Book Review: The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The 2015 Best Novel Hugo Award is a controversial book.  Some hail it as an excellent work of art, which truly deserves the Hugo award, while others see it as mediocre at best, not deserving the recognition.  I’m part of the latter group.  I found the book to be, for the lack of a better term, childish and naïve.  But as I explore past Hugo winners, I didn’t want to skip this one and would like to say a few paragraphs about this title.

Let’s get the most glaring issue out of the way first.  The Three Body Problem won the Hugo award because some of the best eligible novels, most notably The Martian by Andy Weir, Lock In by John Scalzi and Red Rising by Pierce Brown weren’t even nominated.  In a sense, this turned the book into a victim of high expectations.  I’m being told that the writing and storytelling improves as the trilogy continues, but the next two books did not win the Hugo, so there’s no objective (or at least semi-objective) measure of quality, and so after the disappointing first book I decided to recycle it at a used book store and move on to other authors.

The story takes place in China in various time periods, and in a virtual game.  During the Maoist purges of the Cultural Revolution, one of the main characters, Ye Wenjie, is separated from her parents (her father is killed) and sent to a labor camp.  Through a few misadventures, she ends up at a secret military base, where through a few more accidents and adventures establishes contact with extraterrestrial life, the Trisolarans.  Having suffered throughout her life, Wenjie invites the Trisolarans over to invade Earth and cleanse it from people she doesn’t like.

Fast-forward a few decades to the current time.  Wang Miao, a nanomaterials scientist, thinks he’s getting crazy when he can’t shake the vision of a numerical countdown from his sight and photographs he had taken.  At around that time he is coopted by the authorities to infiltrate a cabal of scientists, which the police believes is responsible for a series of suicides by scientists and various research mishaps.  Miao contacts the group and is told that the countdown would disappear if he stopped his research.  He is also introduced to the online game The Three Body Problem.  Miao starts playing the game and finds it very unique: it takes place on a planet where various natural disasters seem to occur randomly, and the goal of the game is to predict these disasters, so that the population can prepare itself.  Over and over, however, the world and most of its population dies, but every next iteration of the game offers a more advanced world, capable of better computation of coming disasters.

As the story progresses, Miao finds out that the game had been an approximate representation of the world where the Trisolarans live, and where they struggle to survive on an eccentric orbit around three stars.  The game is used to recruit people into an organization that prepares for the invasion as a sort of a fifth column, by sabotaging Earth’s research and thus assuring the dominance of the Trisolarans.  The organization is split into several factions: Wenjie is the leader of one that believes the Trisolarans will purify mankind, while the leader of the other main faction, an American named Mike Evans, is a rabid environmentalist who wants to see mankind wiped out.  The book ends on a cliffhanger, when Evans and his cronies are killed and his computers are searched for data on the Trisolarans, and the true technological capability of the aliens is revealed.

The story may have worked, if Cixin’s writing wasn’t so adolescent and his characters weren’t so unbelievable.  But maybe fixing that wouldn’t be enough: in addition to these two issues, the logical progression of the story is so flawed that even the greatest suspension of disbelief wouldn’t allow for the “what if” question that good fiction literature often elicits.

Let’s start with the characters.  They are all extremely one-dimensional, stereotypical to a fault and largely unbelievable.  Wenjie falls into the unbelievable category.  She is not a bad person: she is someone who thinks she can help humanity with the help of the Trisolarans.  And yet she murders her husband and drives her daughter to suicide.  Another prominent character, the detective Shi Qiang, is an example of a flat stereotype.  He is the gruff, smoking and drinking brute, who doesn’t care who he gets into conflict with, but his superiors tolerate him because he gets things done.  And Miao is the bumbling idiot, dutifully following the path set for him by the Trisolaran supporters, and reporting back to Qiang who draws the appropriate conclusions.  In this, Miao is merely the vehicle through whose eyes we experience the story.

The second issue I’ve had with the book is the writing style.  Translation may be partly responsible for this; the nuances of the Chinese language for the rest.  The latter is an unfounded assumption by me; I have no idea about Chinese, but I can hardly imagine that a Chinese editor would be less strict than a European one.  And yet the English version reads as if it was written by a sixteen-year-old.  This is most evident by the author’s effort to try to explain even the most minute thing and not letting the reader develop any kind of imagination.  In some cases, this becomes absurd, when the author repeats himself several times, in different words, in a clear effort to be understood.  It is as if Cixin doubted his own writing skills and the reader’s powers of imagination.  In other parts, the author makes connections that are not obvious to western readers.

The logical leaps go hand to hand with the adolescent writing style.  Sometimes there are twists that make no sense.  People don’t behave rationally, and often even the most severe mental derangement cannot explain their actions.  The motivations of the antagonists are not clearly explained, and oftentimes I felt that nothing could justify their extreme positions.  The fact that many highly educated people want to see mankind destroyed does not ring believable.

Finally, let me touch on the technology mentioned in this book.  The most prevalent technology is the Three Body Problem game, for which the users must wear a full body VR suit, which includes means to transfer physical sensations from the game to the player.  This, in my opinion, was a clumsy attempt of the author to totally immerse us to a different planet and environment.  Sections of the book that take place in the gaming world can thus be completely discrete, with a set of completely different protagonists, even if we, as readers, are aware that they are associated with real world people.  I found this to be unnecessary.  Neal Stephenson, in his otherwise forgettable Reamde, is using normal PCs and laptops to portray an on-line game, with the same, if not more immersive result for the reader.

The book also offers a trope that I’m a little biased against, because I’m finding it overused: monofilament wire cutting through a boat.  The earliest instance of this idea I could find was in John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, from 1968, and since then I’ve seen the element in a number of books, with varying degrees of success.  Here, the use of the monofilament was at least partially logical, but it didn’t warrant a drawn-out scene I’ve read numerous times elsewhere.

Then there is the Trisolaran technology.  As they say, any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic, and I guess Cixin went for the same effect.  While the Trisolarans plough their way to Earth at 1% of the speed of light and are expected to arrive in over 400 years, they sent ahead a computer the size of a proton, which unfolded itself to cover the entire planet.  This proton is responsible for a number of problems people are facing: from failed large collider experiments, to being driven crazy and eventually killing themselves.  The proton can even alter the amount of cosmic radiation hitting Earth’s surface.  One may wonder that if the Trisolarans had this kind of technology, why they opted to wait for a signal of an advanced civilization instead of exploring their corner of the universe, or why they go through all that subterfuge, if they could wipe out all life on Earth with a few more of such protons.

Overall, I found The Three Body Problem to be an adolescent fairytale at best.  The reading was light, and unlike some other reviewers I appreciated the historical sections from the Cultural Revolution the most, because at least they seemed to be grounded in reality.  The contemporary section was so far-fetched, and the writing style so naïve that I never really got into it.  Having read none of the other Hugo nominees for 2015 yet, I can’t tell whether this book was the best the ballot had to offer, but I’m confident there were several much better books kept off the ballot, which should be on everybody’s reading list for 2014, instead of this one.  I understand The Three Body Problem is becoming a cultural mainstay, with a TV show in the works, but I have no desire to further pursue this story.

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