I just finished The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. This is the most recent Hugo winner for best novel, and stands out historically for being the first translated work to receive such an honor. I listened to the audio book, which I will link here.
The Three Body Problem is a science fiction novel about first contact with an alien species, and how humanity responds to this contact. It is also about the importance of science and morality, spanning forty years of human history.
Before I start sharing my opinions, let me first say that when I read books for enjoyment as I read this one, I don’t read with critical focus. The opinions I will be expressing are simply the impressions left on me by the story. I don’t have the education or background to be a true critic.
I enjoyed the way the story was told. Its focus changed throughout, zooming in to minute, sometimes gory details in a moment, and pulling back to broader, transitory levels when traversing longer periods of time. The story follows several characters, giving greater attention to two in particular: Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao. The tale is not spun out in chronological order.
Characterization seemed a bit thin, in my opinion. Three female characters stand out to me as being nearly identical: Ye Winjie, Yang Dong, and Shen Yufei. The latter two weren’t visible in the narrative often, but when they were, they all seemed to have the same qualities as Ye Winjie: they were all three fiercely intelligent, driven women, that were quiet, cold, and distant. The men in the story came in two main varieties: those like Wang Miao, and those like Shi Qiang. Those like Wang Miao were intelligent, but fearful, and usually passive. Those like Shi Qiang, on the other hand, were men of action, proud, and willful. Colonel Stanton and Mike Evans were in this category of characterization.
There is a little detail in the story that stands out to me, and I wonder if it is just a difference between American and Chinese cultures. It had to do with families. Wang Miao, for example, had a wife and child, but he frequently ignored them in order to focus on problems that he didn’t bother explaining to his family. As the story continued, he was out in the wee hours of the morning, and didn’t seem to give any consideration to his family at home. Later in the story, it’s as though they never existed. His family isn’t even mentioned again.
Ye Winjie is the only person in the story that seems to have a strong familial attachment, and that is to her father. We don’t ever get to see their relationship. We just see her reaction to his death at the beginning, and the way that influences her decisions throughout her life.
For the most part, I enjoyed the pacing. There was a bit at the end that seemed slow, so it seemed to drag on longer than I wanted. Other than that part at the end, I was engaged in the story the whole time.
I mentioned that characterization seemed a bit weak, but there were characters I enjoyed. I liked Shi Qiang, because he seemed to have more wisdom than intelligence. And Wei Chang stood out as well, though he was the most passive character in the whole story, by design. Those two characters had the most “flavor” and stood out from the others.
The premise was interesting, and the science sounded plausible to me. There was a bit of Flatland to it at one point, which I enjoyed.
I enjoyed the book, but I wasn’t so hooked that it consumed me. I listened to it in the car when driving, as I do most audio books. But unlike books that have really drawn me in, I didn’t spend much time listening to the story out of my car. I listened to the last 45 minutes last night at my computer, not because I needed to know what was next, but because I wanted to have the whole thing finished before writing this review.
I don’t think the book being translated had anything to do with my level of enjoyment. This isn’t the first translated book I’ve read. I thoroughly enjoyed The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s a translated work that pulled me in and kept me pulled in. It’s also a different genre, and I’m not going to compare apples to oranges. I just don’t think that translation detracted or enhanced my enjoyment of The Three Body Problem.
This is a Hugo award winning book, and I feel a need to comment on that. If someone told me that it won the Hugo after I’d read it instead of before, I probably would have pursed my lips, nodded slowly, and said, “Okay.” It didn’t capture my imagination the way Heinlein and Asimov have in the past, but it was serviceable. I don’t regret reading it.
So, this is not a glowing review, but it’s not a bad review, either. Would I recommend others read it? Sure. It’s good enough for that, and perhaps other people would enjoy it more than I did. I thought it was okay, but I’m not in any hurry to read the sequel.