I’d requested this book on NetGalley before I read a modified excerpt from it in the anthology Carbide Tipped Pens, and was surprised, because the story (about historical China) and the novel’s premise seemed quite different. It turns out that the story version was substantially modified from the book version, and the book version takes place within a video game setting that refers to historical figures. That’s a bit unfortunate, because story is better than the book.
On the plus side, it’s a pleasure to read more SFF that’s not grounded in standard Western settings. Action takes place from the Cultural Revolution to the near future, and Liu is forthright in his examination of each period. It’s an interesting look at a history I know relatively little about. Liu has also clearly thought about the scientific elements of his story, and the book follows in the tradition of reasonably credible projections of current science. Some of the elements get a bit fuzzy, but there’s enough basis to accept a lot of it. The basic plot is interesting and well structured.
Where the book weakens is in fine presentation. Some aspects are so obvious that it’s not credible characters wouldn’t understand them right away. There’s an important website called 3body.net, yet our protagonist takes quite a long time to consider that perhaps there are three bodies involved. (The game itself is also fairly static and generally uninteresting.) More to the point, the writing is simply dry. Characters face dramatic changes in their lives, the world, the universe, all with remarkable equanimity. Some are calm to the point of seeming inhuman. The lead character, Wang Miao, has a wife who plays virtually no role in the story. I think he may have children too, but they’re so inconsequential as to not matter. I don’t believe we ever learn any of their names – all while Wang is undergoing deep (but very calm) soul searching.
The style of the book is reminiscent of some of Stephen Baxter’s drier outings. Liu is not quite as insistent on throwing in esoteric data, but there’s plenty of it around. With Baxter, I think of him as pushing little factoids that he genuinely thinks are interesting. With Liu, it feels more like information that he just happens to know, but that seems somewhat extraneous to the story. There are also a number of post-facto explanations that suggest a final edit would have helped.
That this was translated by Ken Liu is both a plus and a minus. Normally, I might put the stylistic weaknesses of the story down to translation. However, I’ve read enough of Ken Liu’s work and his translation that I have a sense of his style. It’s frankly just more lively than this. Author and translator each include an interesting afterword, but neither changed my feeling that the dry style is down to the author, and not his translator. Ken Liu also includes endnotes to most chapters that I felt were genuinely helpful in understanding context. There are a few phrases in the text that seemed too obviously aimed at the non-Sinophile audience, and I wish the endnotes had been structured as actual footnotes, but that was a minor issue.
I hope more people read Cixin Liu’s work. It’s good to see the field broadened, and Stephen Baxter has proven that there’s a market for SFF more focused on ideas than people. At the same time, while there are two sequels to this book, I don’t plan to search them out. Intellectually, I’m interested to
learn what happens, but emotionally, I was so little invested in the
characters that I don’t really care what happens to them. The story is simply too dry to
hold my interest, despite the unusual setting.