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Reading for Hugos

In my copious spare time (hoo-hah), I am continuing to work my way through the ballot for this years's Hugo Awards.

Just finished THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, by Cixin Liu, originally written in Chinese and translated by Ken Liu. This was the novel that just missed in the original round of nominations, only to secure a place on the ballot when Marko Kloos withdrew. In a half-century of Hugo Awards, there have been very few non-English originals ever nominated, and certainly never one from China, so THREE-BODY is a breakthrough book in that respect, and a sign that "worldcon" is (very slowly) becoming more global.

This is a very unusual book, a unique blend of scientific and philosophical speculation, politics and history, conspiracy theory and cosmology, where kings and emperors from both western and Chinese history mingle in a dreamlike game world, while cops and physicists deal with global conspiracies, murders, and alien invasions in the real world.

It's a worthy nominee.

If you like lots of science in your SF, this is a book for you, especially if you love theoretical physics, astrophysics, and mathemathics. The Chinese background is fascinating, especially the look at the Cultural Revolution and its aftereffects. And the prose is very clean and tight, which is not always the case with translations, which sometimes come across as a bit clunky. Ken Liu did a fine job, in that respect; the writing flows.

The central character at the heart of the novel is a fascinating and complex creation, but she is not the protagonist for most of the book, and the character who does fill that role comes across as very flat, more a viewpoint than a person. One of the secondary players, an abrasive cop, is much more successful; he's a bit of an asshole, but the story really comes to life whenever he's on stage.

All in all, I liked THREE-BODY PROBLEM, but I can't say I loved it. I thought the book started off very strong, but sagged in the middle before picking up speed again toward the end. And the ultimate ending was unsatisfying... mainly because, as I now see, this is just the first of three. I DO want to know what happens next, though. So I will be reading the next.

Now that THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM is on the ballot, I'd say that it is the likely favorite to win (and I am pretty sure it is about to pick up the Nebula as well). It seems to have admirers on both sides of Puppygate, which will stand it in good stead, and it should do very well with hard science fans and the ANALOG readers.

I am not going to reveal which book is going to get my own Hugo vote... only which ones I think are Hugo-worthy, and deserving of a spot above NO AWARD. So far, both THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM and THE GOBLIN EMPEROR rank above the line for me.

The other nominees still await my attention.

Anyone else read the Cixin Liu yet? What did you think of it?

Talking about books, after all, is what these awards are supposed to be about.


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May. 5th, 2015 05:24 am (UTC)
It was actually Marko Kloos who recommended The Three-Body Problem to me. I used to be a student of physics, back in the dim-and-distant, and the quandaries and explanations within it were delightful to me.

I found the Cultural Revolution portions to be deeply unsettling - but I believe this to be an accurate translation by a skilled translator. I think those pieces are *meant* to be unsettling, and I appluad this.

I enjoyed it, very much. I see it ended on a two-headed cliffhanger, which for me is a bit of a tooth-grinder, but knowing it's book one of a trilogy ameliorates that somewhat. Now I just want the next two books, already!

And yeah, Big Shi was a delight, albeit a bastard as well.
May. 5th, 2015 01:24 pm (UTC)
I tried to read The Three-Body Problem, but couldn't cope with the graphic portrayal of the abuses of the Cultural Revolution, so I stopped rather than have nightmares. That is a weakness in me and not in the work.
May. 5th, 2015 01:51 pm (UTC)
What are the rules regarding works that have been previously published? The Three Body Problem received the Chinese Science Fiction Galaxy Award in 2006, meaning that it has been in release in one form for nearly a decade.
May. 5th, 2015 05:12 pm (UTC)
Publication in English is what counts, I believe, since the vast majority of voters read only that language.
May. 5th, 2015 03:13 pm (UTC)
As a Chinese reader, I had to say that lots of us, who had finished the trilogy, treated the first book as only a background description, both the plots and the characters are "flatter" compared to the other two. This trilogy is actually called "the Remembrance of Earth's Past" as it was published in China, but we preferred to call it TBP.

