Monday, 30 January 2017

Book Review: Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

This novel starts in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and advances to the present day - or, more probably, to the very near future, although this isn’t completely clear. Along with this interesting and - for me - unfamiliar setting, it is a novel of big ideas, science, culture and society (all the things science fiction does best), so I should have loved it.

And it isn’t that is is badly written. There are, indeed, moments of sheer beauty, and I would call the novel a success, but it does fall short. In some ways the book feels like a patchwork from different eras of SF; there are parts reminiscent of ‘Doc’ Smith, Asimov, Silverberg, Stephenson. I particularly thought of this last a few times with Liu’s tendency to elaborate on a scientific idea (such as the titular Three Body Problem) or a technology, and also to expostulate at length.

Much of the novel centres around one of the characters investigating a virtual reality game called Three Body, wherein the players are attempting to define a scientific model for a reality where the days and seasons seem utterly chaotic (although it might seem that the name of the game is a rather obvious clue, given the scientific background of so many of the players). It transpires that this game is actually a recruiting tool by a group of people who are preparing to welcome to Earth an alien civilisation from just such a world. And this is where the book really falls apart; the aliens just aren’t believable. While many of the other shortcomings of the book can be excused - there is a lack of good characterisation, the scientific ideas may break the flow of the story on occasion but are interesting in themselves, the idea that intelligent life could evolve on such a chaotic world are far fetched but no more so than, say, Dragon’s Egg, The aliens themselves entirely lack personality. Worse, their communications are often nothing but the worst sort of exposition and full of metaphors that are so human and 20th century it is entirely jarring.

This is a great shame, as there is so much about the book to admire and enjoy. The details of the Cultural Revolution, and the inviting of the potentially destructive outside force to solve the problems of a humanity that may be considered to be beyond redemption as a mirror for that terrible era. I am very much undecided whether to pick up the next volume.

Nice evening 15k to round off January

 The weather has turned suddenly milder after the recent cold snap, so it made getting out this evening all the easier.

I'd bottled out of running into work after a poor night's sleep so was pleased to find that, after a slow build up through the park, I settled into a comfortable loping rhythm. Out to Clay Wheels Lane then soon beyond the reach of the streetlights into Beeley Woods, the beam of my chest light bobbing ahead of me.

At Oughtibridge I decided to try the climb of Church Road for he first time in a while - not just up to Worrall, but arcing to the right up to Kirk Edge, the road a black line between the Stygian fields.

It's impossible to see the whole of Sheffield from any one point, nestled as it is in the fold of creases of its seven hills and their many valleys, but there are many high vantage points that give the illusion if you don't know better. About half way up the 230 odd metre climb there's a sudden view down this portion of the Don Valley revealed a stunning glimpse of the lights of the city centre and the climb toward Norfolk Park and Sheffield Manor beyond. But at the high point of Kirk Edge Road as I turn south to drop sharply back toward Hillsborough is one of those spots where it is easy to believe that the lights glittering like an armful of gems scattered over rucked black velvet is the whole 370 square kilometres of the city, and all of its 560, 000 citizens, but knowing that there are parts entirely hidden by the cunning folds of the land is part of the city's beauty.

I let gravity take me down the hill, trusting in my chest light and that any traffic coming the other way will be visible a long way off by its own light. I consider taking one of the turns that will drop me down into Loxley Valley higher up by the reservoir but feel the long straight of Loxley Road may be dispiriting if I lose my wind, so compromise by pushing for all I'm worth along the childs'-rollercoaster undulations of Myers Lane and am rewarded with a comfortable PR

More traffic on the drop down Long Lane than on the rest of the night-time roads combined, then onto pavement for the final hop over Wiesewood and home.

A gorgeous bit of night running. I'm sure I wouldn't appreciate it nearly so much in the early hours.

Listening: The Guilty Feminist, & The Infinite Monkey Cage podcasts