Hugo Nominees 2015: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

20518872 In the wake of the Sad Puppies controversy at the Hugo Awards, Feminist Fiction will be looking at and reviewing every possible nomination — looking at merit without regards to politics. For more of my thoughts on the Sad Puppiesread here.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu — nominated for Best Novel

The Three Body Problem is very focussed on the science side of science fiction. It's ultimately a theoretical novel, using its "scientists are committing suicide, physics isn't making sense and also there might be aliens" plotline as a framework for its various philosophical and scientific explorations.

It's an interesting novel, and a worthwhile read, but I'm not convinced that it was entirely successful. Because while its philosophical elements were intricately thought out, many of the elements that made it a novel were undeveloped.

First, the characters. The Three-Body Problem has two protagonists, one of whom is a well-considered and interesting character, and one of whom is a cipher for plot to happen around, without much of a personality and with a family that appears and disappears at the whims of the plot. Our more interesting protagonist, Ye, first appears against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, and the life and choices that follow are fascinating... but with, I think, too much left unsaid. Some of this could be a cultural issue, either based on an assumed Chinese audience's existing emotional knowledge of the Cultural Revolution, or just on different literary conventions, but I found that Ye's character wasn't really explained enough for my tastes. I could step out of the book and piece together her motivations, but  the book never attempted to give us much of an emotional connection with her or to guide us through her thoughts. Obviously that's a stylistic choice, and some people will undoubtedly find that bare-bones approach to character and emotion compelling, but as a character-driven reader, it left me wanting more.

The novel's narrative style was also slightly distracting in its inconsistency. Almost every chapter seemed to have a different approach, from a typical third-person writing style, to an omniscient narrator reporting back on events like a historian, to characters telling their own stories, to conversation transcripts, to scientific papers and beyond. There were sections where we learned what had been happening "off screen," as though the protagonists were also learning these details at that moment, but it was unclear how, exactly, any of them had gathered this information.

The Three Body Problem features extended segments in a virtual-reality world, and these were the novel's most successful, as they provided the opportunity to explore various philosophical and mathematical concepts without reference to context. In this virtual reality world, great thinkers from across history meet together to try and solve the question of how to predict something seemingly unpredictable. The plot here is somewhat bare bones and slow moving, but the virtual world was compelling, and I was equally fascinated by the theoretical discussions and the mystery of this "virtual" world itself.

Unfortunately, this virtual reality has much less significance to the overall plot of the novel than a reader might initially assume. Although its existence is explained, it doesn't tie into the plot very well, and feels more like a diversion in the end, making it retroactively unsatisfying. Like many other parts of the novel, it also doesn't quite make sense. In parts, we're told that each player has their own unique playing world, but in other parts, we meet other players in game, like it's all one big MMO.

The result is an often fascinating read, but not, in my opinion, a satisfying novel. It tried to invoke too many ideas, without developing much of them beyond the philosophical elements. I've seen people state that this novel is mostly the backstory or set-up for the two much more compelling sequels, which I can believe, and the writing intrigued me enough that I may just pick up the next book's English translation, when it's released, to find out.

The Three-Body Problem won't be at the top of my Hugo ballot, but I have no doubt that it will feature at the top of many other readers' lists, and rightly so. The key issue here is how highly you weight a novel's ideas over its execution -- if you want a cerebral book that will intrigue you and make you think, it's a great example. But if you want a book with characters who make you feel, you'd be advised to look elsewhere.