The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Ken Liu, translator)

As the Hugo nomination debacle unfolded, one of the few bright spots was the replacement of Marko Kloos's novel with The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, who is apparently a Big Name in SF in China. This got a good deal of buzz when it was released in the US, and I've sorta-kinda been meaning to read it for a while. Having it move onto the Hugo ballot provided a great excuse to finally crack it open. And given that I wasn't blown away by the other two non-Puppy nominees on the slate, or the one Puppy book that I had already read, I had great hopes this would redeem the category.

Alas, it was not to be. As I've already said on Twitter, I didn't like this book at all, and very nearly gave up halfway through, but it's pretty short, and when I looked for online lot summaries it sounded like there might be some cool setpieces toward the end, so I stuck it out. And, yeah, I probably should've given up.

The problem isn't the concept of the book, which is loaded with cool ideas-- secret societies, scientific conspiracies, alien messages, apparently miraculous events. All of this in a primarily Chinese setting, with the Cultural Revolution as a background. It has fantastic potential.

The problem is that it reads like second-rate Asimov. The characters are incredibly flat, and the key points of the plot are explained in horrible, leaden expository speeches. A lot of the plot turns on scientific ideas, and the speeches where the characters explain science to each other are just excruciatingly awful. The big setpieces toward the end that sounded cool in an online plot summary sounds pretty much the same in the actual book-- like an online plot summary of something that would've been awesome in a different book. And the big reveal at the end is presented in the form of an awful infodump about what is basically comic-book science.

And, you know, as a good squishy liberal, I feel a little guilty about not liking this, because, you know, maybe the style that I really hate is just a characteristic of Chinese storytelling or something, and it's culturally insensitive of me to not appreciate it more, etc. But that only goes so far-- honestly found the science-y exposition intensely awful to read, both in a "human beings don't talk like this" sense and a "that's not how science really works" sense, and there's just no getting past those.

This leaves me in a bit of a bad spot Hugo-wise, because I'm not sure how to vote this. I'm not sufficiently outraged about the concept of slate voting to put the two Puppy nominees below No Award just on principle, and the authors of those aren't the sort of awful people I feel free to No Award just because they're consistently awful (like, say, 80% of the Novella category). I don't think the latest Dresden Files book was worthy of a Hugo, but I certainly enjoyed it more than I enjoyed this, and I might very well like the Kevin Anderson book more than this.

As for the other two non-Puppy books, Ancillary Sword was... fine. It's very much the second book of a trilogy, though, so it wasn't as strikingly original as the first book, and it was kind of lacking in the satisfying ending department. And I gave up halfway through The Goblin Emperor, which I can at least recognize as a very well done example of a kind of thing that would have great appeal to people who aren't me.

So, yeah. Didn't make the voting situation any better.

And now I kind of want to read the new Neal Stephenson book as an antidote, just because the expository bits will probably be the best part of the whole book...

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I really liked The Goblin Emporer. I liked the fact that it was very different from the usual. The main character did not go on any quests or fight enemies either with magic or with swords. Instead, he was suddenly put in a position he never expected to be in due to an air crash, and had to learn how to get things done while dealing with people who didn't like him (or know him) and who he didn't like, and he does that. I found the book very refreshing and encouraging. It was also nice to read a book that was not part of a trilogy or series. So if you have to vote for something, I think you should vote for The Goblin Emperor. I don't vote in the Hugos, myself.

I had much the same reaction as you to the book, albeit a bit more tempered. I found the actual sci-fi plot unoriginal, but I did enjoy the setting in the Cultural Revolution. I suspect to a Chinese reader there's much more meat in the analogy between the Cultural Revolution and the alien society but if so it was lost on me.

By Scott Turner (not verified) on 24 May 2015 #permalink

Interestingly, I spent a half hour to an hour and Barnes and Nobel, before deciding not to buy the book. I did like the cultural revolution stuff, I don't really know much about China culture/history, and enjoy filling in reading holes. But after reading the first few chapters, it just didn't seem to be worth the price of the book.

Thats been by problem with SF for at least the past decade. I grew up on the stuff, but by and large the genre has changed. Of course old fashioned space-techno optimism which has humans flying about the galaxy just doesn't pass the credibility test anymore (physics and engineering being what they are), and without it so many themes just don't make sense anymore. So I've pretty much given up on the genre, the few attempts I've made to find something good, have always come up croppers.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 24 May 2015 #permalink

I see what Goblin Emperor is doing, and why it might really appeal to some people. And as far as I can determine, it's doing a bang-up job of that. Unfortunately, what it's doing is very, very far away from what I want to read. So there's no way I could vote it in the top spot, though I don't think I would put it below No Award.

The Cultural Revolution stuff was, indeed, the best part of The Three-Body Problem, but even that was pretty flat in terms of emotional engagement, at least for me. But even within the book, a few of the principal characters are described as cold and emotionless, so.

I think there's some really excellent SF being produced these days- Robert Charles Wilson continues to write books, last year's William Gibson book was great, Karl Schroeder and Tobias Buckell are publishing fairly regularly, etc. Current tastes strongly favor stuff where the science content is largely metaphorical, though, or even outright fantasy, so the stuff that does the classic SF thing doesn't really make awards lists so much. Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword are very good, though; the former is a very worthy award winner, and while the sequel is a step down, it's not something I'd be unhappy to see take home a rocketship.

I used to use the Hugos as a classic reading list in the days when I could afford to support my two-book-a-day habit in second-hand shops.

Science fiction veered away from my tastes sometime in the late 90s, though there were a few authors and a few books I still enjoyed. I developed a minor residual Fantasy habit, that started when someone recommended the Taltos series.

When you posted about the Hugos incident a while ago, it prompted me to do a bit of searching, and catch up. I never even knew about the Harry Potter incident; Memory was the last book I knew was a Hugo entry.

I started to read Ancillary Sword, but had a hard time persuading myself that I should continue, and thought I might be missing something, so bought Justice. Just finished it last night, but I don't think it will change my mind much.

I was halfway through Skin Game the first evening it was a available to me though, so the others have some catching up to do. But I would like to see some actual Science Fiction on the list that I would enjoy reading.

I registered for a Supporting Membership, and got my packet. Just from the Amazon reviews, The Three-Body Problem is the one I'm pinning my hopes on - even after reading this post. :)

I must say, being able to read a book within minutes of hearing about it never gets old for someone who spent a good portion of his youth thumbing through stacks of used paperbacks.

By CoffeeTime (not verified) on 25 May 2015 #permalink

I'm not looking forward to this book either, because I've never enjoyed modern Chinese books, and I have sorta convinced myself that it's a translation thing. The characters seem flat and there's a glass plane between me and caring about anything. I have different but consistent problems with Palestinian books, and I think that there are translation traditions that push the wrong buttons for me.

On the other hand, I really liked Goblin Emperor, so I don't have concerns about finding something I want to vote for. But after finishing it I did wonder if I'd find books that immersed me in an actual foreign culture as good as this one with its imaginary culture.

By Beth Mitcham (not verified) on 27 May 2015 #permalink

I liked the book a lot, especially the cultural revolution stuff, and I wasn't bothered by the stuff you disliked - hey, it's SF. I thought there was a lot of vivid imagery. Of course the science is bogus, but we already mentioned that.

By Edward Measure (not verified) on 28 May 2015 #permalink