starlady: (serious business)
[personal profile] starlady
Liu Cixin. The Three-Body Problem. Trans. Ken Liu. New York: Tor Books, 2014.

I was quite excited to read this book, which was a bestseller in China and which is one of the few examples of Chinese-language SF available in English. After giving it the old college try, however (I got to position 173 of 593 in my ebook, or to chapter 9), I had to either give up or face death by boredom. I just don't get the hype, and even beyond that, there are a few things about the book that I actively object to. Here's a problem with ebooks that I discovered reading this one: how to throw across the room in disgust?

Significantly, even the book's huge fans acknowledge that it's didactic, loaded with exposition, and that the protagonist Wang Miao is boring. These charges are all true, but it's not just that Wang Miao is boring--it's that every character with the limited exception of Ye Wenjie is totally two-dimensional and the dialogue is completely flat. Liu is an acknowledged fan of Isaac Asimov, and he re-commits the Golden Age error of thinking that ideas trump character. This was apparently a thing that Golden Age editors told authors, and it's very much a product of its time, i.e. the 1950s when everyone thought the cybernetic age was around the corner and emotions were denigrated as an unneeded aspect of cognition dragging us down. For more about this, read Kate Hayles' book How We Became Posthuman, but suffice it to say, this idea is doubly wrong: emotions and thought are one and the same, people aren't robots, and stories are boring without actual characters. In SF, this was the whole point of New Wave, and given this book I have to wonder how much if any New Wave or later SF has ever made it to China. Evidence indicates that the answer is "little to none."

Now, as well as being damn boring, Liu's Asimovodolatry also means that characters act downright illogically to serve the plot. For instance, Ye Wenjie, the person who would probably win the Least Likely to Ever Procreate award, has a daughter so that Wang Miao can have angst when that daughter kills herself. (He didn't even know her! He is on the next level of ManPain.) Moreover, although the book is ostensibly about science and physics, Liu's ideas about science and physics are strange. The book is weirdly histrionic about classical mechanics, which was superseded by general relativity more than a century ago, and totally dismissive of quantum mechanics even though what it seems like Liu is doing is transposing the uncertainty of quantum mechanics onto the macro scale of classical mechanics. As a consequence, physicists off themselves in job lots because they have Despair Over Science, but their reaction is also totally out of character. If all of physics were invalidated tomorrow, or had been invalidated by the failure to discover the Higgs boson, for example, it would just mean that we need a new theory, and physicists would go about finding it rather than committing mass suicide. You might as well kill yourself because charm quarks and neutrinos exist. Moreover, the idea that we are living in a little unlikely bubble of order and relative lack of entropy amongst the disordered ocean of the cosmos is actually one of the going theories in cosmology, not cause for suicidal despair amongst researchers. WTF.

And finally, if one were trying to find "the limits of science," one by definition could not do it through science. That's just how epistemes (i.e. systems of knowledge) work, and although the question of the limits of science is actually quite interesting epistemologically speaking, you don't need a top secret international consortium of scientists with military and intelligence agency backing to investigate it. Just ask a historian or someone else in the humanities, FFS.

I also think that the book's answer to the "what does God want with a starship" question is unconvincing. What is the payoff for the aliens in conquering the Earth if we're such a terrible species? Why do the aliens have such shitty MMORPG design? Who the fuck would play a game that is so fucking boring even if it did have full-sensory output and feedback? Civ 5 is way more interesting, IJS, partly because it has characters. I also found Liu's afterword and his flat declaration that humanity should unify itself and be terrified of the possible existence of extraterrestrials to be downright weird. That kind of categorical thinking strikes me as very questionable to say the least.

