Wednesday, 12 July 2017

book review: The Three-Body Problem

Cixin Liu.
The Three-Body Problem.
Head of Zeus. 2015

Ye Wenjie watches from hiding as four teenaged Red Guards beat her father to death during a show trial at the height of the Cultural Revolution. This experience underpins a decision she makes many years later, a decision that indirectly leads to the suicides of many physicists, her daughter included, and will soon impact every person on earth. In the present day, Wang Miao encounters a strangely addictive full-immersion computer game called “Three Body”, which may hold the clue to the suicides, and other inexplicable events.

This is a peculiarly uneven book. The setting, both in the past and the present day, is richly drawn. But all the characters seem either very flat or completely over the top, and surprisingly incurious, even those who are supposed to be investigators. Some of their actions seemed to be purely to allow info-dumping. The alien world of the game is interesting, but the degree of immersion is implausible: why would anyone actually play it?

I don’t know how much of this is due to the translation, how much to the original, and how much to a different cultural style that I am unfamiliar with. Yet there are peculiar translator’s notes in places. I expect maybe the odd note to explain something that doesn’t translate (Hofstadter has a lot to say about issues that face translation across cultures), but there are also notes explaining some of the physics, which seems outside the job spec. There’s even at one point an author’s note explaining a point of physics: infodump via footnote!

Don’t get me wrong. There are lovely touches, like an incident precisely paralleling an earlier one: Ye Wenjie isn’t the only one to make a fateful decision. The scene of stopping the ship in the Panama canal will stay with me for a while. And the solution described in the final part, explaining all the earlier weirdnesses, fully encompasses the reason I read SF. I will be reading the next in the trilogy to find out what happens next.

Oh, but I just have to say it; sorry. The computer game “Three Body” involves the chaotic orbit of a planet around its three suns. Which is, of course, the four-body problem.

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