Hugo Novel Review (Partial): Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

written by David Steffen

I’ve been reading as fast as I can before the Hugo voting deadline on July 31st, but there’s been a bunch of things competing for my time  and so I haven’t been able to read as many of the nominees as I like.  I am only part way through The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu, published in English by Tor Books, but since the Hugo voting deadline is almost here I wanted to give a partial review–I’ll give a complete review when I have had the time to finish the book.

The story starts in China in 1967, during the Cultural Revolution (a social-political movement started by Mao Zedong whose stated goal was to preserve the “true” Communist ideology from the corrupting influences of capitalist and traditional elements from society.  Ye Zhetai is a physics professor at the time, trying to teach his students without coming under the ire of the movement, but in a debate about relativity he is struck dead.  His daughter Ye Wenjie follows in his footsteps, becoming a physicist as well, and ends up being recruited for a top-secret research project.

In the present day Wang Mao, a nanomaterials researcher, is called into a meeting between top researchers and military officials, where a list of physicists who has committed suicide is revealed, each for apparently the same reason, leaving long essays as suicide notes.  It has something to do with the organization called Frontiers of Science which are considered radical by the rest of the scientific community, to answer the question: “What is the limit of science?”  The implication seems to be that something about what they have found in their research is driving them to kill themselves.  He starts seeing elements pointing to a countdown in impossible places.  A countdown to what?  Wang Mao takes a position at the Frontiers of Science, and he sees fellow researcher Shen Yufei playing a game called The Three-Body Problem, which is based in a fictional world where there is no discernable pattern to the seasons and the challenge of the game is to find some pattern so that a civilization can be established in a stretch where the weather is favorable.

And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten in my reading.

The novel is very slow to begin.  It seems like half of what I’ve read so far didn’t have much relation to the other half, but I’m still in the first quarter of the novel so at this point I’m assuming it all ties together to justify that slow start.  I also figured that there might be some cultural differences about the expectations of story structure so I didn’t want to give up on the story until I’d given it a good long time.  I really felt like I got hooked as he was playing the Three Body Problem game, the details of that game and the strange challenges were interesting and caught my attention.  The problem of the physicists committing suicide has a bit of a Lovecraft feel to it–forbidden knowledge that drives one mad, though in general it feels more science fiction-y than horror-y.

Anyway, I’m interested in how it turns out, I’m enjoying the read, but without more pages consumed, I can’t say overall whether I like it or not.  I’ll let you know soon.

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David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. If you like what he does you can visit the Support page or buy him a coffee! He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David is also the editor-in-chief here at Diabolical Plots. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on BlueSky for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

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