My Problem with Three Body

Well, I finally got around to reading The Three Body Problem – or, more accurately, I finally got around to listening to it, being that Audible had it on sale.

And I don’t know. When it ended I sat back and thought to myself, “Huh,” and that was pretty much it.

Bitchin’ cover though, eh?

The Three Body Problem was originally published in Mandarin ten years ago, and according to something I read somewhere it is credited with legitimizing the field of science fiction as an actual literary genre within China. I have no idea if it’s fair to call it China’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that’s kind of the impression I got when I read the press coverage.

As it unfolds the book turns into this sort of surreal, almost absurdist succession of physics lessons and impressively abstract “what if?” scenarios, occasionally interspersed with melodramatic soliloquies and, once in a great while, a plot point. This is not to say it was bad, because it wasn’t. It was just very… foreign, maybe. I think.

Here; I’ll try and explain what I mean.

One of the pertinent plot points is this: in the world of Three Body, particle physicists the world over have been killing themselves. Moreover, they seem to have developed this irritating habit of leaving cryptic suicide notes such as the following, which is taken from page 56 of my ebook copy:

All the evidence points to a single conclusion: Physics has never existed, and will never exist. I know what I’m doing is irresponsible. But I have no choice.

We learn eventually that the ‘evidence’ in question is that the world’s particle accelerators have been returning some wildly counter-intuitive results which do not appear to be in line with currently accepted physical models. We also learn later that the reason for this is not because physics doesn’t exist, but rather because aliens are deliberately diddling our results so that the human race will collectively throw up our hands, decide that the universe is governed by nothing more concrete than random chance, collectively scream “All is Lost!” and give up on science altogether, which will then in turn leave us vulnerable to eventual invasion by the aforementioned alien particle diddlers.

Now. For the purposes of this blog-post, let’s ignore the the whole second half of that last paragraph and focus on the suicide bit.

The physicists in question are, in point of fact, physicists. They are people who make it their business to look out into this supremely weird universe of ours, and by hook or by crook make sense of the whole improbable business. When I imagine a physicist observing some odd or unexpected phenomenon like, say, a particle accelerator experiment that returns unexpected and nonsensical results, I do not imagine that physicist then runs home to kill herself, pausing only long enough to thoughtfully leave behind a mysterious suicide note as a plot device for her compatriots to investigate later.

No. I imagine that physicist letting out a long, drawn out sigh, and going down to the break room for another cup of joe, because it’s going to be a very long night indeed. I imagine that physicist’s excitement steadily growing as they run test after test after test. I imagine that physicist imagining her face on the front of whatever periodicals physicists read, smiling past a cover story entitled Einstein is Dead! or something similarly evocative. I imagine her imagining her Nobel Prize, and mentally pricing display cases to put it in.

But that’s not what happens in the world of Three Body. This suicidal physicist is not an anomaly in her world, her reactions are far from extraordinary. Her fellow characters are also prone to the same kinds of flighty and erratic behavior.

Take the beat cop, for example. He’s another character in this story, a pretty standard cigar-smoking, hard drinking, gruff talking detective who is suspicious of everybody. Pick a noir film, any noir film, and he fits right in. He fills his time with busting perps and breaking down doors, and blowing cigar smoke in the faces of those unfortunate enough to find themselves in his company. This is not a particularly laid back, roll-with-the-punches kind of dude, and yet when this man is informed that the world is going to be invaded by aliens, he doesn’t even question it. Doesn’t seem to bat much of an eye. His only comment is something to the effect of “Huh. Well, lock and load, boys – we’ve got an alien invasion to stop.”

I could go on, but I’m typing this into an email at work and I’m afraid my supervisor will come sidling silently into my cubicle any minute now, pausing for a moment to read over my shoulder before calling me down to his office to discuss my work ethic. Suffice to say, everything about Three Body is weird, from the characterizations, to the dialogue, to the plot structure and on. But weird is not bad, per se – it’s just weird.

More than anything, it kind of reminds me of David Cronenberg. Not the tale itself; I think you’d find little enough in common between The Three Body Problem and, to pick an example out of the air, Videodrome.

Now to be clear, I am not fond of Cronenberg, for reasons I have never been able to express to my own satisfaction. But for as much as I dislike Cronenberg, I have to respect the man. His movies, for all their weird, nonsensical dialogue, and weird, nonsensical characterizations, and weird, nonsensical allusions to some sort of philosophical message which never quite seems to make it through to the viewer (or, at least, not to this viewer), his writing is not bad.

A bad writer pulls things out of his ass. He resorts to tired tropes unvarnished even by a new coat of paint. He doesn’t know how to make anyone give a shit about what his characters want or feel. He rips off technologies and settings and worlds from the old masters who came before, and usually without the sense of self-awareness necessary to render such ripoffs tongue-in-cheek. When you read bad writing, you roll your eyes and mumble things like Really? under your breath, and a little bit later on Are you shitting me, man?

Cronenberg is not a bad writer. I know this because even though I tend to dislike his films, there is still something in there. There is some kind of internal structure underneath, there is a set of ideas onto which Cronenberg is grafting the pustules and rent flesh for which he is known. Somewhere under the gratuity, the man has a point. What that point actually is is usually opaque to me, but still. It’s in there. Cronenberg knows exactly what he’s doing. What we’re looking at is careful and deliberate, and is the product of a skilled and masterful hand regardless of whether we like what that hand ends up making.

I don’t know what the fuck that is, but I know that it’s something, n’amsayin’?

And this is the sense I have of The Three Body Problem. I don’t know how much of it’s weirdness is owed to the fact that it was originally built out of a language as foreign to mine own tongue as it is possible to be. I don’t know how much of it is due to the fact that it comes out of a culture fundamentally alien to my own, built upon a literary tradition not descended from those with which I am familiar. I don’t know how much of that weirdness comes solely from the mind of it’s author, regardless of his cultural background.

But, while I cannot say that I particularly liked the book, I think I do respect it. Like Videodrome, there is some deep structure to The Three Body Problem. It is the careful and deliberate product of a master craftsman, despite the fact that the finished work is not particularly to my taste.

So go read it. It’s good.


At first I was inclined to blame the translator, some no-name fuck name of Ken Liu.

And then I googled Ken Liu, and discovered that he is most certainly not a no-name fuck. He is, in fact, one of the fastest rising stars in the spec-fic world today. His spectacular short story The Paper Menagerie had me tearing up in my cubicle, and sent my mother into a fit of wailing when I made her sit down and read it. It’s one of those stories which you just know is going to be required reading in English courses in the next couple of years. You can find it on i09.

So. The fault for my feelings clearly lies solely with me.


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