May 23, 2015

The Hugo Project: "The Three-Body Problem"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many nominees on the 2015 Hugo ballot as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

This is a strange book. It falls into a genre I generally avoid like the plague. It is the hardest of hard science fiction, chock full of physics references, and its entire plot hinges on (if I'm reading this correctly) a real-life physics conundrum called the "Three Body Problem." I usually don't read books like this because I don't understand them; the science hurtles right over my head, and most of the time I find them to be full of infodumps and cardboard characters.

Complicating this particular book is the fact that its author, Cixin Liu, is something of a hero in China and this book is a translation. The translation seems to be very good; there are a few Translator's Notes, which are informative and occasionally amusing, but for the most part the translator does his job and stays out of the book's way. The book is naturally steeped in Chinese culture and history (the Cultural Revolution), and while that is not a bad thing in and of itself, it betrays the book's first problem. It is glacially paced, and for over half the book nothing much seems to happen. I hesitate to condemn this because it simply might be the Chinese style of writing. Also, since this is a hard SF novel, the science needs to be set up and explained for the book to work at all. If your tolerance for this kind of thing is low, just be aware of it.

The characters are...another problem. To put it bluntly, one of the two main characters, Ye Wenjie, comes across as a sociopath. She is damaged by the Cultural Revolution, and seeing her father beaten to death by the Red Guard right before her eyes; but she murders two people in her turn (one of which is her husband) and does not seem to have a smidgen of regret. (Of course, she is also the architect of humans' first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, and since she basically tells said civilization to come here and wipe us out, as humanity is not worth saving, she doesn't seem to have any regrets about that either.) None of the other characters are very distinctive, and it was hard to tell them apart, for me at least. The aliens, the Trisolarians, are even more guilty of this; during the two chapters written from their point of view, the author has a conversation between various Trisolarian higher-ups that goes on for pages, with little or no effort to differentiate who is speaking. As the entire race seems to consist of emotionless authoritarian SOBs who declare they cannot coexist with humans and intend to destroy them, I suppose that's appropriate.

This is an incredibly complex book, and sometimes I felt like I would need some sort of physics degree to understand it. I suppose it would reward additional readings, if one cared to do that. I do not. The best way to put it is that I appreciate the author and respect what he's trying to do, but I do not like his book very much.

On the other hand, I appreciate Ann Leckie and respect the world she has created in Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword; but more than that, I like both books. Love them, in fact.

That's the difference.

The only reason this book is on the Hugo ballot is because of the shenanigans of the Impacted Canines; one of the original slate authors, Marko Kloos, withdrew his nomination, making room for this book. One could argue it should have been on the ballot from the get-go, but at least it didn't get there because of the egomania of Theodore Beale. (I've been trying to ignore that and evaluate each nominee, whether Canine-pooped or not, on its own merits. So far, with only two exceptions, there aren't any.) I've heard rumblings that it has a good chance of winning, and it would be worthy, I guess. But for me, it doesn't hold a candle to Ancillary Sword, and I intend to vote accordingly.

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