Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Trans. Ken Liu (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1)

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Tor Books on November 11, 2014

Source: Purchased

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.

  

Get ready y’all, because it’s CONTROVERSIAL OPINION TIME.

Let me just get this out of the way right now: no one is more disappointed than I am that I didn’t like this book. Chinese science fiction with two interconnected narratives and a police procedural vibe? I should’ve loved this like virtually everyone else did (especially since I enjoyed Cixin Liu’s short fiction in Invisible Planets). But sadly I did not.

THE THREE BODY PROBLEM is, firstly, an incredibly dense read. There’s rarely a page that goes by that doesn’t discuss physics problems, issues in theoretical frontier science, or make reference to famous physicists. What should be an absolute page-turner is completely bogged down by what I felt was the author’s attempt to school the masses (i.e. me) on the beauty of hard science, an opinion that was only strengthened by the author’s note at the end of the novel. Obviously there are many readers out there who heard this message and it spoke to them, but unfortunately I found it quite pretentious and somewhat impenetrable at times.

The basic plot of THE THREE BODY PROBLEM is as follows:

In one narrative, young astrophysicist Ye Wenjie is blackballed during the Cultural Revolution and essentially forced to work on a top-secret military base that claims to study satellites. In the second narrative, nano materials researcher Wang Miao is tapped by an international task force to infiltrate an elite club of scientists to discover how they’re connected to the rash of suicides among prominent scientists across the globe. Sounds intriguing, right? It was at first, but the plot kept getting sidelined for tens of pages of dialogue about physics theory. Puzzling out how the two stories are connected was fun, but despite the high stakes for both Ye and Wang I found it difficult to connect to them as characters.

Ye is at least a sympathetic character, after her horrible experiences during the Cultural Revolution. Her grief in the wake of her father’s execution, her ardent environmentalism and concern for China’s forests, and her tenacity all made Ye someone I could root for. I found myself looking forward to her next set of POV chapters as soon as they ended…although that may be because I loathed Wang’s POV chapters. When he begins to guess at the conspiracy behind everything going on, Wang completely loses it and scares the crap out his wife and kid – then he doesn’t spare them a thought for the rest of the novel. No, instead he spends his emotional energy waxing poetic about the love he had for a brilliant and beautiful scientist whom he had literally never spoken to before. Honestly, his narration felt a bit too gentleman’s club-y and borderline sexist for me to enjoy it at all.

I see why other readers love this book – it has some pretty epic reveals and plot twists, and discusses some pretty high level moral ideas – but I am not in agreement. It’s not until about the 60% mark of THE THREE BODY PROBLEM that these exciting events occur, and I found it difficult to stay engaged up until that point. If I hadn’t been buddy reading this with Becky, I probably would’ve put it aside unfinished.

All that said, I am happy that I’ve read more Chinese science fiction, and I do plan to read more in the future…it just won’t be those novels written by Cixin Liu.

What sci-fi are you reading? Have you read THE THREE BODY PROBLEM? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Oh bummer. I haven’t read this, but I think I might have had the same reaction. I do love to learn new things when I read, but too much learning gets in the way of the story. So what did Becky think?

    • I couldn’t agree with you more! There’s nothing wrong with learning something while reading a novel, but the whole point is to actually read a story, not a textbook. Sadly Becky gave it the same rating…☹️

  • I can be hit or miss on reads that explain everything to me. I did want to read this one but it kinda slipped down my list until I forgot about it to be honest.

    • It’s not surprising that it slipped your mind since there was so much buzz surrounding this one a couple years ago, but then it kinda fell off the marketing radar. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on this one if you end up reading it, Nathan!

  • That sucks that this didn’t live up to your expectations, Danya. I would be super frustrated with the author trying to push all his knowledge on me too. I mean I love learning something through books, but I don’t want that to be all I get from the story. I read books like this mostly for entertainment, not to learn science!
    At least there were some decent moments though?

    • Right??? Thank you! At first I was thinking that maybe I’m just not ~intelligent~ enough to appreciate this one, but then I realized that it’s got nothing to do with smarts: it’s about whether someone can tell a good story. And in my opinion, this was not one.

