Tuesday, February 16, 2016

2015 Hugo Winner: The Three-Body Problem

Cixin Liu
Completed 1/31/2016, Reviewed 2/1/2016
4 stars

This is the Hugo Winner for 2015.  It’s by the most beloved SF writer in China, translated by Ken Liu, an award winning author himself.  It’s the first of a trilogy that is somewhat reminiscent of “Ender’s Game” and “Contact”.  The novel is fairly complex, with a lot of setup to explain where some of the characters come from and the context of the society in which the search for extraterrestrial life begins in China.  The main plot follows Wang Miao as he tries to infiltrate a scientific organization, the ETO, for the government, and to explain why he is seeing a countdown first on photos he’s taking, then later in his field of vision.  In doing so, he comes across a game called Three Body.  Its primary goal is to figure out how a civilization can survive on a planet that revolves around three suns, a classic physics problem.   Through the game and his contacts within it, he discovers that the world is on a path of destruction abetted by the scientists playing the game.

Overall, the book is quite good, but the science fiction is very hard.  Even though I failed physics in college, I understood the concepts enough that I was able to follow the science heavy plot.  I think having it encapsulated in a game context kept me engrossed in the expositions that would probably be quite terse for many readers. 

But it’s not just the science and the game that make this book.  It’s the history of the effects of the Cultural Revolution on scientists that is really interesting.  The book begins with a famous scientist being publicly humiliated, beaten, and murdered for teaching subversive science.  It is a powerful scene and is almost unbelievable in today’s context.  However, it also calls to mind the anti-science movement running rampant today, and reminds us of how slippery the slope is between ignorance and all out witch hunts. 

The only failing I find in the book is the characterization.  The people are not terribly warm.  Now granted, most of the characters in the book are scientists, and one could argue that it generalizes their behavior.  Instead, I was wondering if it’s a combination of the politics and the culture.  We always see communism in the context of the coldness of the Soviet era.  The people are quiet, stoic, and cynical, as cold as the Russian winter.  Does this also apply to China?  Is it instead, or perhaps also, a cultural thing, the way Chinese fiction is written?  Or is it how Cixin writes?  I don’t really know the answer to any of these, but the questions swirl in my mind as I try to reflect on the characters.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book, but I did.  It was interesting and during the playing of the game, a real page turner.  I give this book four stars out of five, and would be interested in reading the rest of the trilogy.  

1 comment:

  1. Being a scientist and having worked with many Chinese scientists, some of whom survived the culture revolution, I can say that Chinese scientists are not cold. They are like any other scientists - regular geeky people. I'd say the characters in The Three Body Problem are more how Liu writes. Listening to the stories of the cultural revolution that some of my colleagues told, though - scary.