The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu (Books 2015, 9)

I feel that we should be rendering the author’s name in the Chinese way, with the family name first: Liu Cixin. That’s how he signs himself in the “Author’s Postscript”, and that’s how the translator renders all the characters’ names. But the above is how the publishers have done it, so we’ll stick with that for now.

As a work in translation, The Three-Body Problem fits well within the parameters of The Tempest Challenge, which, as I told you, I’m taking this year. It’s also this year’s Hugo winner, so I was keen to read it for that reason.

Right at the start I felt a mild sense of annoyance, because it was only then that I realised it is part of an incomplete trilogy.1 I’m not keen on starting unfinished serieses (it is so a word).

I finished it last night with a sense of surprise. According to my Kindle I was only at 85%; more importantly it didn’t exactly feel like the end, though to be fair I wasn’t quite sure where it could go from that point. I knew there were notes from the author and the translator, but they surely couldn’t be that long?

They couldn’t. But it turns out that the digital copy contains an extract from the next book in the series. I’m not sure how I feel about this trend in general. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of them. But I do think they’re getting too damn big: this one was fully 10% of the file, according to the Kindle.
One tenth of a novel is not in fact that novel, but an extract from the next one? I don’t think that’s a great trend.
But to the content. What did I actually think of the work?
Umm… mixed. I enjoyed it overall, am glad I read it, and will probably read the sequels. But it has problems that I don’t think are just caused by my cultural expectations. Though they might be: the translator, Ken Liu, in his postscript says:

But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narration techniques. The Chinese litereary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavour of the original.

Which is fair enough, and for “American” it’s safe to read “British”, as well. But perhaps the most important literary technique — or at least, the admonition most often drummed into beginning writers — is “show, don’t tell”. As I have argued myself, it’s not a rule that can or should be set in stone; but there are times when violating it comes across as clumsy at best.

There are many such times in The Three-Body Problem. Long sections of characters’ lives are told to us as a history. Similarly with the sections that take place in the “Three Body” game.

There are some great ideas here; in particular the best use of monomolecular fibres since — was it “Johnny Mnemonic”? One of William Gibson’s shorts, anyway.
It’s also worth reading for the historical parts: the terror of living through China’s Cultural Revolution is well evoked. But the aliens are hard to believe in.

And part of the initial setup: scientists are killing themselves because things seem to have gone fundmentally wrong with physics. I found that unconvincing. If as a scientist you find things not behaving as you expect — even seemingly randomly — you don’t give up on science and life; you try to find a new theory to fit the facts.

Lastly, I don’t think we ever found out what’s supposed to happen at the end of the countdown.

But I don’t mean to do a hatchet job. I did enjoy it, and as I say, I’ll probably read the sequels. Would it have won the Hugo in a less puppy-infested year? Maybe. You can never tell.


  1. Incomplete in English, at least; the third part is due to be published next year, so it may well be finished in Chinese. []
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu (Books 2015, 9)

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Books 2015, 8)

I read this under false pretences. Self-inflicted false pretences, to be sure, but nonetheless.

It won the Clarke Award, as I’m sure you know. All I knew about it when I heard the result, when I saw Mandel’s acceptance video at the ceremony, was the title. But it’s a badge of recognition, if nothing else; a clear signal that a group of people, of our peers, perhaps, think it’s one of best books — maybe the best — released in the last year.

I downloaded it on Kindle (I think there was a special offer). I hadn’t read any reviews, not even the blurb. But it’s called Station Eleven: it’s got to be about a space station, right?

Well, “Station Eleven” is a space station of sorts. But this isn’t a story set on it, or in space at all. Well, except inasmuch as Earth is in space, which of course is totally.

Thing is, if I’d known this was actually set mainly in a post-end-of-civilisation dystopia, I probably wouldn’t have read it it at all. Such scenarios really don’t appeal to me much, at face value at least. I’m always reminded of a call for stories in Interzone many years ago, which asked for “radical, hard SF”; but which specifically said they didn’t want the kind of post-holocaust story where the hero gazes wistfully at a can of baked beans.

It’s an image which has stuck with me, but this is not that kind of story (though there are elements of scavenging among the ruins).

It’s also not set entirely after the fall of civilisation. In part it tells the life story of a successful actor (who dies on stage while playing Lear right at the start of the first chapter).

I note that Mandel herself seems to reject the SF label, and my thoughts on it — while loving it to bits — centred around wondering why she chose to tell the story of a present-day actor framed or intertwined within the death of civilisation. Looking at some reviews now I see that people treat the central theme as being the attempt to keep culture alive. And while that is an important aspect, I don’t really see it as being what the book is about.

Particularly if we are to consider it as literary fiction1 wherein characters are usually the main focus. As such it’s mainly the stories of the actor and of the young woman who started out as a child actor who was onstage when he died, but who survived the plague.

The conclusion of this review at the New York Times sums it up well:

If “Station Eleven” reveals little insight into the effects of extreme terror and misery on humanity, it offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old.

SF or not, it’s well worth reading.


  1. Why not li-fi, I often wonder? []
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Books 2015, 8)

Mind of My Mind by Octavia E Butler (Books 2015, 7)

The next book in the Patternist series after Wild Seed, which I wrote about before. I would describe it as the sequel to the other one, except that it turns out that they were written out of sequence.

This perhaps explains why the character of Anyanwu, who, as you’ll recall, I felt was slightly disappointing in the first book, is completely sidelined and, indeed, thrown away, in this one.

The other reason is that the focus has moved on to a new generation of Doro’s descendants. We are in mid to late 20th-century America, and his breeding programme is finally beginning to pay off. More spectacularly than he had ever imagined, it seems, as some of his telepaths — who up until now have not been able to bear being near each other — form a kind of group or meld they call the Pattern.

This makes them able to both work and live together, and increases their power and effectiveness enormously.

Things ensue. It’s good, but still feels kind of weak to me. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t that compelling.

Also I thought I had read this one, years ago, but none of it was even the slightest bit familiar to me, so I guess not.

Mind of My Mind by Octavia E Butler (Books 2015, 7)