DATE: Tue 16 Mar 2021 By:

The Three Body Problem by Lui Cixin

A well written yet ultimately boring stroll.

As you may remember I read the third in the ‘Three Body Problem’ series first due to some “I’m an idiot” but enjoyed it a great deal anyway. I had to have a cool-off period where I read some more of the highly enjoyable but terrible Emerilia series (I have ranted about this a few times here) and a John Scalzi short or two. Eventually though the urge to read more heavy stuff struck me. As I predicted I reached for another hit of Three-Body-goodness.

As expected this work was of a remarkably high quality. Excellent writing and elegant enough story telling right from the first line. Really, this is a solidly written novel. It meanders between some evens of the ’60s and present day without seeming like annoying flash backs. The story has very little in the way of action and feels closer to a mystery novel than it does a science fiction work. Its problems are not in the writing as much as the characterisations.

Much like when I wrote about the third in the series I have no intention of getting into the minutia of the plot, because I literally can’t do justice to it. What I do feel like I should say is that this is a story with very few characters, its slow and its melancholy. It follows the events that lead to an alien race discovering the earth and the resulting cogs that are set in motion.

The story is small in scale and really follows one scientist and a police officer as they discover the truths of the situation, as part of a “task force” that is trying to make sense of things. The scope of the events is really the meat of the story. There is also another scientist who worked with a radio telescope/antenna in the 60s is plays a pivotal position in the unfolding of the events in the present day. The way in which her actions of the past are merged with the current timeline portion is surgically done by Lui Cixin, a wonderful bit of storytelling that doesn’t spoon feed the reader even a little bit.

Within the story there is a virtual reality game being played called “The three Body Problem” that seemingly nonsensically tackles mathematic problems and cultural shifts. The point of the game is to solve the problem of the game world’s calendar. The planet is orbiting three suns and because of this day, night and seasons are seemingly random with “chaotic” and “stable” periods that being and end without warning. During a chaotic era the sun may burn whatever it touches or the world could freeze. The civilizations of the game rise and fall between gameplay sessions. The player is expected to use the information of the environment as well as the past to predict the future in the form of a reliable calendar. As a story telling device it works, which is a good thing because a massive amount of this novel takes place within the game.

The problem for me is that as a video game player I can’t help but think of this as a terrible and boring game. Games need defined rules and rewards to be interesting. The game as put forward by The Three Body Problem isn’t so much of a game as it is a place. It wouldn’t even be a good First Person Experience (Walking Simulator) because it has no real characterisation or message. It’s just a fucked up place that changes a lot and doesn’t give you any guidance. The game is also saidto be “online” yet seems to be single player. This is a minor gripe, I know, but it struck me as a strange way to frame it.

Still, the point of the story is not supposed to be the game. The point is, fucked up shit is happening with science and shit makes no sense. This is something that I think the author did a pretty bad job at expressing to the reader. The idea is that the basics of scientific knowledge are changing. Partial accelerators are returning nonsense and scientists are committing suicide all over the world. Yet the gravity of the situation was under played. I wasn’t for a moment invested in what or why or who or how. I just sort of expected it to sort its self out.

This “not landing” is something that I felt throughout my read. Given how riveting the other book in the series was its, strange to me that this one fell so flat. It’s just as well written and just as well paced but lacked any singular hook to draw me in. I think it’s the lack of emotional connection I had. The main character, Doctor Wang Miao lacked any sort of charm and seemed to have no friends, or family that mattered in the context of the story. We have no idea what motivates him as a person. I simply didn’t care about him or is research.

The police officer Shi Qiang was a far more engaging character. He was very much a supporting character but had a way bigger impact with me than Dr Wang did. Shi Qiang is brash and unlikable at first but slowly you being to understand him and his methods. Really, this man should have been the main focus of the book because I feel like there’s a whole series that could be made just about this guy’s day job.

A lot of exposition happens with very little in the way of actual events. We eventually get introduced to an abstracted version of the alien race as well as a fascinating explanation of their advanced computing technology as well as its applications. There is some philosophical discussion about the value of life before the book just sort of stops.

While the ideas put forward in this work are interesting the story its self is almost like a backdrop. It feels like very long prelude for a far better book. I have a feeling if I read the next in the series then it will all begin to come together but I am in no rush to read it at all. It seems to me that Lui Cixin’s talent for writing is in tone and setting not characters and events.

This book really is superbly well written but honestly, I was on the cusp of falling asleep for a lot of it. There are highs and things do peak at times but all of it was pointless without a payoff that landed. As I have said, I know how the series ends and because of this I don’t think that I will be reading the second in the series any time soon. This is strange because I have no doubt that it’s a much better story than this one but knowing the end and now knowing the beginning makes me measurably less curious about the middle section.

I will, I have no doubt read more from Lui Cixin because his writing progressed nicely from this book to the third and I think with the right story he could craft something that will stick with me but right now he seems like a writer who is more interested in concepts than character and that’s not for me. In many ways he reminds me of Arthur C Clarke who’s earlier works read more like mission logs than novels. I think if you combine grand ideas and competent writing you can go a long way but not as far as you can go with great characters and a lot more love of spinning yarns.