Review: The Three-Body Problem

I received this book as a gift from someone who knows me well and shares my tastes in science fiction. He kept eagerly asking if I’d started it yet, but something about the book held me back. It’s big, it’s translated from Chinese, and has physics and geometry all over the cover. “I’ll read it next,” I kept saying.

Next finally came, and I loved this book. I loved the unexpected ideas, the unusual perspective and the way it made me think about issues large and small. I have a fond spot for stories that give me insights into other parts of the world, and for characters who plausibly behave in ways I cannot imagine myself doing. This book has all that and more.

What I liked best (besides all of the above):

  1. I’m not so big on historical fiction, but the window into China’s cultural revolution of the 60’s was fascinating, and it shows some chilling parallels to the wave of populism currently sweeping the west.
  2. The author allows this tale to develop at it’s own pace. He tells it in a non-linear fashion, going back and forth in time more than once, letting the reader learn more with each visit. This worked well for me and I appreciated the lack of gimmicks often used by other authors to grab and hold the attention of a reader. Cixin Liu has a tale worth telling and he knows it.
  3. The science is amazing, and to the best of my limited knowledge, accurate.
  4. The number of women scientists in this story is unusual and refreshing. I wonder: does this reflect reality in China, or the needs of the story, or the  desire of the author? Why-ever, it was a pleasant plus for me.
  5. I had little appreciation for the challenges of translating such a story, bridging not only the gulf between vastly different languages, but between different perspectives, backgrounds and knowledge of history. The translator, Ken Liu, does an excellent job with subtle, short footnotes intended to provide just enough context to the western reader.
  6. Most significantly, just when I thought there could not possibly be a significantly new variation on a first contact story, this came along. I feel like blurbs on this book already give away too much of the story, so I will only say I’m impressed with the originality of Liu’s approach. It will leave you thinking.

What I didn’t like so much:

  1. Liu doesn’t spend a lot of time inside his character’s heads, showing the reader the emotional motivation for their behavior. This sparseness works, for the most part, but a little more would have been nice.
  2. I said the science is amazing, and it is, but some narrative devices used at the very end pushed my limits of credibility.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes stories that inform while they entertain, and/or books that encourage them to think.

Two personal notes:

  1. Having written d4, a book of my own about the survival of the human race and how our behavior now could impact our fate in a few hundred years, I felt something of a connection with this tale and it probably resulted in my liking this book even more.
  2. I was impressed by both the author and the translator’s postscripts for the American edition at the end of the book. Both were insightful, but this particular passage from the author sticks with me:

But I cannot escape and leave behind reality, just like I cannot leave behind my shadow. Reality brands each of us with its indelible mark. Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.

Yeah. What he said.

After I read the passage above, I would have liked any book the man had written.