The AV Club's review called the book more anthropological than exciting on account of translator Ken Liu's attributing the book's flaws to the Chinese literary tradition, but for a whole bunch of reasons I think this is a cop-out on Ken Liu's part. (The review is partly boneheaded [the rise of the Party was 40 years before the Cultural Revolution, WTF] but it makes good points overall.) First of all, I don't think the idea that "the Chinese literary tradition" is necessarily didactic, boring, and bereft of characters with emotions really holds water. I am not any kind of expert on every era of Chinese literature, but at the least Lu Xun and the May Fourth Movement were not for characters without emotions, to say nothing of writers I've loved such as Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang) and Han Bangqing. Ken Liu's decision to render Liu Cixin's prose in this sort of flat manner--and even more, to lard an already overly expository text with even more in-text explanation rather than more footnotes--is the kind of mistake I would expect from a very inexperienced translator. Of course translation is a betrayal; if you're going to translate something, you have to decide what purpose your betrayal will serve, and Ken Liu has done the book and English-language readers no favors in his translation choices.

In conclusion: ARGH.

ETA: [personal profile] seekingferret finished the book and has some very interesting remarks on it (including corrections to some of my assumptions).

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-15 13:19 (UTC)
raven: Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, wearing green and red and looking up (Default)
From: [personal profile] raven
Thanks for this. I'd given the first bit of the novel a try and just - I couldn't. I absolutely couldn't get any further. I feel a little bad about it, but less so now I've read this review! :)

Also, I just gave Asimov another try, thinking, goodness, was he that bad? And now, reading the robot stories, which I remember as decently readable from when I was younger, I'm just - no no no, I can't get through this. I'm not sure if it's me or SF who has changed. :P

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-15 16:17 (UTC)
owlectomy: A squashed panda sewing a squashed panda (Default)
From: [personal profile] owlectomy
I tried to start Foundation three or four times as a young teen because it was one of the things you had to read to be an SF fan.

As a result, I have very little patience for arguments about the canon and what you have to read to be an SF fan.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-15 17:13 (UTC)
raven: Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, wearing green and red and looking up (Default)
From: [personal profile] raven
You know, I remembered them as kind of bad on women - but they're so misogynist (like, incandescently, fire-of-a-thousand suns misogynist) that it makes me side-eye when people talk about them as the "canon" (dreadful word!) or whatever. Life is certainly too short. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-15 18:18 (UTC)
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)
From: [personal profile] luzula
I browsed the Foundation series awhile ago and came upon this little gem:

Person A: "How many people do you have at the Foundation?"
Person B: "About x thousand people work here. Oh, and then there are the wives, of course."

Um, yeah.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-15 15:05 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Disappointing to hear. The way Ken Liu talked about this book made it sound like something exciting to see.

I grew up with Asimov and still like him and still defend some parts of the Literature of Ideas pretty regularly (c.f. my review of Beggars in Spain or my summary of Kim Stanley Robinson's lecture at Worldcon), but part of my defense is an insistence that Asimov and some of the other masters of the Golden Age were relatively skilled at building characters compared to their reputation.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-15 16:36 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Yeah, I mean, Stephenson is Post-New Wave, so it's not like he's writing Literature of Ideas in the same way Asimov was, because obviously the New Wave did change the way everyone in the US wrote SF, including the assholes at Baen (and Isaac Asimov, for that matter. Have you read The Gods Themselves? Asimov writing New Wave fiction is fascinating and strange).


KSR is a whole thing. Mars Trilogy is a not-insignificant time commitment that I am glad I made as a teenager with nothing better to do, because I'm not sure I would commit to it now, but it was certainly a reading experience I value. And I've bounced off every other KSR thing I've read except his doctoral thesis, which is a masterful analysis of the short stories of Philip K. Dick, of all people.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-15 18:10 (UTC)
thistleingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thistleingrey
Interesting about KSR's thesis! I've bounced off his Mars trilogy but liked parts of the three California books. (Some parts of each of them, none of them wholeheartedly.) I've also survived Years of Rice and Salt. The one KSR story I can still rec is "Lucky Strike," which SH has reprinted recently. (When I reread it there, the text had a few minor errors--not sure whether those have been corrected.)