      Yeah, there were some good moments for sure! Basically all the scenes that took place during the Cultural Revolution were absolutely fascinating for me.

  • Maraia

    I was planning to read this book, but wow, your review definitely puts it at the bottom of my list. Dense, pretentious writing bugs me to know end. Thanks for the warning!

    • There are a ton of great reviewers out there who completely disagree with me, but yeah…that’s how I felt about it. You’re forewarned now at least, so if you do get to it you’re prepared!

  • MaddalenaSpaceandSorcery

    Science can be fascinating and wonderful, but in my opinion it should
    leave center stage to the story: after all, that’s the main reason we
    read fiction, isn’t it? To read *stories*. So I can understand quite
    well your frustration with this book, and it’s something I’ve read in
    other reviews – the main reason I’ve refrained from tackling this title
    until now, despite my curiosity about trying a book by an author with a
    different cultural background.
    I hope your next attempt goes better! 🙂

    • I couldn’t agree more, Maddalena! Even though I’m not the biggest science lover, I do love sci-fi that delves into the science-y side of things as long as there’s a good story. Don’t worry, I won’t let this one dissuade me from trying more Chinese sci-fi. 😊

  • You know my feelings about this book. You were there while I was reading it. I mean, GAH! It’s just so bad. Even the excitement towards the end was exciting enough to redeem it because it was still bogged down with science while interesting things were happening. I think I could have forgiven the science if I’d liked Wang even a bit but I didn’t and Ye was far more sympathetic even though she invited aliens to kill everyone. I don’t care if the second book is a revelation which fixes the flaws of the first book. I can’t read it.

    I wouldn’t have gotten through past part 2 if I hadn’t been reading with you. What I have learnt is that some scifi is bad scifi regardless of what others think.

    And that authors note at the end where he started saying he always grasped physics and crap like that instinctively. I wanted to punch him in the face because science is hard, especially physics. I actually only got part way through it before thinking ‘well, you’re a dick’ and stopped. I could take no more from him.

    • LOL yes I do know your feelings on it, and we’re in agreement! Wang was the absolute worst, UGH. By the end of the book I just rolled my eyes every time he said something…and Ye + aliens = bad sign.

      The power of buddy reading: you keep on going even when the book’s terrible. At first I felt kinda bad and guilty for disliking this one but now I realize that it was a bad book – at least based on my criteria for a good read.

      The author’s note was the final nail in the coffin, that’s for sure. The transcendent beauty of science, Becky!!!! It’s so beautiful yet difficult for the plebs to grasp. *eye roll*

      • Yeah, I am definitely learning buddy reading can both help motivate you to read that really good book you should have read 5 years ago, but also force you to finish a book you would have chucked at a wall with great force if you were reading alone. It’s a double edged sword. Or we need to get better at saying ‘this is bad, let’s stop’.

  • Interesting, I had not seen it around before this

    • I saw it around a lot when it won the Hugo a couple years ago, but the buzz has definitely died down!

  • Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    Oh, no! Sorry this didnt work better for you (but I actually always love hearing “controversial opinion” reviews, they can help round out the fan-fest you see other placed. Not that those arent justified, just nice to hear a different take.

    • Hahaha yeah, I really like reading controversial opinion reviews because let’s be real: sometimes a contradictory opinion is a ton of fun!

  • Unpopular opinion, indeed! I still have this one to read (and I actually own a copy) and I appreciate the heads up. Many of the things that frustrated you, sound really pretty frustrating. I have no desire to know more about physics than I already do (which is virtually nothing). Not being able to connect with characters is also a worry. Well, I’ll try approach it open-minded but with a balanced perspective. Thanks for putting your unpopular opinion out there!

    • I know, I feel like the total black sheep! Thankfully Becky shares my unpopular views on this one so I’m not totally alone. YES! I know basically nothing about physics and that works for me, haha.

      Good luck with it Stephanie! Hopefully you’ll enjoy it more than I did.

  • This is another book I’ve always wanted to read, and for a couple years now I’d hoped to fit it into Sci-Fi November. Mixed reviews like yours have been making me feel less and less enthusiastic though. As with all books translated to English though, I have to wonder how much was lost in translation. I wish my Chinese was proficient enough to read the original, because I know my dad really enjoyed the book in its original language!

