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[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 The book is weirdly histrionic about classical mechanics, which was superseded by general relativity more than a century ago, and totally dismissive of quantum mechanics even though what it seems like Liu is doing is transposing the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).
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