The Three Body Problem

9780765382030

What it’s about: A Chinese scientist delves into a mysterious video game set in a world that lives and dies in thrall to the unpredictable orbital patterns of its three suns, which holds the key to unraveling a decades-old conspiracy that threatens the continuity of the human race.

Notes:

  • This is a book whose merit lies largely in its ideas and scope. It is not a particularly nuanced or sensitive character study; its characters are by and large either forgettable, or memorable insofar as they embody some stereotype – like Da Shi, the irreverent but competent policeman, a trope straight out of some Hong Kong action movie.  But its slow unravelling of the conceptual frame that will later dominate the narrative of the next two books is masterfully done.
  • The frame is that of the classic alien invasion story, but with a creative twist. Due to the constraints of their spaceflight technology, these Trisolarian invaders, who hail from the Centauri trinary star system, will take four hundred years to get to Earth. This fundamental constraint requires that they take measures to inhibit Earth’s ability to develop defensive technologies to counter the invasion – so they send tiny little supercomputers called sophons, etched into the fundamental structure of a single proton, to interfere with Earth’s research in fundamental physics, by zipping in and out of our particle accelerators and confounding our research. Soon, Earth is inundated with hundreds of these particles, and they become an ubiquitous and nearly omniscient surveillance network by which the aliens can divine any plans we might come up with. Liu’s gift is to pack all these original ideas into the confines of a single book and make them sound utterly plausible even as they are so out of this world .
  • That said, the book also lacks a sense of hard-headed realism: its characters are far too idealistic and ideological in their motivations. The ETO, a terrorist organisation in cahoots with the aliens, adopt a religious attitude to these aliens, thinking of them as savior agents coming to reinstate righteousness onto a fallen world. But their security protocols are strangely lax – they recruit via the titular video game that depicts the lives of the Trisolarians, and if the player seems to be sympathetic to their plight and smart enough to beat it, he or she is recruited. It is absurdly easy for the protagonist to infiltrate their ranks by playing and winning the game and then pretending to be sympathetic – he then attends their townhall with a tracker and leads the police to them. I would say that these and other problems (loose plot threads, weird lapse in logic) plague the first half or so of the book, but then the sheer impending scope of the final few chapters just makes these structural and stylistic problems seem insignificant in comparison.
  • Indeed, by the end of the book, one gets the sense that all the events that have led up to this instant are merely preparatory staging, and that the main show – the saga of humanity’s centuries long struggle against the aliens, is just about to begin.
  • This is a translated book. Ken Liu’s translation of the original Mandarin struggles mightily in the style department, giving the prose a very functional character that also kind of hurts the characterisation, because the character dialogue and descriptions are written in very plain language, robbing them of subtlety or verisimilitude.

Verdict: It’s a pretty flawed book in terms of the occasional lapses of logic in its plot, its mediocre characters, and its prosaic translated prose, but the daring, breathtaking strength and scope of its ideas and its place as a part of an epic overarching narratieve more than makes up for it.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 sophons

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