Friday 25 March 2022

Book review: Three Body Problem

PXL_20220306_153830064 This is a bad book. I blame D, who lent it to me, though to be fair, he didn't go so far as to recommend it. That being said, I did finish it, and about the middle third is quite page-turning, when we're at the stage that the author has introduced some interesting plot; though it all falls apart when he has to try to make sense of it.

How this fooled Kirkus Reviews I don't know. Caught up on the bandwagon I'd guess: ooooh, exciting cross-cultural. Goodreads is similarly fawning, though there is some sanity.

To begin, the writing is clunky, the characters are wooden, to a degree that would put Asimov to shame. Perhaps we can blame this on the translator, but I'm dubious. Perhaps it is just how Chinese learn to write. I don't know. But I do know that the prose is some of the worst I've ever read. I think this compares to - but is probably worse than - the old USAnian pulp SF of the 30s and 40s; and that probably reflects the level that Chinese SF is at; you simply couldn't get this stuff published if written in the West. Or so I'd hope.

We turn then to the ideas. These too are poor, in my judgement. The science is as laughably wrong as in Foucault's Pendulum. The characters - and, I can only assume, the author - are obsessed by the insolubility of the classic three-body problem. But, so what? You don't need a closed solution, you just need to predict the future, and this is trivially possible by integrating forwards. We can do this for the solar system for millions of years (I know, it's not quite the same as the central sun is so heavy. Never mind; the point remains). Further, one rather strong feature of "real" three body dynamics is the tendency to eject one of the masses, if I recall correctly. Thirdly, if his suns were in close proximity, then their non-point-ness; and their envelopes; and indeed GR; would all influence their dynamics too. So the central conceit is broken on any number of levels. And I also think that the suns, as observed from Trisolar, wouldn't look as they were described. And the anti gravity bit is just, like, utterly fucking wacko man. Does he know no physics at all? Some of the Earth characters enter a game called 3body. Despite this hammer-blow unsubtle clue, it takes them forever to work out what is going on. I suppose that's necessary for the book. Then we have the Trisolarians having advanced tech, and the ability to build giant space fleets, but weirdly they can't be bothered over thousands of years to even send a probe to their nearest neighbour, until we message them. These are beings of truely dismally low levels of enterprise. And, you can't write anything on a proton because it has no internal structure - other than being three quarks - to write on. And even if you could it would have no motive power and... that bit just got really silly. I do wonder if our author, reluctant to re-write some stuff he'd written earlier, really couldn't fnd any better way to justify the "countdown" stuff.

Lastly we have the plot. It seems to me that too many of the characters are too sure of what is going on; it is a bit like other books where the plot is driven by a prophecy that everyone believes, despite having no good reason to believe it.

There are some heavy environmental bits, which are hammered home with our author's characteristic unsubtlety. One bit I will bitch about is the casual assumption that democracy is less strong than authoritarianism: how's that working for you now, Putin, eh?

There are fragments of experience-of-cultural-revolution in the book. These, being unfamiliar and possibly representative, are some of the better bits.