The Three-Body Problem

The ascension of geek culture in the United States has meant that long marginalized genres like Science Fiction have become more acceptable, or at least tolerated. Ironically, this acknowledgement from the literary mainstream seems to be part of the current culture war, what with Sad Puppies whining about message fiction and anti-puppies trying to counter the surprisingly successful efforts to return SF to the gutter (as it were). While many have cast this as a political issue, and there certainly is a political component, I’ve always thought that Eric S. Raymond’s analysis of the situation, based more on the qualities of literary fiction, was more cogent:

Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.

Into this weary situation comes The Three-Body Problem, by China’s most popular science-fiction writer Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu, no relation). In China, the situation is somewhat different. After decades in which Chinese SF was subject to the whims of Communist Party rule, first as a way to “popularizing science for socialist purposes”, then as a pariah that was “promoting decadent capitalist elements”, it appears that SF is on the rise again. Liu has capitalized on the rising sentiment, and his most popular books are now getting translated and generating buzz amongst SF fandom.

Liu’s work is often described in terms of Golden Age SF, and in particular, the work of Arthur C. Clarke. At first, I was not sure if this book would be living up to that promise. There was a great deal of time and attention placed on cultural forces acting on science towards the beginning of the book (in particular, Liu spends a fair amount of time with the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s). Then there are some interesting, but seemingly not SF occurrences, such as a scientist who notices a number in his photographs. It appears to be a countdown, but he cannot account for how the number is appearing or what it is counting down to. There are a host of other, seemingly impossible events. There is a video game that is oddly hallucinatory and difficult to get through. And so on…

It turns out that this is all window dressing. The historical bits set the scene, the seemingly impossible occurrences generate a crisis amongst Earth scientists, and the video game holds the key to explaining what is going on. This episodic and oddly disjointed setup starts to click at some point, and the pieces start to fall together. Sometimes, it’s a little clunky or overwrought, but it comes together well in the end.

At its heart, it’s a first contact story, and if you’re familiar with those, you know that fiction rarely shies away from the inherent possibilities for conflict there. It was again a bit worrying at the start, because one of the main factions on earth are people who want the aliens to come to our planet because they don’t think the human race is worthy of existence (or something along those pessimistic lines), but it seems clear that this is not where the series is going, it’s just part of a lengthy setup. The aliens themselves are rather interesting, existing in a Tri-Solar system (one of a few references to the titular “three bodies”), a wildly unpredictable state of affairs that has guided their evolution and frequently destroys their civilizations (when, for example, two or three of the suns are in certain configuration, the planet becomes, shall we say, unsuitable to life.)

This is all a bit unconventional from a Western point of view, and why wouldn’t it be? It’s also one of the things that makes this an interesting book to grapple with. From a plot or character standpoint, it feels a bit lacking, but there are many rich thematic elements that one could explore here. These basically come down to competition and disruption. The conflict between civilizations at this book’s core could easily be applied to more mundane struggles, from industrial competition, to the rise of China in relation to the West. Disruption is a key element of business, creating and/or destroying markets, often through the use of technology. It is how people react to such disruptions that are the point, and the rival factions on earth reacting to the coming Aliens is a good example.

There are some fantastical elements that threaten to break it away from SF, especially earlier in the book. As mentioned above, these do come together well enough in the end, though Liu’s cleverness is in the way he sets it up. The early, nearly complete lack of realism sets a point of reference such that, when Liu does get around to explaining why these things are happening, it feels acceptable even though it’s mostly hokum. Chaos Horizon explains it well:

While some of the scientific sections are sound, others are deliberately exaggerated. Near the end, there’s a bravura sequence where an alien civilization “unravels” a proton from 11 dimensions to 1, 2, and 3 dimensions, and then inscribes some sort of computer on that seemingly miniscule space. It’s one of the most fascinating pieces of bullshit I’ve read in years, but it is bullshit nonetheless.

Fascinating bullshit, indeed. I was more than willing to go with it.

This being the first book in a trilogy, little is resolved in the end, though it does finish on a positive note and it leaves you wanting more. The next volume is scheduled to be published next year, and I’m greatly looking forward to it, which says a lot.

