seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
[personal profile] seekingferret
I finished Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu. I have decidedly mixed feelings about it. I do not think it is worthy of a place on the Hugo ballot, though I do think it's a decent novel that does a few things quite well.

Cixin Liu is an unabashed fan of American Golden Age SF, but not, I think, in the Sad Puppies way. He's not writing Golden Age SF himself, but writing fiction that uses Golden Age ideas and themes in a totally new cultural context. Ken Liu is an American novelist with a definite post-New Wave ambition. The novel's prose, in its non-VR sections, feels most like not Asimov, as I've seen claimed, but Bob Silverberg- caught somewhere in between the Golden Age and the New Wave. I can't help but wonder to what degree that is Ken Liu struggling to be faithful to his own artistic impulses as well as to Cixin Liu's.

But most often I feel like Ken Liu is betraying the Golden Age sympathies of the original text. This begins with literally the first chapter heading- "The Madness Years". This is a resume of the abuses of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late '60s, abuses whose personal toll on the story's protagonist led to the later choices that drive the story. The Madness Years is not an inappropriate name for this period, and yet it feels inescapably wrong to me as a fan of Golden Age SF. In Robert Heinlein's famous Future History story cycle, he predicted from a vantage point in the early '40s that the 1960s and 1970s would comprise a period he called "The Crazy Years".

It's such a good description of the American 1960s counterculture that joking about their youthful Con experiences as the Crazy Years is not uncommon among older fen I've talked to, but it's an even better description of the devastation Cixin Liu describes as the result of the Cultural Revolution. By marking his opening chapter in this way, Cixin Liu perfectly splits the middle between Chinese cultural traditions and the American classical SF literary tradition. By mistranslating it as The Madness Years, Ken Liu destroys this marvelous symmetry.

The betrayal continues as the book continues. The Three Body Problem is full of playful expository discourses on science and history, the kind of thing that Asimov would've deemed overly tedious but that would fit right into a Blish novel. At their best, some of the exposition rises to the level of sublimity of Stephenson's cake cutting algorithm appendix from Anathem, like a scene where Newton and Leibniz have a virtual sword fight and then discuss the development of a human computer to perform differential calculations. But in Ken Liu's hands the exposition seems ashamed of itself, apologetic. Liu's translator's footnotes sit in a murky middle ground, not enough detail to be actually useful, but too obtrusive to skip, their existence forced by Ken Liu's discomfort with Cixin Liu's discursion more than by any textual necessity.

As an American reader, what is striking about the Chinese cultural context is something else- the recognition that colors the novel's motion from beginning to end that science is a political act. From the opening scenes, where Ye Wenjie's father martyrs himself for science during the Cultural Revolution, through the middle, where various people reject the meaning of experiments because their results came from 'reactionary' sources or came to 'reactionary' conclusions, to the end, when three factions vie for control of the scientific information provided by the Trisolarians, science as a cultural construct is developed in a way that is really alien to me because of Western theories of scientific progress.

In the beginning, the suicides of prominent scientists as they discover impossibly inconsistent experimental results in particle accelerators seemed like a strange misunderstanding of how science works, an echo of Ted Chiang's maddening short story "Division by Zero" that reflected the way non-scientists fetishize the scientific method. But by the end, it's clear that these scientists are behaving consistently with a Chinese approach to science, as developed by a scientific method poisoned by political interference. Perhaps the funniest moment in the novel is in the presentation of a set of scientific documents justifying a Chinese SETI program, Red Coast Base. The initial version of the proposed message for the Chinese to send to aliens is full of Chinese political code phrases, but the Central Committee rejects it, saying that those slogans are fine for peasants, but aren't going to impress any aliens. When you perform scientific research under guidelines you don't believe in and where there are restrictions on the direction your discoveries are allowed to take, my Western mind would feel that no science could be done. Cixin Liu suggests that instead, science can be done- but it is impossibly contaminated and broken. The scientists who committed suicide did so, perhaps, because the particle accelerators were the only place in their lives where they could rely on the results having a consistent meaning. It is a chilling conclusion.

