Sunday, July 26, 2015

Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Translated by Ken Liu)
English Publication: Tor, 2014
Series: Book 1 of the Three-Body Trilogy
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Campbell, Locus SF and Prometheus Awards
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

“Ye Wenjie lived through China’s Cultural Revolution, and the acts she witnessed have destroyed her faith in humanity.  She found political safety in a secret military project, but it was also there that she committed her ultimate act of betrayal.

Years later, the world is involved in a secret war, and some of the first casualties are scientists who have taken their own lives.  Nanomaterials engineer Wang Miao is pulled into the command center, but is initially provided with very little information about their enemies or even their methods of attack.  The truth may be found through a strange game, known as Three Body, which immerses the player in a world where the usual patterns of day and night are seemingly unpredictable and deadly.” ~Allie  

The Three Body Problem is the first book I’ve read by Cixin Liu, and I believe it is his first work translated into English.  I don’t seem to be capable of talking about The Three Body Problem without including lots of spoilers, so the review below will be full of them. If you don’t want spoilers, skip to the summary paragraph.

My Thoughts:

The Three Body Problem is an interesting take on a classic science fiction story, that of first contact with an alien civilization.  The build-up to revealing the first contact, though, makes up a large portion of the book.  Instead of focusing on the aliens themselves, the novel examines more closely the effect their existence would have on humanity.  For instance, Ye Wenjie no longer has faith in humanity, so she chooses to have faith instead in an unknown alien race.  She is not the only one who does so. While the aliens are not present, the characters are able to gain some understanding of them through the enigmatic Three Body game, which presents how life and civilization might develop in a chaotic (tri-solar) system. I enjoyed all of the scientific and philosophical discussions that arose from these ideas, and I was also intrigued by the apparent breakdown of fundamental physics that made up the central mystery of the novel.

As you might guess, the story is more idea-driven than character- or plot-driven.  There were long stretches, especially within the game, which primarily exist for the introduction and explanation of various ideas about society and physics. Even when the resolution of the novel arrives, the information is given to the characters through documents, discussion, and lecture.  The information could sometimes be a little dry, and the sense of distance I felt from the characters did not help.  The main protagonist, Wang Miao, is mostly a passive observer, existing to witness events and contemplate them.  Ye Wenjie was much more complicated, and I was shocked by some of her actions.  Even with Wenjie, though, I felt like I was watching the characters from the outside.  Still, I was sufficiently interested in the ideas presented that I was always eager to return to reading.

When the secret behind the central mystery was revealed, it was a bit of a letdown for me. While a few of the scientific ideas are pretty farfetched, I enjoyed that most of the novel seemed to have a pretty reasonable idea of the process of science. The early hints in the story led me to believe that the problem leading scientists to suicide was going to be one of fundamental science.  Instead, the story moves into a fever dream of particle physics, and the final conclusion is basically “near-omniscient, near-omnipotent beings did it”.  I was expecting an answer a little more grounded in science, and instead it felt like everything was laid at the feet of an essentially supernatural external influence. Despite this, I am curious to see where the story will go from here.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Three Body Problem takes an interesting perspective on a familiar science fiction story, with an interesting focus on science and philosophy.  The involvement with China’s Cultural Revolution brought to life a period of Chinese history with which I am only passing familiar, and I was fascinated by the look into such a different social and political landscape. I also enjoyed the focus on physics, particularly on the attempts to solve the three body problem itself, and the way the implications of that problem were wound through the novel. Though I thought that the main characters seemed a little distant and the conclusion was somewhat disappointing, I am curious to see where the trilogy will go next.

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