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Three-Body Problem Review + Musings On Hugo Award Novel Voting - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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May 22nd, 2015

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12:34 pm - Three-Body Problem Review + Musings On Hugo Award Novel Voting
Yesterday, I finished reading Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, a well done and interesting SF novel written by one of China's premier SF novelists and translated in the English. I've looked at the covers of recent Chinese SF magazine (but not knowing Chinese, have only been able to read a handful of stories which have been translated). The covers remind me of tech focused US SF magazines from the 50s & 60s, but none of the stories have, until I read this book. There are a lot of ways that it's entirely unlike US SF from that era, but there are also distinct similarities – some of which were clearly deliberate.

james_nicoll recently reviews the Isaac Asimov anthology Nightfall and Other Stories, and based on that review, I reread some of the stories in my copy, most of which I had forgotten, having last read any of them more than 30 years ago, and so I had recently reread Breeds There a Man... - it's pretty clear to me that Cixin Liu read this short story and it formed part of the inspiration for Three-Body Problem, which isn't a bad thing, and Three-Body Problem is definitely the better of the two.

In any case, I'm fairly sure the author read that story, because of an offhand mention in the novel of a scene from Isaac Asimov's short story The Billiard Ball, so it's clear that the author not only has read Asimov's short stories, but also thinks they are a reasonable reference to put into a novel – I guess Chinese SF fans read lots of Asimov, which rather makes sense. Of course, the novel is far more than an extension of that story – it's also about the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the perils of cultural contact.

The book starts out very impressively – the sections set during the Cultural Revolution were very powerful and the present day sections presented a mystery that felt like something written by Daryl Gregory (who does that sort of thing awesomely well). However, we're told very early on that if something looks too mysterious, someone is behind it, and once we learn what's going on that book remains good and worth reading, but ceases to be anything I'd call great or wonderful. Also, the characterization of the protaginist during the sections set during the Cultural Revolution is fairly good, but the primary protagonist largely serves as a useful PoV and suffers from the same sort of minimal characterization as characters in similar US novels from the 50s & 60s.

It remains from beginning to end the sort of engineering & applied physics and chemistry focused SF that many US SF authors like Asimov made a living writing, and it's definitely a well done example of that, while also clearly being written in the modern day, by an author from a different culture.

Now we head into mild spoilers territory

I liked how all of the characters had comprehensible motivations, but was rather less pleased with the human villains being fanatical human-hating environmentalists (who are of course defeated and slain with Science!). Sure, human-hating environmentalists exist and I', seriously not a fan of their ideas, but making them mid-scale villains seems cheap and rather too closely in line with prejudices I've seen from a particular sort of engineers.

There were definitely interesting bits in the ending. The final communication with the aliens was a contemptuous "You're Bugs!", followed by a scene where one character shows several others a field covered with locusts, and that bugs are hardier than expected and far too often underestimated. I was reminded of the fact that more than a few bits of older jingoistic nonsense written in the US about China talked about the "Yellow Peril" much like the aliens talked about humanity, and I suspect that the author thought about this when writing that scene.

One odd and interesting bit was while the author clearly thinks the Cultural Revolution was an era of destructive madness (as it so clearly was), when I read the following passage, I also wondered if growing up during it hadn't perhaps caused him to absorb some of the attitudes of honorable proletarians and suspect intellectuals:
"The most surprising aspect of the Earth-Trisolaris Movement was that so many people had abandoned all hope in human civilization, hated and were willing to betray their own species, and even cherished as their highest ideal the elimination of the entire human race, including themselves and their children. The ETO was called an organization of spiritual nobles. Most members came from the highly educated classes, and many were elites of the political and financial spheres. The ETO had once tried to develop membership among the common people, but these efforts all failed. The ETO concluded that the common people did not seem to have the comprehensive and deep understanding of the highly educated about the dark side of humanity. More importantly, because their thoughts were not as deeply influenced by modern science and philosophy, they still felt an overwhelming, instinctual identification with their own species. To betray the human race as a whole was unimaginable for them. But intellectual elites were different: Most of them had already begun to consider issues from a perspective outside the human race."
The character Da Shi, the rough and uneducated but brilliantly incisive police officer is also another aspect of this attitude.

I'm very glad I read this novel, but what prompted me to was voting for the Hugo Awards. I now have a ranking for best novel and after much thought a strategy for voting. The strategy is simple, I'm willing to consider and vote for anything on that ballot that is by someone who hasn't made any statements in support of either the Sad or Rabid Puppies or slate voting in general. This means that I'm considering all of the books now nominated for best novel, but I only have to read one story in any of the short fiction categories, since I've found posts and comments in support of the voting slates by everyone else.

My votes for Hugo Award for Best Novel are as follows
  1. Ancillary Sword Ann Leckie: In addition to vastly better characterization than Three Body Problem, it didn't fall down ½ to 2/3s of the way through and I enjoyed it more. I don't think it's as strong a novel as Ancillary Justice, but I also think it's the best novel nominated
  2. Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: Definitely a good novel and one I'm very glad I read, but not good enough to win.
  3. No Award: I don't think any of the other three novels are all that good, and so No Award comes next.
  4. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: As I mentioned before, I gave up in utter boredom a bit less than halfway through. I'm not a fan of passive and incompetent protagonists who remain that way and while I wanted to like this novel, it was impressively dull.
  5. Skin Game by Jim Butcher: I didn't read the first couple of chapters – I'd previously read 2.5 of Butcher's Harry Dresden novels, and that's pretty much my lifetime limit. Butcher isn't a terrible writer, but this series isn't for me (and I'm someone who quite liked the first 8 of Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter (they weren't good, but I enjoyed them)).
  6. The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson: The previous two were novels I didn't like, but wouldn't go so far as to say were bad – this is a bad novel.

(4 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:May 23rd, 2015 10:41 am (UTC)
I'm boggling at your ranking of "The Goblin Emperor" below no award -- seriously, I think it's a tour de force, savagely deconstructing the whole "poor boy raised by honest provincial folks catapulted to a high-ranking place in the empire" sub-genre of high fantasy.

I mean, I can get how it might strike some folks as boring (although I think you may have given up right before the first of the coup and assassination attempts kicked off), but the whole point is that it critiques the hell out of the "rightful ruler with a sword" ethos underpinning the field.

It's subtle and powerful, and my #1 choice for the best novel Hugo.
[User Picture]
Date:May 24th, 2015 02:04 am (UTC)
I've heard similar reports of The Goblin Emperor from other people whose opinions I often agree with, so I stuck with it until almost the halfway point and skimmed parts of it after that. What I found was not merely (to me) quite dull, but a novel with a protagonist who was both incompetent at the task before him and also exceedingly passive - I'm generally fine with the first and the second isn't a deal breaker but I'm typically not fond of it. However, both together left me with little interest in him. Then there was the fact that he triumphed anyway, seemingly because his enemies were even less competent, which left me with the feeling that he was clearly the rightful ruler solely because he was ludicrously lucky. Despite the writing being (from my PoV) fairly good, it really didn't work for me.

As a side-note, what did you think of Three-Body Problem?
[User Picture]
Date:May 24th, 2015 03:01 pm (UTC)
Read the first chapter so far: still chewing on it. Impressive opening, but characterisation seems to be lacking something ...
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2015 04:36 pm (UTC)

2015 Hugo fiction: How bloggers are voting

User nwhyte referenced to your post from 2015 Hugo fiction: How bloggers are voting saying: [...] John Snead [...]

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