Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

The Three Body Problem by Lui Cixin is some seriously mind-expanding SF.

I’m talking here about the original three books, as I’ve yet to read the later but related one(s), so no spoilers please. Talking of which, the below may contain minor spoilers, but hopefully nothing plot-breaking.

I did have some issues, mainly with the first novel. They’re -isms: sexism, collectivism and pessimism. And they are, at least in part, down to me coming from a different culture to the author (and the translator, a more well-known Chinese SF author who did a great job).

Although one of the viewpoint characters in the first book is a woman, for the early part of the story most women are defined in terms sex or motherhood, usually as adjuncts to men, often not even warranting a name, just ‘his mother’, ‘the girl’ or ‘the mistress. But I decided to not get annoyed with this, in much the same way I try to not get annoyed with the pseudo-colonial bollocks in some golden age SF.  And things improved as the timeline, and story, moved on.

The collectivism and pessimism went hand-in-hand for me. There is no hero in this story, no single protagonist. Which makes sense: it would be hard to make this one person’s story given how far it travels in space and time. Initially my Western sensibilities were looking for an extraordinary individual to take charge of history, to save humanity. But after a while I accepted that’s not how this story works.

Which brings me to the pessimism: the story opens during the Cultural Revolution, when the worst of human nature was at the fore and any respite from horror and suffering is temporary and illusory. This feeds into [slight spoiler alert] the idea that the universe is a dark and brutal place where only the strongest survive the weak are annihilated without a second thought. Unlike a lot of Western SF, we plucky humans are nothing, and won’t necessarily win through. We live in a loveless, often hopeless, universe.

But whenever I was thinking of giving up on this story for one (or more) of the above reasons, an idea leaped out of the page and gripped me. The lens of human culture – past, current and future – is used to examine a lot of these ideas. There are also some jaw-dropping set-piece moments (even if some of them might not be entirely scientifically plausible). Two of my favourites ideas here are sociological rather than scientific, specifically the Wallfacers, and the Swordholder (can’t explain further without spoilers).

The canvas gets bigger as the story progresses but manages to keep the human connection. There is even, in this loveless universe, a deeply affecting love story.  Although I didn’t always identify with the characters, several of them really grew on me. One female character who takes the story to the end I liked from the word go, as she had the compassion and empathy largely missing in the book’s worldview – and did not have it entirely beaten out of her by harsh reality. The other was more of a surprise, when we first meet him in book 2 I intensely disliked him as a loser an abuser, but he grew and changed to the extent that by the end I greatly cared for and respected him.

All in all, not an uplifting trilogy, and not as character-driven as most books I like. But a mind-expanding – occasionally mind-blowing – read, so I’m glad I stuck with it despite my initial misgivings.

Anyone else out there read it?

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