I read this earlier in the year as part of my Hugo Award coverage. It came out late last year and was steadily building steam, and once it was nominated for a Nebula award, I thought I should check it out. I’m glad I did, and it made my Hugo ballot, but once the official nominees were released (and this book wasn’t on their), I kinda scuttled doing a full review. However, since this year’s Hugo awards are so weirdly contentious, one of the Best Novel nominees dropped out of the race. I’m not sure if this is unprecedented or not, but it’s highly unlikely nonetheless (authors often refuse their nomination, but are given a chance to do so before the finalists are announced – this situation where an author sees the lay of the year’s Hugo land and simply opts out was surprising) and many were expecting this to mean that the Best Novel category would only include 4 nominees. After all, adding the next most popular nominee would tell everyone who got the least nominating votes (info that is only published after the awards are handed out) and honestly, given the current situation, this precedent seems ripe for abuse. Nevertheless, the Hugo administrators opted to fill the open slot with The Three-Body Problem (a non-Puppy nominee, though from what I’ve seen, the Puppies seem to really enjoy this book). From left off the ballot to potential winner, quite a turn of events. Of the two nominees I’ve read, this is clearly ahead and could possibly take my number 1 vote. It is a bit of an odd duck, but I quite enjoyed it.

4 thoughts on “The Three-Body Problem”

  1. scepticsmiscellanea

    Slightly off topic, but I was wondering how you plan to handle the best novel nomination of ‘Skin Game’ by Jim Butcher? It’s book 15 of the Dresden files, and I am pretty sure you mentioned before that you started the series but were not too enamoured of it. I personally love these books, but part of the reason I enjoy them so much is the continuous development of the characters as well as a branching, twisty and often quite unpredictable plot that Butcher has been developing over the last 10 or so books. While he always provides a bit of a flashback/summary in the first few chapters (which is quite helpful even to regular readers) I am pretty certain that reading just book 15 is not going to have the same impact.

  2. I’ve read three Dresden books, enjoyed two, and hated one (the second one, with the werewolves), so at least I have a base to start from.

    I’m sure it matters a lot less, but I also watched the TV show back in the day. From what I’ve read, there are many (many!) differences, but I feel like I got a handle on a few characters there (particularly Murphy) and some episodes seem like shortened versions of the books (the first two books seemed to be single episodes of the series). It’s probably heresy to say this, but I really enjoyed that series and wished it had a chance to go multiple seasons…

    In the end, I simply won’t have enough time to read all the Dresden books leading up to 15… I plan on giving it a read, but if it really does depend on earlier books, well, I’m afraid I won’t enjoy it so much.

    I assume the same is true of the Vorkosigan series – Cryoburn and Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (both nominees in the past 5 or so years) aren’t at the top of the series, but they’re also better when you have a background with the characters. At least they are standalone, though.

    Do you know if Skin Game is standalone?

  3. scepticsmiscellanea

    Er, no, I would say not – especially compared to the Vorkosigan Saga (You yourself wrote how one could start that series in all sorts of places and still enjoy it). At least… that’s the impression I got, but it’s sometimes difficult to judge. Skin game tells a relatively self-contained story but of the main dozen or so characters, only one is introduced in this book. The personalities and motivations of the others are largely dependent on previous books (and I do mean bookS – some of the cast haven’t really featured in the last few, and one of them is a callback from six books ago). My guess is that it will be difficult to get into it – but maybe I am being too pessimistic. Let us know what you thought of it 🙂

    Incidentally, if Skin Game even remotely appeals, I would try and go back and give the series another go – you are over the hump of bad writing as it were (the werewolf/Loup-Garoux infodumps being probably the worst writing of the series), and even though the series continues to be quite uneven, it does hit some pretty high highs (although I found that it never quite manages a run of great books like the Vorkosigan saga does).

  4. Well that’s no fun. I’ll certainly give it a shot, but it sounds like the sort of thing I might have to give up on… This has always been one of the challenging things about the Hugos – books in a series are a problem when you haven’t read the previous books.

    I’ve definitely not given up on the series, it’s just not particularly high on my priority list. I always seem to come to it when I get burned out on SF and want something a little more fantasy oriented… It also makes good audio-book fodder for me…

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