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Tuesday, January 17th, 2017 10:16 pm
[I’m making an effort to avoid serious spoilers, especially in the main body of these comments, but I’m sure there are little ones there and more in the list of specific thoughts that follows.]

A week or two ago, I finally finished reading The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (as translated by Ken Liu). It was a fun story that touched on some neat science, and I quite appreciated the experience of reading fiction based on a rather different cultural background than my own. (The translator commented in his afterword that he had done his best to walk the fine line between an overly literal translation that failed to capture the author's sense and intent and an overly idiomatic translation that failed by purging everything that gave it its own sense of place and history. I think he was very successful.) I did have some issues with the structure of the tale itself, and over the course of the book I felt like the sci-fi elements went from “realistically plausible” to “well-done apart from some errors in the details” to “what the heck are you talking about?” So while I mostly enjoyed the book as a whole, a lot of its conclusion left me frustrated.


It was to some degree a humbling experience to read a story whose historical grounding and references (whether 50 years ago or 1500) were so, well, foreign to me. I had heard *of* some of the emperors mentioned, and about bits and pieces of the Cultural Revolution, but not remotely enough to feel oriented in the way that a person fluent in Chinese culture would. Would a Chinese reader have had the same "this is all madness" reaction to the various factions of Red Guards and others that I did, or did the author intend readers to feel sympathy toward some and not toward others? I was torn between feeling frustrated by those unclear moments and feeling excited by them (since I was learning something new, in just the right "organic" way). I'd estimate that about half of my moments of uncertainty along these lines were immediately addressed by a relevant translator's note filling in some cultural background. By and large, I really liked this aspect of the story.

As for the story itself, my impressions were mixed. I thought that a lot of the core conceptual premises were fresh and interesting: I haven’t read anything quite like it before. But there were also a lot of aspects that just didn’t work for me, for a variety of reasons. I’ve mused on some specifics down below, but the big issues for me were the main character’s lack of meaningful participation in the events of the story and a number of ways in which the behavior of characters or society seemed unrealistic or cliched.

I also had mixed impressions of the actual science/sci-fi elements of the story. One of Isaac Asimov's great strengths as a science fiction writer was his ability to build entire stories (or series of stories) around the consequences of a single, simple sci-fi premise: the Three Laws of Robotics, say, or the "Psychohistory" that shaped the Foundation. That same spirit of "let's really delve into the deep societal consequences of this sci-fi change" provides much of the richness and fascination of books by authors like Le Guin or Bujold, to name just a couple who leap to mind. Liu Cixin... does not work this way.

The early sci-fi elements (involving attempts to communicate at interstellar scales) were handled quite well with some clever, mostly plausible “new science” involved. A little later, the titular "three body" physics (and its in-story context) seemed well done on the whole, too. It's a really neat take on not just the dynamics involved, but how life might react to that. (I had minor to moderate issues with a handful of the details.) And then there’s the final reveal about “two protons” and their effects. I think there would be plenty of premises associated with those alone for about a dozen different sci-fi stories. Unfortunately, the science involved is nonsense even as a fictional new discovery, and the effects are so ridiculously overpowered that it seems to rip half a dozen gaping plot holes in the story in its attempt to explain earlier mysteries.


And with that, before I go on to chatter about specifics (which will tend to be more spoilery), I feel like I ought to close with a recommendation. Sadly, I’m torn on that. I suspect that some of my eye rolling near the end was just from being too close to the science involved, but some of the issues would likely grate on a lot of readers. The story and its structure are a bit spotty, too. Nevertheless, the novel premises and perspective are worthwhile and interesting. So I guess my final conclusion is, "Go not to the Elves for council, for they will say both no and yes."


A handful of random specifics about the story and its telling:

  • My biggest complaint about the story itself: much of the time, it felt like the main characters weren't really doing anything consequential. Rather, they were just on a roller coaster ride hearing about major historical events past and present, and scrambling to keep up. Even the main character's primary contribution to solving the climactic dilemma is saying "Oh, we've actually got a bunch of that back in my lab" after someone else proposes a strategy that would require a novel substance, and then watching others use it.

  • Maybe the description just didn't capture it for me, but the computer game in the story made no sense to me as a game. It sounded like an interestingly vivid simulation and teaching tool, and maybe a sort of participatory theater, but as presented within the story I just didn't buy it as something that players would be so drawn to (or more importantly, as something whose rules or goals they would understand, given the interface and explanation we were shown).

  • The secondary character who's "not a GOOD cop, but one heck of an effective one" and turns out to become a solid friend felt awfully close to a pure archetype, within his first few paragraphs on the page, and nothing ever happened to change that.

