Wednesday, October 5, 2016

What I Read: The Three-Body Problem

I normally don't pay attention to awards in real time. If I'm browsing a bookstore and I see that a particular book has won this or that prize, it might push me towards buying it rather than putting it back. But nominees? Voting? Nah. I'm still prioritizing my Classics Club journey through the TIME Top 100 Novels list, so I'm not really up to date on new releases (except the ones I get from NetGalley and Blogging for Books).

But sometimes I catch wind of things and my interest gets piqued. That was the case with The Three-Body Problem—and that was mostly because of the Puppies Hugo debacle. Chinese science fiction? Sign me up! It didn't take too many mentions for me to add it to my GoodReads TBR (which is now over 100 titles, how'd that happen?), but I went around for maybe a year with the title in the back of my head without ever buying it. More than that apparently: I added it to GoodReads in December of 2014, and this post is going up in October of 2016. Well.

A couple weeks ago, I had some time to kill in Stockholm's Old Town, so I dropped by SF Bokhandeln to pick up Heir of Fire. I still needed an extra 70 kronor or so to earn a stamp on my stamp card, so I took my time and meandered through the shelves. I contemplated a couple volumes—so many people keep on talking about Raven Boys, and there was also Kameron Hurley's essay collection—but then I wandered through the science fiction shelves, where I saw The Three-Body Problem, and the little accounting clerk who lives in the back of my head and keeps track of all of the books I've added to my GoodReads TBR reminded me hey, you wanted to read that!

Image courtesy Tor

In a nutshell, The Three-Body Problem is a first contact novel that has at its center the the physics chestnut of (you guessed it) the three-body problem. It's the kind of hard science fiction that is very much informed by contemporary breakthroughs (the LHC) and theories (quantum entanglement). It's an interesting companion piece to The Sparrow, where the scientific expertise isn't in the tech or the theory but in the culture- and race-building.

I don't want to talk about the story too much because I think it's a lot more fun to read the actual story than to read a summary. So, some general notes:

The art of translation has long fascinated me. What is a "good" translation? Or an exact one? The language in The Three-Body Problem starts out choppy, almost clunky. But then either the language changed, or I did, because it grew on me. The translator, Ken Liu, was able to include his own thoughts on translation and choice in an afterword, and he remarked that part of his job was also to account for the different tastes between English- and Chinese-speaking audiences, and ultimately decided to choose something a little closer to a Chinese style than an English style. That explains that!

My big problem with The Martian was the characterization, especially with Watney. While I still think The Martian is an overrated gilded turd, I have to admit that science fiction has not always been a genre that lends itself to nuanced, mutli-layered characters—often we have a few given types that are faced with a predicament, and the narrative thrust isn't about their journey as characters but about how the problem is solved. The same tradition seems to have informed The Three-Body Problem as well, though Liu Cixin doesn't cop to his literary influences too much in his own afterword. The characters, again, are largely types or just stand-ins; plot points for a story rather than flesh-and-blood people. But none are as clueless or grating as Watney, so it doesn't matter, and I even found Ye Wenjie to be quite compelling.

The movie (because yes, of course there's a movie) is due out next year. Fortunately it was picked up by a Chinese studio instead of Hollywood, so there won't be any egregious #whitewashedOUT shenanigans. Still, I'm not entirely sure what a film adaptation can bring to the story. More interestingly, I guess Chinese readers have been making...soundtracks? Wikipedia is not really detailed on this, but it does link to one of them, and it's pretty chill.

The good thing about not being up-to-date on books is that if I find something in a trilogy or a series, I usually find it by the time the whole thing is wrapped up. So I can move on to The Dark Forest and Death's End anytime I like!

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