Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hard science, hot mess: Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem

I kicked off my reading of the 2015 Hugo nominees with the biggest but also potentially the most pleasurable job - the novels. See here for some thoughts on an overall approach to reviewing the Hugo's in light of this year's controversy.

The Three Body Problem was a late arrival to the Hugo ballot this year, being added after withdrawals due to voting slate politics. 

The work of one of China's most prominent science-fiction writers, Liu Cixin, it is actually nearly ten years old. In 2014, it finally penetrated the cultural myopia of the Anglosphere in translation, and is therefore eligible for a Hugo.

And I'm jolly glad of this, since The Three Body Problem is one of the two stand-out novels on the shortlist, along with the very different The Goblin Emperor. Amid space opera and fantasy (urban and classic flavours) it sticks out like a tall poppy because it is full to the brim of ideas. 

And it's almost impossible to review without spoilers - you have been warned.

Liu mixes astrophysics, the politics of science, the history of the Cultural Revolution, virtual reality and Pynchonesque conspiracy theories to create, well, the hottest mess this side of Philip K Dick. 

The story follows two scientists - one in the present, the other a generation in the past. Wang Miao is reluctantly investigating the suicide of many of his colleagues, at the behest of the military. While in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie is a political prisoner working on a secret space research base who makes a startling discovery.

Both narratives converge on the discovery of alien life on its way to Earth on a mission of conquest - and how humanity reacts. Do we deserve subjugation or even annihilation? Could that be even preferable to what we already do to ourselves? 

And can science save us after all, whether we merit it or not?

Despite its pessimism about homo sapiens, The Three Body Problem is passionate about science as a way of life and mode of thought in a way that you seldom find in science-fiction these days. The shadow of Frankenstein is almost completely and refreshingly absent from its pages. And while an advocate for the other side of the argument might have been wished for rather than the straw man we get, a novel is not obliged to be even handed.

I also found the science - centred around the problem in the title - surprisingly easy to follow. Either my tolerance for physics has increased as I have gotten older, or Liu has done an excellent job of concealing much of the info-dump in a VR game popular with his characters. 

And I know which possibility I find more convincing. :)

What stops The Three Body Problem short of greatness is that it asks too much of the reader's credulity. The present-day story-line in particular is driven by unlikely decisions - starting with asking a scientist to play top secret investigator and then continuing in that vein. Coincidence also plays far too great a role for the novel to be wholly persuasive once the reader has some distance from it.

And yet, having much to say, Liu still overcomes this occasional lack of coherence to create a fascinating piece of work. Late to the party and a trifle untidy The Three Body Problem might be, but it definitely deserves to be centre of attention.

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