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Book 2 of Cixin Liu’s trilogy that started with The Three-Body Problem.
You could probably read this without having read the first book – it’s been ages since I read Three-Body Problem and I didn’t remember a whole heap – but honestly, why would you? It’s such an amazing book that if you’re considering reading these at all (perhaps because the third one has just been nominated for a Hugo Award, which the first book won), seriously just go and read both of them.
So the world is going to be attacked by an alien space-navy… in four centuries. Meanwhile emissaries from those aliens are already here, because somewhat hand-wavy-science, and they’re both halting humanity’s exploration of science and potentially listening in to every single conversation we’re having. So what can be done to try and deal with the aliens, and not have them sabotage humanity’s plans? (The aliens have their human tools, of course, too.) You nominate four people to be Wallfacers: people who have authority to do anything as long as they justify it as “part of the plan”… and they don’t have to explain anything, because if they explain it then the aliens might find out.
Because nothing could go wrong with that plan.
And that’s only part of what this novel is about. There’s also love and loss and trauma and sheer human effrontery. It takes place in the near-isa future and then a few centuries after that. It mostly takes place in China with a few bits elsewhere. Lots of it is from the perspective of Luo Ji, who would really rather it wasn’t, thanks all the same.
Some of the things I really enjoyed and/or was intrigued by:
- The acknowledgement, and exploration, of the idea that when confronted with an alien enemy, one of the likely responses is defeatism. Even in the armed forces. This is actually quite refreshing, given how often Hollywood blockbusters like to present (usually American) soldier-heroes.
- The general lack of draaaamah. When things go bad, people react, but there’s not pages upon pages of people feeling sorry for themselves. Nonetheless, these are still generally real and believable, if restrained, characters who I enjoyed reading about and did feel that I got to know (somewhat, anyway). (And I’m not only referring to the Chinese characters when I say that; the USan and other characters also don’t go in for massive theatrics.)
- Shi Qiang. About the only main character to transition from Three-Body to this, and I love him. He’s so quirky and shrewd and insightful and human. (I can imagine Miller, from the Expanse, and Da Shi getting together and drinking way too much and sharing police stories for hours.)
- Zhang Beihai. What even was going on with that narrative arc? Fascinating and unexpected; every time he appeared on the page I didn’t even bother trying to figure out what was going to happen. Because I knew I would be wrong.
This is a great science fiction novel and I’m completely stoked for the third, although I can’t really fathom where it’s going to go. Do not read this unless you prepared for some pretty hard-core science discussion, and if you’d rather that your fiction has in-dpeth discussion of character motivation and lavish character reflection. Do read if you enjoy a brilliant SF story with breathtaking ideas.
In which we feed our feedback back to you, with a side order of cheesecake! You can get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.
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The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
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What on earth can I say? If I said “Liu Cixin is like a Chinese Greg Egan” that gives some idea of the complexity of the science… and I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Ken Liu to translate those sections.
The focus of the novel is split over a few characters and periods:
Some of it is set in the Cultural Revolution of the 60s, and explores some of the consequences of this for academics in particular, via one woman and her family. I have taught this era (only once, but that’s better than naught), so I have no idea what the average reader would bring to this – and especially not what an average American reader would think. Ken Liu has done a good job of providing some footnotes with explanations, without (I thought) interrupting the flow of the narrative too much. A young woman, Ye, whose family was targeted ends up working at a mysterious scientific/military outpost…
Some is set in a ‘present’ that I don’t remember being identified, but is not one of William Gibson’s ‘tomorrows’ – it felt perfectly normal. Here, a scientist starts encountering weird things and gets drawn into an investigation that turns out to be even weirder than expected, and involves the whole world (there are scenes involving the Chinese military brass and NATO officers which had me shaking my head at the possible ramifications).
Some it is set in-game: the scientist, Wang, starts playing a game called Three-Body Problem – which it took me ages to realise is the conundrum of how to figure out the physics of three bodies interacting with each other gravitationally (it’s been a while since I thought physics, ok?). The game is connected to the investigation and also allows Liu to write THE most hilarious description of people physically being a computer ever, and this from someone whose knowledge of computational logic is non-existant (NAND and NOR gates? I admit my eyes glazed over somewhat…).
Some of it is set… elsewhere… not telling where.
I liked Ye a lot; the complexities of being first condemned, and then being considered useful but still politically unreliable, then rehabilitated into society – it’s done very nicely. I didn’t like Wang as much, which I think was mostly to do with his attitude towards his wife and son: basically he ignored them, and I found this quite unpleasant. Da Shi, a policeman involved in the investigation, is magnificent and is the character I would most like to see in a mini-series version of the book.
I had heard that some people thought there was a lot of emphasis on the Cultural Revolution, so I was surprised to find that for me, at least, it’s not actually a very big part of the story – page-wise anyway. It’s certainly of fundamental importance in Ye’s development, don’t get me wrong, but there’s definitely far more time spent in the present (and probably more time spent in-game by one of the characters, although I haven’t checked the page numbers to confirm that).
I am beyond impressed that this made it on to the Hugo ballot (yes yes after one of the Rabid nominees pulled out). I’m really glad it did, since it made me read it sooner than I otherwise would have. I really enjoyed it. There are some parts where, as with a Greg Egan novel, I skimmed over some science because I just can’t come at the physics anymore. But that wasn’t a problem with understanding the plot or the characters, and actually – especially considering this is a translation – much of the science-speak was quite accessible. (Ken Liu has an interesting discussion of the issues of translation at the end of the version I read, which was in the Hugo packet; it’s a very thoughtful essay about staying true to the vibe of the thing as well as/instead of staying true to the actual words and phrases used.) I discovered only when I got to the end that this is the first in a trilogy… I believe I may well be reading the rest.
But who am I going to put first on my Hugo ballot?!?