mmcirvin: (Default)
mmcirvin ([personal profile] mmcirvin) wrote2015-09-10 07:09 am

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem

I just finished this book, which was a bestseller in China and recently won the Hugo for Best Novel (in a year somewhat marred by the Sad/Rabid Puppy mess, though this book was not on the Puppy slate). I don't have a lot to add to James Nicoll's review, which I largely agree with, except to say that even the more "modern" elements of the book read to some degree like an old-fashioned idea-SF story from the mid-20th century (and that I enjoyed it for that). I suspect Cixin Liu was heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov; he explicitly references an Asimov short at one point ("The Billiard Ball"), but I can also see elements of Asimov's stories "Breeds There A Man..." and "Nightfall" in the setup, and his novel The Gods Themselves.

He's better at characters than Asimov was, though motivations still tend to be simple and stark. In real life, I would expect his aliens' propaganda techniques to produce at least as many terrified wannabe resistance fighters as enthusiastic turncoats. I found the sections dealing with the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath affecting, horrifying and fascinating (translator Ken Liu's footnotes do an excellent job of getting a Western reader through the unfamiliar aspects).

Unfortunately, the involvement of the three-body problem mentioned in the title is perhaps the least believable thing in the story, given that Cixin Liu is using a real triple star system that, given its configuration, shouldn't behave like he describes it behaving and should be fairly tractable to numerical prediction (also, he doesn't understand how tides work). That is, the least believable thing up to the final chapters, in which we finally see the extraterrestrial menace without a highly figurative filter and the super-science becomes colorfully goofy, in what Nicoll accurately calls the Edmond Hamilton mode. This is the first volume of a trilogy, and I would expect to see more of this in the later installments.
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[identity profile] markgritter.livejournal.com 2015-09-10 06:12 pm (UTC)(link)
It's not a 3-body problem! Three suns plus one planet = 4-body problem! *sigh*

[identity profile] mmcirvin.livejournal.com 2015-09-11 10:35 am (UTC)(link)
I was wondering when somebody would mention that.

(I suppose you could argue that the fourth body is small enough that we can neglect it in modeling the interactions of the stars, and treat it as a body in a varying background potential... but if they're truly chaotic, I suppose that is not true.)

The complaint that bothers me more (and that Nick Alcock is currently echoing over on my Google+ post about this) is that the Alpha/Proxima Centauri system, while it has three stars, just isn't anything like that.