Thursday, May 21, 2015

Reviews: The Three Body Problem

“We understand the historical significance of the pendulum.  It’s intended to hypnotize God.  But now we know it’s better for Trisolaran civilization to have God awake, because God is now blessing us.”
(Minor spoilers ahead).  In Chinese author Cixin Liu’s Postscript to his amazing and fascinating The Three Body Problem, he talks about what first drew him to science fiction.  So of course this got me thinking about the same thing.  Why was I so taken and mesmerized by it?  Like many people, it was this: most of the stories I enjoyed shattered the current “reality” and spun tales about fantastic people and events that defied what was commonly accepted on almost every level: science was not “constant” and shown to be in flux, religion and faith were questioned (A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Sparrow), gender roles were examined (The Left Hand of Darkness), sex was actually discussed (Dahlgren, anyone?), anything that was “approved” by the status quo was picked apart and you were forced to ask yourself if the current given wisdom was really so wise.  Of course there were exceptions to this: Doc Smith space operas and others of this ilk were also favorites, but the real adventure was in the unexpected and obtuse ideas that sought to shatter the comfortable beliefs of the time.  And I would be negligent if I didn’t mention Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions books (are they even in print now?), wherein he specifically asked the popular authors of the day to pursue a different approach to the genre.

Another aspect of this book that I absolutely loved was the depiction of the “aliens”.  I was spoiled early in my sic fi reading by Isaac Asimov’s novel The Gods Themselves (Hugo and Nebula winner for 1973).  The depiction of aliens in this book is so odd and non-human and breathtakingly “alien” that seeing “humanoid” space creatures has ever since been very disappointing (though how the 3BP aliens look is not explained; they may in fact look like us!?).  And seeing the alien world described in their terms was, as far as I know, groundbreaking, and something that others should certainly try to emulate, as Cixin does.

So I want to be challenged and I want to be thrilled and amazed.  3BP started out slow for me, but by midway through, I was hooked, and by the end, I was flabbergasted and actually anxious for the next volume.  Cixin lays his initial groundwork well, giving enough information to make the characters’ actions, especially protagonist Ye Wenjie, understandable.  The book proceeds in some back and forth time shifts, but it’s handled adeptly.  The time spent in the video game was fascinating and reminded me of a book I had just finished a couple months ago, Ernest Cliine’s Ready Player One, which as a confirmed non-gamer I was sure I’d dislike, and which totally surprised and delighted me and now I’m recommending it to you.  The “gaming” in 3BP is completely different from RPO and what I understand most gaming to be, but remarkably different and for reasons that are revealed as we proceed.  Discussion of the actual scientific three body problem occurs in the game and outside it, and is very interesting and well handled.  

Oh, and there’s something else I look for in every book I read, genre or not: how “well” is it written?  Do the sentences and paragraphs sing with beauty?  Can I stop reading, MUST I stop reading, to linger on a combination of words that approach poetry?  Well, this is a whole other discussion.  In the first place, is this even fair with regards to genre?  I happen to think it is; we could probably all point to works in the mystery field that fall in this category.  (Question: can anyone recommend to me a sci fi novel that fits this description?)  In the second place, 3BP is a translation from Chinese, so there are some challenges there, though I must say that I believe translator Ken Liu did a magnificent job (as far as I can tell!?) and that his footnotes throughout and postscript at the end were invaluable.  3BP doesn’t “sing”, but it doesn’t have to: its narrative and imaginative strengths propel it to a very high place on my personal top sci fi novels list.  I can’t imagine any other nominee this year being better; the bar already seems too high.  Recommended to any and all sci fi readers, and to others who aren’t afraid to embrace imagination.    

- William Fuller

Don't miss the other review of this book.

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