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.

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