On the other hand, if Wang Miao is the protagonist of The Three Body Problem, he is an incredibly boring one. Ye Wenjie has a powerful emotional arc that spans the whole book and is given all the discoveries you would expect a protagonist to get, but she is missing for large swaths of the book. In total, The Three Body Problem is an interesting novel, but it is not a great one.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-05-11 10:23 pm (UTC)
liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
From: [personal profile] liv
I haven't read it yet, so perhaps shouldn't have read this review. But I have heard really mixed things about it, quite a few people whose opinions are aligned with yours, but plenty of people raving about how thrilling and original it is. So I'm intrigued.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-05-12 01:07 am (UTC)
starlady: (moon dream)
From: [personal profile] starlady
Ooh, thanks for this.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-09 11:52 pm (UTC)
calledtovienna: (Default)
From: [personal profile] calledtovienna
Having just finished The Three Body Problem, I really liked it, and I am kind of bummed that it won't win the Hugos. Each to their own! (And, when it comes to the Hugos, me specifically, having kind of given up on them, repeatedly, with ardor).

>> On the other hand, if Wang Miao is the protagonist of The Three Body Problem, he is an incredibly boring one. Ye Wenjie has a powerful emotional arc that spans the whole book and is given all the discoveries you would expect a protagonist to get, but she is missing for large swaths of the book.

One thing that I find interesting about this is the translation, which, among other things, involves moving chapters around. Like, apparently the Ye Wenje chapters in the beginning were not, in the Chinese novels, the opening pages of the novel. Yet, at the same time, the way that the english version is structured, certainly telegraphs that she is the protagonist. A (close) friend of mine is Chinese, so I have talked to him about it; his read is that the intention is the same in the original. That is, actually, yeah, Ye Wenje is intended as the protagonist, with Wang Miao as more of a narrator, maybe? I am not super clear on this, since we had to part ways before finishing that conversation. But it makes me wonder, too, and somewhat confused.

Altogether, I basically feel somewhat unqualified to say anything bad about this book. Many of the things that I have read afterwards in, for example, the Making Light comment thread were, to me, utterly incomprehensible as criticisms. (For example, roughly, "The description of the death of [Ye Wenje's sister] in the beginning was sexually gratuitous", "It should be called the Four Body Problem" (...), "The dialog between Ye Wenje and her father's murderers was not realistic; people don't talk like that", "Since proton computers don't make sense, I decided that all the descriptions of the Cultural Revolution were probably inaccurate"). At the same time, probably, maybe I am too willing to give the book credit for parts that, in a western novel, I would be annoyed by? It is definitely coming from a different world than the other nominees, and I don't have a lot of benchmarks in that world (that are not also translated by Ken Liu) to compare.

I actually didn't find the footnotes to be 'not enough information', but I have studied an ok bit of Chinese history. While they were useful on minute points, I mostly had enough context without them. That probably helped too. (Speaking of translations, my edition mentions that on most occasions, Ken Liu tried to avoid translations in favor of stuffing more exposition into text, and I wonder how that affects things).

Styles and modes

Date: 2015-08-28 06:29 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
My impression of the style was almost like one of the more poorly-translated Lem novels (Invincible, for example, which suffered from being twice-translated: from Polish to German and then form German to English). Another point of reference is some of the more didactic Strugacki bothers' work.

It is squarely in the "Golden Age" mode, though: an attempt to write a novel of ideas, rather than characters or action--and filtered through different (socialist?) ideologies (hence parallels to Lem and the Strugackis). And it succeeds, in some ways, once we get past the implausible science (as an astrophysicist, I cringed at the reflective layers in the Sun's radiative zone, and I have not even made it to sophons yet! :) )

Still, I am a bit over halfway through the first volume, and must admit that I am enjoying it (with aforementioned reservations and the realization that now, with some of the mysteries that kept me going at first solved, my enjoyment is probably going to diminish).

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