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The Three Body Problem

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

It has been several days since I finished this and I'm still not sure of my opinion. It's not all bad but it is definitely not as good as I had been expecting. It was published in China seven years ago, winning several awards there, and I first heard about it two years ago at LoneStarCon3. At that time, David Brin, Ben Bova and Ken Liu (the English translator, and as far as I know not related to the author) all spoke highly of it. Ken said the US edition was expected by the end of 2013, but for some reason it didn't come out until November 2014, which made it eligible for this year's awards. It has been nominated for just about everything for which it's eligible, including the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, Prometheus and John W. Campbell Memorial. I'm assuming it wasn't published in the UK in time for this year's BSFA (won by Ancillary Sword), so we might expect to see it on that list next year. Brin, Bova and Kim Stanley Robinson, among others, gave it high praise in blurbs on the back of the book. I have to wonder now if authors are paid to do that, or otherwise given incentives from their publishers. Brin and Bova are also published by TOR, but Robinson is not.

UPDATE: The Three Body Problem is the winner of the 2015 Hugo for Best Novel.

Perhaps it's a cultural thing, or a limitation of the translation, but the story is plodding and has little appeal due to flat characters, none of whom are sympathetic nor distinguishable one from the other (with one exception), and all of whom continue to do idiotic things. There are some interesting perspectives on China's Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, but I don't have a clue concerning Liu's opinions of that. One of the main characters' father was killed by the Red Guards, and she lost the honor of "comradeship" and was relegated to menial work, yet later is given a position of trust due to her scientific background. It makes no sense that Ye Wenjie is the only civilian at a military installation, the cover story for which is that it's a radar surveillance post, but in truth is China's version of SETI. Liu wants us to believe that she was trusted enough to have full access to both the receiving and transmitting antennas and computers, and that she just happened to be the one to spot a message from an alien civilization, sent a reply message, and was able to keep it a secret from everyone else on the base. I won't spoil another thing she got away with, because it was equally ludicrous.

Some of the science within the fiction is interesting, but I doubt much of it is realistic. We've learned a lot about exo-planets over the past few years, but I am sure there has been no speculation of habitable planets in the three-star Centauri system, which happens to be the closest to us. I can forgive the depiction of the aliens as anthropomorphic since all of that information is revealed in a computer game called Three Body, and that game had been developed by humans, albeit through information they received from Trisolaris, the last remaining planet in the Centauri system. The book's title refers to both the classical physics problem of plotting the relative motions of three distinct bodies (or particles), but also to the problem facing Trisolaris as it suffers long chaotic periods due to its erratic orbit(s) around three different stars. The game was perhaps devised as a way for Earth to help solve the problem for them, so that Trisolaris could accurately predict when the darkest of those times would occur. However, once contact with Earth is established, Trisolaris becomes envious of a planet with a stable orbit around just one star, and launches an expedition toward Earth.

A cult-like religion has developed on Earth, started by Ye Wenjie and an ex-patriate American, the basic tenet of which seems to be that humans are corrupt and expendable, and that Trisolarans will be Earth's saviors. I suppose if you hate yourself and your species that much you might find such an idea palatable, but count me out. Liu doesn't make it clear which side he's on or which character is the protagonist. Perhaps its Wang Miao, a researcher in nano-materials, but he isn't sympathetic either. He gets caught up in the Three Body game and even thinks he may have a solution, but since he's an engineer and not a physicist no one seems to value his opinion. The only one I could relate to was Shi Qiang, a police detective, although he has a very volatile and unpredictable personality, and I never understood how he got involved in the military investigation of the cult.

Another limitation of the book is it's just the first in a trilogy, the second of which comes out in the US in August. All three have been published in China, and even though they have all sold well and received glowing reviews, there is one review on Amazon from someone from China that says they are all overrated and that the first was the best of the group. I'm not sure how much of a time jump there will be in The Dark Forest, but the Trisolaran fleet will not reach the solar system for about four hundred years. If the second book is also nominated next year I guess I'll read it, but I'm not looking forward to it.


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Cixin Liu
(English translation
by Ken Liu)

2008 (China)
2014 (US)

Winner of:
Kurd Lasswitz Preis

Finalist for:
Campbell Memorial

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