The Three-Body Problem: Review
I debated long and hard about which rating to give this book. The Three-Body Problem has a solid 4.0 stars on Goodreads and has been recommended by the likes of President Barack Obama and tech whiz Mark Zuckerberg. Written by Cixin Liu for Chinese audiences, it has been translated by Ken Liu for English-speaking science fiction readers. It was an incredibly slow start, and by the time the story picked up, I was so conflicted on how I felt about this book, the first in a trilogy. Read on for a spoiler-free review about why I'm so angry about my experience reading The Three-Body Problem.
The Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China's most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.
Set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
My friend picked this book for our April book club read, and I was initially really excited. I love science fiction and remember being so fascinated by Orson Scott Card's books and the John Carter series, neither of which their cinematic translations did any justice. Plus, I had just finished reading a memoir about growing up in the Cultural Revolution, so I figured I'd be better able to understand any political undertones that Liu might have inserted.
The first 180 pages are so slow. I wanted to give up so many times. I kept wondering if I was too stupid to "get it." Was I reading the same back that all these other people were?! At this point, while my brain was melting into a puddle of technical jargon and made-up words, I was sure that The Three-Body Problem was a 0-stars sort of book for me. Just by sheer will, I trudged on, and finally (finally!) the story turned around for me about midway through the book.
The pace picked up so abruptly and I found myself actually flipping the pages because I was genuinely curious to find out what happened next. I devoured the last half of the book. It was much easier to digest and more familiar to casual science fiction readers; free of the mumbo jumbo that plagued the first half of the book and made me feel really insignificant with my degree in the social sciences. When I reached the end of The Three-Body Problem, I realized that this last half of the book was a decent 3-star read for me.
What went so horribly wrong?
First of all, translations are always tricky. And I say this as a reader, not as a professional translator or writer, but as someone who also happens to be bilingual. I think Ken Liu did the best he could to translate the jargon that infected The Three-Body Problem, scientific language and descriptions that were parasitic and took away from the plot and movement of the story. There was no emotion, no "showing," no one that I particularly cared about. There was a whole lot of "telling," that I wasn't fond of and felt was so unnecessary. "Words for the sake of sounding smart," is how I judged Cixin Liu's writing for a good majority of the book. I thought it was all just so obnoxious.
I also felt that the pace was all wrong. As you read in the summary above, the Cultural Revolution plays an important role in how our main characters' motivations develop through the novel. But I thought the scenes that took place in the Cultural Revolution were too drawn out and didn't set any real context for the later part of the book. We have to take so many things at face-value and are thrust straight into this malformed, technologically-advanced society. Where the first half of the book could have set the plot up for us, we have to deduce everything ourselves while painstakingly combing through chapters of boring dialogue. After finishing the book, I found a Wired article, where translator Ken Liu actually says,
The first book, as originally published in Chinese, actually comes in a different order. It starts out with the police and army officers asking Professor Wang to join them at the Battle Command Center.
(Don't worry, that's not really a spoiler. This is what we should have been introduced to all along because it's the only thing that kicks off plot movement in the first two hundred pages.)
I have to admit, I was decently satisfied by the end of The Three-Body Problem. But there is no way in Trisolaris that I am going to read the next two books in the trilogy, whenever they're translated into English.
I rate The Three-Body Problem 3/5 stars! (It's really a 2.5 rounded up)