known about it!! And I’m like… WHAT THE HELL is going on?? OK, we all already suspect that the Puppies don’t have great taste in SF lit, but if they think this book deserves a nomination on its merits, than perhaps *I* am being a giant, insensitive dick by assuming that only someone with a hidden liberal agenda would nominate this. Obviously people must actually like it. And if I am lumping in the Sad/Rabid Puppies with their hated “SJW” nemesis for picking crap for political reasons, maybe that’s a big flashing sign that says “There is no such thing as the political-reasons voter, and the Puppies were even more wrong that I thought from the very beginning.” Seriously, if I can’t tell you apart from your political rivals based on book selection, I think you’re grasping at straws.
Second, apparently Puppy-approved books can be nominated without the Puppy’s help. In fact, despite their efforts in this case. If the liberal conspiracy you claim is keeping good works down keeps nominating things you like (much like they nominated Correia and Torgerson in the past…) then it might not actually exist.
Third, why the hell hadn’t the Puppy Leadership heard of this book!? I am not very in-touch with the SF community. I have very rarely heard of more than 1 or 2 books that are nominated each year. Yet even I had heard of The Three-Body Problem. If the Hugo Popes deciding what books should be put on the Puppy Slate are so poor at reading the field that they can’t identify and nominate The Three-Body Problem, and have to admit afterwards “Man, I’m glad that made it in, because we love it!” then perhaps they are doing a shit-ass job of being the Hugo Popes and should relegate that job to the SF-reading hive mind again. FFS.