Chinese Sci-Fi Book Review: Three Body Problem

Three Body Problem was on my “must read” list ever since it won the Hugo Award two years ago.  Unlike past Hugo award winners, this book was special because it was the first time a Chinese author won the most prestigious award in science fiction literature.  As someone who loves both sci-fi and China, I just had to read this thing.

But for whatever reason, I didn’t get around to it.  It was probably the not-so-appealing cover.  Maybe it’s the weird title.  Or perhaps it was the summary of the book, which involves the overdone plot of “humanity fights aliens.”  I have to admit–from first glance, it didn’t seem all that appealing.

But then a few months ago…

“Mary,” husband said to me as I picked him up from the airport.  “I just finished Three Body Problem–and it’s now my favorite book EVER.  You have to read it.  NOW!”

My husband wasted no time.  As soon as we arrived home from the airport he found my iPad and loaded the entire trilogy onto my Kindle app.

“Ok” he handed the kindle to me, “start reading.”

I had never seen my husband so excited for a book.  I shrugged and, before bed, started the book.

Within weeks I had finished book one.  A few days later I gobbled up book 2 (the Dark Forest).  Now I’m nearing the end of book 3 (Death’s End).

It’s the best science fiction I’ve read in years.

The Highlights

The storyline is innovative, scientific, philosophical and downright disturbing.  It is a very realistic account of humanity’s reaction to an alien invasion… and it’s not pretty.  From the cultural revolution, to environmental ruin, to the death of democracy and the survival of humanity–the plot really covers it all.  What really sets this book apart from other sci-fi is the amount of scientific detail woven into the storyline.  The author goes deep (sometimes too deep) into physics and astronomy to explain space exploration and alien civilizations.  Unless you’re a physicist, I guarantee that, at times, this book will go way over your head.

Plus, aside from the plot, it’s refreshing to have an Asian protagonist star in every book.  Period.  While the trilogy doesn’t have a typical ‘protagonist’ cast for each book, the overwhelming majority of actors in this series are Chinese.  It definitely put me in a different place and perspective compared to typical, western sci-fi.

Finally,  every book in the trilogy provides great closure (something I really value in a book).  I haven’t finished book three yet, but I heard that it leaves most readers happy and satisfied.  In fact, the ending for book two was so well done I wondered why the author even bothered to write book three.

The Downsides

Characters could be a little stronger.  They’re not deep, three-dimensional characters like you would find in Game of Thrones.  Sometimes it feels like they’re simply fulfilling a plot device the author wants carried out.

And while I love the plot, sometimes it’s just too damn complex.  I had to skim over a lot of scientific theory throughout the book because it was way behind my comprehension.  Although I enjoyed how the author made the book more feasible with his in-depth scientific theory, he can sometimes bog the reader down with too many details.

And it’s kinda sexist…?

When I googled book reviews, I read a few blogs by angry, female sci-fi readers accusing Liu Cixin of being sexist and demeaning women.   At first, I was stunned.  This book not only had a good chunk of key female characters, but all the female leads were scientists, politicians and innovators…!!  Considering the numerous amount of strong female leads, how could the author be sexist?

It wasn’t until book three I realized that, perhaps, maybe those angry female bloggers were onto something.  Without giving away too much of the plot, I can say that female characters in this book are the root cause of all the problems in this trilogy.  It’s subtle, but if you take a step back and look at all the tragedies that occur in this book, it’s basically like Eve screwing over Adam and all of humanity, but multiple times and on a much larger scale.

Plus, all the male leads always end up lusting after some soft and demure Chinese chick…which is fine, I guess.  Still,  through the way he crafts female love interests in the book it’s quite obvious to imagine Liu Cixin’s image of an ideal woman.  Innocent, demure, soft-spoken, motherly, caring.  These are all great traits and are the epitome of Asian feminine beauty, but unfortunately it reinforces some negative stereotypes.

In a nutshell

If you’ve seen the movie Interstellar and liked it, then you’ll go crazy over this book.  Three Body Problem is basically a way, way better version of Interstellar.  Just imagine Interstellar with a better cast of characters and an even more mind-blowing story.

And thanks to Liu Cixin and this trilogy, the floodgates to Chinese sci-fi has finally been opened.  Here’s to hopefully more amazing Chinese sci-fi/fantasy literature being translated and released in the future.

12 thoughts on “Chinese Sci-Fi Book Review: Three Body Problem

  1. autumnashbough says:

    I tired. I tried to read that book and I got about halfway through “The Three Body Problem” and was like, “Nope, this is not how I want to spend my free time.” Loved the science, hated the characters and hated the way Liu switched perspectives constantly, which I felt he used to keep the reader from getting into the characters. To be fair, I’m not a huge fan of George R.R. Martin for the same reason — I like being completely immersed in a character and I find his perspective switches really jarring as well.

    Also, I like my women smart and kick ass and strong.

    • rubymary says:

      Yeah, it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. I didn’t like any of the characters in book one and think it’s the least interesting of them all (book 2 does a great job and actually has a main character); but I think if you don’t like book one you won’t like the rest.

      They’re making this into a movie, which I think would either be really hard–or really boring–or both. Don’t think it’s a good idea, but oh well. I hope they don’t white wash it.

      What are some of your favorite sci-fi/fiction novels? I think you told me some fantasy titles before, but I’m curious to know what kind of books you are into!

      • autumnashbough says:

        Well, the earlier books by Bujold. Anything by NK Jemisin, the early Honor Harrington Books, CJ Cherryh, and Mishell Baker. Oh, and Martha Wells Murderbot diaries. I’ll think of all the other authors I love as soon as I finish typing this and hit send.