I remember finding Gods Themselves really fascinating at thirteen, as nearly the last thing by Asimov I read before running out of library fodder, but I have not tried rereading. Foundation was always a bounce, though I did like parts of the robot books despite everything; I also liked some of his non-fiction essays, and "The Last Question."
Edited (clarity) Date: 2014-12-15 18:11 (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-15 22:19 (UTC)
rachelmanija: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rachelmanija
Beggars in Spain has a really great idea, but I would argue that it also has characters - the original novella is built around a relationship of sisters, and the novel expansion has some pretty interesting additional characters.

I do think that Asimov occasionally managed characters who were memorable as archetypes (as opposed to the realist view of characters as realistic and three-dimensional). Susan Calvin, for instance.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-16 14:34 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
I think even that is less generous to Asimov than it could be. Calvin is not the most dynamic character, but she gets character movement- I, Robot traces her arc from young and insecure scientist to feared and respected at the top of her field, showing how she seized moments to prove to those around her that she and her field were valuable. And in stories like Lenny Asimov gives her a different sort of emotional arc (a sexist one, admittedly).

And some of the heroes and villains of Foundation are richer than that- Bayta Darell, The Mule, Hober Mallow, those are the Asimovian characters who get the greatest depth and humanity, who struggle through psychohistorical Crises and are transformed by them.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-05-04 18:45 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
I'm reading it now and I'm up to about the part where you quit- Chapter 10 or 11, and feeling pretty similar. I'm having a particularly strong sense that this book is betrayed by its translator, a feeling that began literally with the first chapter title, which Liu renders "The Madness Years" even though any sensible fan of Golden Age SF would recognize that Cixin Liu was alluding to Heinlein's "The Crazy Years". And the translator's notes are functionally useless, providing no information not gleanable from context.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-05-06 21:22 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
On the other hand, Wang Miao's angst over the death of Yang Dong dissipates pretty quickly- it was apparently just a plot device to force Wang Miao to meet Ye Wenjie, who is pretty clearly the real protagonist of the novel, and whose angst over the death of Yang Dong is the novel's final emotional note. And some of your other complaints are things that the book does come up with reasonable answers to.

On the whole, having finished the book, I feel it is a good but not brilliant SF novel of ideas. Not worthy of a Hugo, but not a complete disaster.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-15 17:45 (UTC)
futuransky: socialist-realist style mural of Glasgow labor movement (Default)
From: [personal profile] futuransky
Sigh. I have been planning to read this but kind of expecting to dislike it because I never got far into Foundation; I still kind of feel like I should, but this doesn't make me want to!

Re: KSR, I would dearly love to hear your opinion on The Years of Rice and Salt. I enjoyed it but felt as though there was a basic assumption about the temporality of scientific progress that perhaps would not exist without the European/enlightmentment epistemology, but I'm not educated enough in other traditions to know whether that's true.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-15 22:14 (UTC)
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
From: [personal profile] rachelmanija
I got an advance copy of this but hadn't gotten around to it, as though "Chinese sf" interests me "In the tradition of Asimov" does not. I had been hoping it was not actually in the tradition of Asimov, but it sounds like it pretty much is.

If a story is going to be solely about ideas and not about people, those ideas better be mind-blowing. Also, that sort of thing is much more tolerable in the form of a short story rather than a novel. (I have enjoyed soley-idea stories by Ted Chiang and Greg Egan, for instance.)

Three Body Problem

Date: 2017-07-16 18:39 (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Thanks for this. I was so perplexed by the great reviews and Hugo award this book has received. Its characters are so utterly flat and uninteresting. Its science disappoints and its written in a turgid and plodding style. The most interesting part was about the Cultural Revolution. I teach creative writing and if this manuscript came to me I'd be writing copious notes about its problems. This is a great draft of something with promise, at best.

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