I have had some formal training in being a writer, reader, and critic, so I have an appreciation for the skill and creativity that it takes to write a book. However, when I read books, particularly science fiction and fantasy books, I am almost always reading for the pleasure of reading not to just appreciate the skill it took to craft a novel. This brings us to today’s review, the Hugo winner for best book of the year, The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. A book that was really interesting and well written, but was not a lot of fun in my opinion.
The Three-Body Problem is the first entry in an extremely popular science fiction trilogy that was published in China 2008. The first book was translated into English last year, and the second book was just released in English this month. The book follows the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the deep ramifications of that horrific event that echo through the ages when members of the red guard manage to contact alien life in hopes of bringing it to Earth for a variety of reasons. The book simultaneously follows the perspective of a group individuals through the Cultural Revolution leading up to contact, and another group of individuals trying to determine what is going on in the present day. One of the strongest positives of this book right off the bat is that I learned more about China’s history from the first half of this book, and the horrors that many underwent during Mao’s reign, than I did in all of my American schooling. That sentence should scare some people, it certainly scared me, but that is a topic for another time. The book is deep and rich in China’s history and present and weaves it very well into the narrative at all parts of the book.
On the other hand, a distinct con for me was that while China’s history felt very well told, the dialogue in the book did not seem like it translated well from Chinese to English. The translator for the book is Ken Liu, who wrote the Grace of Kings, which had incredibly well written prose; so I feel I can assume that the difficulties in dialogue stem solely from the difficulty of translating full meaning between languages. For example, lots of phrases and reactions felt repeated as subtle differences seemed to be lost as many interactions translated into single lines in English. The pacing of the story was well done, but the character development also seemed to suffer slightly under translating issues for me.
On a different note, the book is incredibly creative and thought provoking and did a great job using real science and science fiction melded together to carry the story along. Then again, I have a degree in physics and I still found myself having to google a few terms and concepts from time to time to understand conversations that were going on. The Three-Body Problem is hard science fiction, and I feel that those who do not enjoy minute details about how the universe functions might be bored out of there minds during some passages. The book is less exciting than it is captivating, bouncing you from incredible idea, to event, to discovery, until you reach the daring climax at the end of the book where things start to get more actiony.
At the end of the day, I can see why people believe this book is the best book of the year, but I am not sure I agree with them. While I definitely will be buying the sequel, I pulled the book from my book club’s schedule for this year because the book does not seem accessible enough for casual readers to enjoy. That is not at all necessarily a bad thing, but it also makes it seem like a strange pick for best book of the year to me. In the end I feel that The Three-Body Problem is a great book for chinese physicists, and a decent read for everyone else.