Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Three-Body Problem (Cixin Liu)

The Three-Body Problem
(The Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, Book 1)
Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: During the bloody height of China's Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie watched her professor father beaten to death by a fanatical mob. His crime: teaching physics connected to Western thinkers, physics that opposed the "right" ideology of the revolution. As she witnesses more of humanity's hateful, unthinking, destructive behavior during "rehabilitation" labor, she reaches the conclusion that people will only destroy the planet and themselves, a flaw in their very nature for which she sees no cure. Then she is tapped to become part of a secret government project... and everything changes.
Decades later, as a rash of tragedies and suicides sweeps through Earth's scientific elite, nanotechnologist Wang Miao is recruited to help infiltrate their exclusive association to uncover the culprit, if indeed there is one. The infiltration connects Wang to a peculiar VR game called Three-Body, about a distant planet plagued by instability and a civilization seeking a less chaotic homeworld... and also connects him with an aging professor: Ye Wenjie.

REVIEW: This award-winning book, first in a trilogy, is a Chinese best-seller, recently translated for American audiences. The storytelling style bears a certain foreign flavor, not simply with the setting. Mostly, though, this is an Idea book. The characters tend to fade in and out of focus, often existing to talk through or experience high-level physics concepts: the unpredictability of three bodies orbiting each other (well, four, if you count the unfortunate planet caught between three suns, though its comparative mass makes it mostly an insignificant victim), the potential size and power of a single proton if considered as an eleven-dimensional structure, quantum states, and so forth. My eyes glazed during long paragraphs of such talk. I found it somewhat more interesting when dealing with the consequences of those concepts, and the characters, though even the latter could sometimes endure long, dull stretches of minimal plot progression. A few of the themes, particularly the flaw in the common notion that technological development accompanies moral development (not to mention the notion that an outside culture/species will have nothing but Answers to the Problems plaguing a given populace), came across as a little heavy-handed, particularly as the characters once again tended to be constructs to serve those messages. Still, I found myself intrigued, and the Ideas, though far over my head, were shiny to look at. The ending falls somewhere between chilling and grimly hopeful, setting up a trilogy that I doubt I'll follow. All in all, while the style and story aren't my cup of cocoa, The Three-Body Problem should please any reader who likes their science fiction with an extra dose of hard science.
(Personally, the parts I found most interesting were about the Revolution; from the outside, it's easy to see other cultures as monolithic, their histories relatively straightforward, but here the many inner conflicts and schisms come to light. I also couldn't help seeing disturbing parallels between attacks on scientists by political extremists and recent efforts to undermine science and logic by my own Earth-based government... but I digress.)

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