Book review of The Three-Body Problem…

(Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem, Tor, 2006)

I’ll admit it: I struggled through this Hugo Award winner. It’s a cross between a physics textbook; a historical account of China, including the Cultural Revolution; and a story about first contact.

The physics is a bit much for the average sci-fi reader perhaps, especially for those who think Star Wars, Star Trek, and other Hollywood gruel are real sci-fi. The history is more interesting. I feel I don’t know enough about China. Books like this one, Ludlum’s third Bourne novel (and not the third movie!), and The First Excellence by Donna Carrick, represent good ways to understand Chinese history and modern culture via fiction. First contact is overdone in the sci-fi literature (perhaps Asimov was smart to avoid ETs altogether in his Foundation series), and this book offers few novelties.

I can’t refrain from commenting on the title. The Centauri star system has achieved some notoriety lately because there’s an Earth-sized planet orbiting the red dwarf Proxima (the usual extra-solar planets are Jovian-sized). Obviously the author didn’t know about this planet when he wrote his book, but any inhabitants of that planet might be interested in exact solutions to the three-body problem because the “suns” in their sky form such a system. Beyond that, the mysticism that shrouds the three-body system in this novel is unwarranted because the Centauri three-star system has been stable for millions of years.

The end of the book leans more to Harry Potter-like fantasy than hard sci-fi. Unfolding a proton and etching integrated circuits on its surface is a story that Harry’s house dwarf might dream up (if the author knew anything about science, that is). It’s a silly extrapolation, if it can even be called that. And it’s definitely not good sci-fi.

The climax is too long coming. The description of the two camps of human thought about how to deal with the ETs is too. I’d say 70% of the book is how one woman dealt with and had her little victories against the Cultural Revolution; there’s very little sci-fi beyond the fact that she and her father were physicists. That’s about 270 pages out of 390 before the reader even gets to the point.

The usual sci-fi story elements are missing: fast-moving plot (there’s not much world-building here, so why is it so slow?); interesting characters (I don’t like any of them); strange settings (OK, there are foreign and interesting ones, but I wouldn’t call them all that strange, except for the fantasy home of the Centaurians, and you can’t tell them apart from those in a computer game); and so forth. The author also spends too much time writing about a computer game. I’m just not into them because they’re a waste of time, but this one is used to subvert and convert and recruit intellectuals to further the ambitions of the main character (hard to tell whether she’s protagonist or antagonist, by the way). Maybe you like computer games. If that’ the case, you’ll maybe like some of this book.

I kept thinking as I read, “Hey, Steve, this is a Hugo winner. It must get better.” It never did–not for me. I found it to be a slog. Maybe the Hugo judges were trying to achieve some rapprochement with China? For me, Hugo has been slipping the last two decades. This one was a major slip-up (I previously tried to read another Hugo winner, one I couldn’t even finish, so I didn’t review it).

This is the first book in a trilogy. I won’t be reading the two remaining ones. That’s my cultural revolution against Hugo as much as this author.


Rembrandt’s Angel (a mystery/thriller from Penmore Press). To what lengths would you go to recover a stolen masterpiece? Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Inspector Esther Brookstone goes the extra mile. She and paramour/sidekick Bastiann van Coevorden, an Interpol agent, set out to outwit the dealers of stolen art and recover “An Angel with Titus’ Features,” a Rembrandt painting stolen by the Nazis in World War Two. Their efforts lead to much more, as they uncover an international conspiracy that threatens Europe. During their dangerous adventures, their relationship solidifies and becomes a full-blown romance. This book is available in ebook format at Amazon and at Smashwords and its affiliate retailers. It’s available as a print version at Amazon, B&N, or your favorite bookstore (if not there, ask for it). Happy reading!

In libris libertas…

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