        • rubymary says:

          Ah yes, Bujold–we talked about this! Ok, I’ll start looking up these authors, three is already a lot for me to tackle… but I’m excited!

  2. Lani says:

    “The Dark Forest” came highly recommended so I started to read it. I loved the writing and the rich layers, but I eventually lost interest. I think because it is so damn complex and it didn’t move along fast enough for me. That’s sounds horrible doens’t it? But maybe if I started at the beginning? What do you think?

    As far as sexist-thing goes, I think the writing most likely reflects the authors struggles with females in his life and Chinese culture, more than him being his horrible person. I don’t know? He could be a woman-hater, but I think he was exploring his own unconscious struggles. I mean, we don’t know what his background is and I think he was equally surprised by what critics said. But I didn’t read all of it; I’m just thinking of a particular character and I could see why they think that way.

    The series I’m reading right now is considered “sexist” by some, but I just love the Xanith series and the world Piers Anthony created. I can see through those moments and it doesn’t bother me, it just makes me laugh. At the beginning of the 3rd book, he even said, “some folks consider my work sexist and I want you to know that this book will have more if” – hahahaha.

    • rubymary says:

      Dark Forest is excellent. I think it’s much better than the first book, The Three Body Problem. Unlike book one, there’s a main character and he’s a guy you love to hate. But yes, I understand about the over-complexity. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I skim over A LOT of science jargon. Still, I was so intent on knowing just how everything went down I read it to the end. The ending is worth it. Luo Ji’s finally figures out how to defeat the aliens and it’s soooooo gooooood.

      Yes, I don’t think the author is openly sexist–I think it’s more of his subconscious seeping out. I mean, at least there are women in the book–even better, they have pivotal roles. A lot more than can be said for most sci-fi/fantasy. When I read about the protagonist’s “perfect woman” it sounded like every Chinese man’s dream woman (author included). Which is fine. I think I started to get frustrated with the sexism thing in book 3. The protagonist is a female and she’s SOOO victimized (and of course, ruins humanity’s chance of survival, AGAIN).

      Anyway, I can tolerate sexism as well (I mean, I still finished reading the trilogy, right?). Just hope that in newer sci-fi titles we can actually get a half-decent female lead.

      Oh man, I love Piers Anthony!!! He’s so good~!!! I haven’t read the Xanith series, I gotta try that out!!! I loved his other books.

      • Lani says:

        Hmmm. Yeah, you bring up a good point of the long tradition of hyper-sexualized women in the sci-fi genre. Must be all the geeks writing it 😀

        Reminds me when I was in a writers group a one of the male writers read from his “sci-fi” novel in the making. One of us ladies said, “Um, no woman would ever say that…” and then we sort of destroyed his female character, but it was funny because it was such an eye-roll (aka soft porn).

        We had a female president in the latest Battlestar reboot! But then we had that sexy blond chick.

        Now you got me thinking about this…

        Yes, Piers Anthony is so funny and clever! xo

  3. Marta says:

    I LOVED the trilogy. I even read the technical/scientific parts, which sound like Korean to me, but whatever, hahaha. I agree that most characters are not likeable and women are always to blame for the fall of humanity, but the scope of the story is so massive I was blown away. I’ve never read much sci-fi so I don’t know how it compares with other popular works, though.

    The movie in the works you mentioned is Chinese or foreign? I heard about a Chinese movie in the making some time ago but then I heard the project was cancelled. It appears on imdb so I don’t know if it’s still happening or not: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4547948/
    Also, it seems Amazon is in talks to make a tv series. That one would probably be set in the US and with American characters I guess.

    • Ruby Ronin says:

      Yayyy!! I’m glad someone liked it! haha.

      Yeah the scope of the story is insanely massive… yet another reason I liked it as well. I have yet to read any science fiction that has even come close to something so epic and complicated (I’m a sucker for stories that make you think). I just finished book three and wow, talk about a mindfck. **SPOILER** couldn’t believe the multiple universes and big bang explanations!? But yeah I didn’t like the third book’s ending.. it was so aggravating. Chengxin screws over humanity AGAIN and then she doesn’t even meet Tian Yunming in the end… god so lame…. that was half the reason I read the book! I knew they just had to meet up again! ARGHGHGHA;DFSKJDS **END OF SPOILERr*

      In my opinion dark forest is the best. That story with the wallfacer project and Luoji being so eccentric and weird and the whole dark forest theory itself is SO COOOOOOOL!!!

      Yeah I think I heard about the Amazon TV series. I just can’t imagine this will be that good of a movie…? It would be really hard to do.

      Oooo the Chinese movie actually kinda looks good!!! Too bad it got cancelled 🙁

  4. Joelle says:

    Did you read it in Chinese or in English?

    It’s been on my to-read list for ages, and I have both English & Chinese versions on my Kindle, but even though I’m a massive SF/F geek, I just can’t seem to be bothered to start reading it.

    • rubymary says:

      Oh man, I don’t think I would ever be able to read this in Chinese. It’s WAY too complex. I definitely read it in English. One of my Chinese friends read it in Chinese and stopped halfway through book two cause she couldn’t understand it.

      It’s complicated, but still very understandable. If you enjoyed astronomy class and remember the basics from it, then you’ll be fine.

      It was hard for me to start it, too. But trust me–it’s SO good! It’s really different and unique. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but it was innovative and refreshing Sci-fi. If you enjoy a strong storyline then it’s for you. Plus…. Book 2 is so damn good. So worth it.

      • Joelle says:

        I was asking, because I heard the English translator for the second book wasn’t as good as the translator of the first book, so the translation quality took a nosedive for book 2, but since you loved book 2… (I’m just professionally interested now, on top of all that!)

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