    • I’ve heard that a lot of people who read the original really enjoyed it, which makes sense; but then again, Ken Liu has such a good reputation as a translator that it’s difficult for me to believe that he mucked it up. I was hoping to fit this one into Sci-Fi November too but now I’m glad that I didn’t: it may have dissuaded me from carrying on, just because I struggled with it so much.

      • Sometimes it might just be the language and not the translator. I find Chinese especially complicated to translate to English because of the way it is littered with sayings and idioms. Growing up, my mom always seemed to have a four-character saying at the ready for every situation. Translating them literally is simple, but they also won’t make much sense without the accompanying context which would probably take several more lines to explain!

  • Oh no! This is an author I have wanted to try, but it’s sort of fallen further and further down the list. I’m sorry it didn’t work out.

    • Thanks Verushka! I’m glad to have read (because it was on my TBR for so long and I already owned a copy), but it’s certainly not slated for a re-read.

      • If someone did want to read chinese sci fi — or more fanatsy in my case, do you have a suggestion as to where I could start?

        • Well, bearing in mind that I’ve only read two Chinese sci fi novels translated into English, I’d recommend Invisible Planets ed. by Ken Liu. It’s a short fiction anthology that’s technically sci fi but includes several stories with a fantasy slant to them too. I really, really liked it!

  • I’d not even heard of this book so I would have passed it straight and moved on with life. 😀 It sounds a bit dull and uninteresting? I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. You can’t help what you don’t like and there is nothing really wrong with that (most of the time). 😉

    Great review, Danya!

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

    • Well you might be better for moving right on by it, hahaha. I certainly found it dull and uninteresting, but I know there are some out there who adore it (although I can’t for the life of me tell why). Exactly! I like what I like, nothing wrong with that.

      Thanks Alyssa! 😊

  • Lynn Williams

    I’m kind of on the fence with this one – it’s one that I do and don’t fancy reading. Maybe one day. Or maybe not. *such indecision*
    Lynn 😀

    • I know exactly what you mean — that’s how I feel about infamous books like Infinite Jest and Finnegan’s Wake, hahaha.

  • Greg Hill

    “Nope” lol- love that icon. 🙂 I’ve wondered about this as I’ve heard different things- I don’t think you’re the only one that this didn’t work for. I agree the premise sounds good, intriguing- but yes I think the sidetracking and dense scientific stuff would take me out of it too. I mean I love SF that’s plausible but it can be too much.

    Ye definitely sounds more likeable, and I like the touch of environmentalism, but yeah I don’t think on balance this would be my thing either. Thanks for a great review!

    • LOL thanks Greg! It’s my personal favourite icon too. So far as I can tell, people either love this book or they hate it…sadly I think it’s pretty clear where I fall on that scale. Sci-fi that’s plausible is really cool, and I do like a good explanation, but I agree that too much science can make a story read like a text book.

      The environmentalism going on in this one was far and away my favourite part of the story!

  • Wow this sounds bad. I’m not a big reader of sci-fi so this wasn’t even on my tbr. I’m sorry this was such a horrible reading experience for you – and for Becky, as far as I can tell.

    Physics was my least favorite of all science subjects (I actually loved maths and biology, I was really good at them in high school) and having it shoved down my throat would just piss me off. This is definitely not the book for me.

    • Unfortunately both Becky and I really disliked this one — but the fun thing about buddy reading is that it allows you to complain/snark about bad books with friends! Hahaha.

      I wasn’t a big fan of physics (or math…or bio…) in high school, but I was intrigued by the idea of learning more. At least, I was, until I realized that about 60% of the book is physics. No thank you! 😂

  • Wow, well I completely understand your thoughts. I loved it and I think was able to get more into into because I was curious about the Cultural Revolution, and I also love higher level thinking plot points. But I can understand if the style just wasn’t for you!!

    • Definitely, I totally get why other readers were so into this but I just could not for the life of me connect to it. The Cultural Revolution scenes were the saving grace in my opinion, they totally kept me reading!