  • It was weird to me how we were introduced to the main character's wife and kid at one point and then he (and the author) proceed to show almost complete indifference to what they must be thinking or feeling at any future point (even as the main character practically has a mental breakdown, disappears overnight, and otherwise begins behaving very erratically).

  • There’s this weird assumption in the backstory that substantial fractions of the highly educated population of the world (and almost exclusively the intellectual elite) think humanity is hopeless and would be willing to basically sell out our entire species in one way or another. That just doesn’t fit with my experience at all. I can’t tell if this is a reflection of actual attitudes in Chinese society, or if it’s some sort of political statement by the author, or what.

  • The final confrontation with the most dangerous (human) faction felt almost perfunctory to me (gruesomely so). I guess that's exactly what they were aiming for, but I felt like they'd spent a fair bit of time developing a villain and a villainous organization, only to see the whole thing resolved completely tidily in a few paragraphs.


And a handful of specifics about the science:

  • As noted, I thought that the titular "three body" physics (and its in-story context) were generally well done. (Apart from the weird "invisible stellar outer atmosphere" thing that went with it, anyway.) It's a really neat take on not just the dynamics involved, but how life might react to that. Given the title and the physics I know, I guessed pretty quickly what was going on when it first came up, and even began to guess where it was going on. That said, some of the various "hot disaster" scenarios described felt just entirely "off" to me, on a "wait, that wouldn't happen, or at least not that way" level. (And I'm pretty sure that the most common fate of small bodies coupled to a 3+ body system like this is not "collided with something" but rather "hurled out of the system". Also, I don't think there's any way to deduce the past history of such a chaotic system in any detail, certainly not well enough to deduce all the details of its structure in the distant past.)

  • The final twist/explanation involving the four protons (or rather, "protons") just plain upset me. Not only was practically everything about the science of it nonsense, but the technology described was so insanely powerful that I'm pretty sure it could have solved all of the aliens' problems on its own, without any need to interact with the folks on Earth at all. (These last bits are especially spoilery.)


    • Nonsense: First, a proton is well established to be a composite particle, no matter what the ultimate theory of nature turns out to be, but every way I can try to make sense of the higher dimensional stuff can only sensibly apply to fundamental particles. Second, one of the essential properties of quantum systems like a proton is their indistinguishability: there is literally nothing you can do to a proton even in principle to make it different than any other proton: they are absolutely and unalterably identical. (This is a necessary ingredient for almost every system obeying "Fermi-Dirac statistics", a category including more or less half of all quantum systems.) That means that no matter what wacky extra dimensional extent it might have, is simply couldn't work to "paint on" even a serial number, much less to embed an entire functioning AI computer. Third, quantum entanglement doesn't work the way it's presented here: you can't use it for instantaneous communication at all, and I'm pretty sure that even if you didn't care about "instantaneous" two pairs of entangled protons could only carry two bits of information, total. This isn't an ongoing high-bandwidth communications channel! Fourth, even if they sent these "protons" to Earth somehow, it's clearly implied that the protons themselves have some sort of near-lightspeed propulsion to move them back and forth around the planet. What is it, and what's its energy source?

    • Solving problems: When the computer circuits are being etched(?) into the world-enveloping 2D-expanded protons, the surface blocks any and all light from reaching the planet below: the world was frozen as surely as in the long dark stretches of a Chaotic Era. It seemed pretty thoroughly impermeable! But... isn't that exactly what they would need to protect their world from close calls falling near a sun? (Heck, it might have even protected them from a close call with a solar atmosphere.) And the story provides evidence that these dimensionally altered protons can act as parabolic mirrors to focus sunlight, too: they might even be able to provide warmth during cold parts of Chaotic Eras, too! (Even if they can't reliably predict their planet's orbit decades in advance, they ought to be able to manage a few weeks or at least days: enough to be able to reconfigure their planet-sized superprotoncomputers for whatever protection is necessary. [But then, if they can reconstruct their solar system back to millions(?) of years earlier in enough detail to deduce that it once had many more planets, why can't they predict its future as successfully?]) Or as an offensive weapon, why worry about subtly tricking human scientists to keep our tech level down when they could just set the things to enclose our whole planet and cut off all sunlight for, say, a week or so? That would probably not do irreparable harm to the ecosystem, but it would probably devastate crop yields worldwide and lead to the total collapse of modern society, leaving our planet ripe for the picking. The short version is that these things are ridiculously overpowered, enough so to more or less break the plausibility of the rest of the story.

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