The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Every time I read a good science fiction novel, a novel of actual ideas, I experience a shudder of pure, intellectual joy. But those are so few and far between that I instinctively shy away from many, even those critically acclaimed, because there’s no greater reading disappointment for me than a bad sci-fi novel (or even a mediocre one.) This may be Neal Stephenson’s fault: he writes some amazing stuff and then some really dreary prolonged bullshit. Margaret Atwood has the same problem, if one counts the brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale as (dystopian) sci-fi. The Blind Assassin was not great, and the MaddAddam trilogy utterly unreadable. So The Three-Body Problem has long been on my radar but never anything I sought out… till’s terrific idea of giving away a free e-book each month as part of their book club strategy, beginning with this one.

I have a hard time turning down free books, so when I investigated the deal further and read the blurb, holy shit, I had to alert my Ingress book club! Were the blurb to be believed, T3-BP might actually be the Ingress storyline were it well-written. Ingress Book Club loved the idea of it (plus free!) so as soon as I had a break from work reviews, I started reading it. And holy crap, was this exactly what I’d been looking for, both in Ingress and in my general sci-fi reading.

First, the Ingress-related spoiler: Liu Cixin is clearly on the side of the Resistance, which makes me want to high five him. That aside, this is one of the few books I’ve read in recent years that took high-minded scientific concepts and not only explained them in simple terms, but also made them come alive for the reader by making them integral parts of the storyline. That’s fucking genius, you guys. He talks about astrophysics and quantum mechanics like it ain’t no thing, and I only had to track back once (on the unfolding of protons into different dimensions) to fully understand what he was trying to tell me.

And while it was thrilling to read sci-fi so firmly rooted in Scientific Ideas, it was achingly beautiful to have it also come from a very real, very intelligent understanding of history (that was also explained to us readers in a very accessible way: crucial when Chinese history is not something I, at least, am familiar with.) Even more amazing was the psychological aspect. I was completely blown away by his imagining of the alien civilization, especially of the Listener who first intercepted the call. This is one of the few works of sci-fi where I felt that the aliens were depicted less as an exotic “other” culture — essentially a variation on humanity — or as “completely unknowable” than as a genuine extraterrestrial species struggling to survive. The only other examples I can think of have also been depicted as generally helpful to (usually a far-future) humanity. The fact that Mr Liu can evoke such sympathy for an alien race that threatens the annihilation of modern humanity is a breath-taking narrative feat.

I’m kinda hesitant to gush about how refreshing it is to read fiction this good that is set so firmly in a non-Western context. Literature across all genres has become increasingly representative of diverse cultural viewpoints worldwide, but something this intelligent, that could only have been written in this way from this cultural milieu that is so familiar to me (not of Chinese history and culture specifically, but of a general East Asian way of thinking,) makes my heart swell with a pride that I don’t feel when reading other smart, entertaining fiction. It’s almost like a weird form of patriotism. The bff and I are currently having a discussion regarding the dark and humble (as he deems it) tone of the book, which I believe might be rooted in an Asian culture that shuns the exceptionalism of the West. I don’t know how well qualified I am to really get into the nuances, tho, especially since it is the end of a long day and I really want to finish writing this review before bed.

Anyway, really great sci-fi novel of ideas, and I’m super looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

For Laura’s review, click here.

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  1. […] reads like Mr Liu wants to impress with flash instead of substance. A fucking terrible coda to a dazzling first novel and problematic but brilliant […]

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