As a "remembrance of the past", the most fascinating part of this trilogy is how Liu tried to interpret the existence of all the civilizations and their relationships in the universe from a "historian-like writer"'s view , other than only telling a story in an interesting way, he even gave a chronology chart for the whole trilogy in the third book.

Hope you will enjoy the next two!
Byron Gillan
May. 5th, 2015 07:49 pm (UTC)
Three Body Problem
This was the second book I got to review for my freelance work for the Buffalo News, I also got to ask the author a couple questions a bit later on regarding the novel.

I really liked the "big ideas" and science in the story, but I would agree that the primary POV choice was a bit, odd, especially given how engaging and interesting many of the supporting characters or other, limited, POV characters were. The asshole cop was a particular favorite of mine, just because he came across as such a stereotype from Asian-entertainment, only to then subvert the trope by actually being one of the most competent investigators working the case.

The aliens were likewise pretty great, and the work that the author put into their technology and "alien-ness" was quite impressive. Of course, the real strength of the book is the virtual world created to actively solve the "Three Body Problem", and that is where the story truly shines. The "living-computer world" created is one of the most unique and mesmerizing fantasy realms ever written, in my opinion, and it was the primary reason I stayed up all night turning the page to see what would happen next. If anything, I'm a little disappointed that we most likely won't see more of this creation in the sequels, given how the first book ends.

Overall, a fantastic book and probably one of the best stories an individual could choose to highlight the uniqueness of Asian science-fiction. I'm really glad to see it getting some attention from picking up a nomination spot, the story and the author deserve it.
May. 6th, 2015 01:37 pm (UTC)
I'm a Chinese so I didn't read the English version, but I can assure you the second book is much better than the first one.

Glad you like it ;)
May. 6th, 2015 03:20 pm (UTC)
I guess I know why you feel unsatisfied in the end of the book.
There seem to be a logical contradiction about the ship, but such doubt will be soon explained in the second book. I'm not going to spoil it. Please believe me that the second book is the best of the trilogy. When I rate the three books, I gave the first one 8, the second one 9.5, and the third one 9.

The three body problem is now being made into a movie in China. Many fans are afraid that the Chinese company (which makes online games and horror movies before) will ruin it. I myself hope the book serie could be read by big guys in Hollywood. LLAP.
May. 7th, 2015 03:03 am (UTC)
Re: I guess I know why you feel unsatisfied in the end of the book.
Please believe me that the second book is the best of the trilogy. When I rate the three books, I gave the first one 8, the second one 9.5, and the third one 9.

This is very exciting news! I can't really think of a trilogy where the 2nd book was the best book of the bunch. (Maybe Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series?)

Definitely looking forward to The Dark Forest (sequel to The Three Body Problem) coming out later this summer.
May. 6th, 2015 04:56 pm (UTC)
Next two books much better
I have finished all three, that flatness of Wang is commonly recognized. I have the same feeling that he is only a moving camera instead of a main character. As an engineer, Cixin Liu, IMO, is not a very good artistic writer: his power of developing characters is frankly not that strong. I love his books because of the grand scientific imaginations. It would be best to treat theories, objects or sciences as main character in his works, rather than people. I would not say this is a good individual book thou, next two books are far more worthy to a Hugo ---- What happened in next two books? [Spoiler Alert][Spoiler Alert] A funeral of the Solar system and the tri-solar system, nuff' said.
May. 7th, 2015 02:02 am (UTC)
Dan Simmons had some axes that he meant to noisily grind in Olympos. He seems to particularly hate muslims, and cast them as villains bent on exterminating all of humanity for no reason that he could be arsed to explain in any convincing way. I guess it's merely to be understood that they're crazy like that.

Once the late-in-the-second-book crazy was in full bloom, earlier signs that something was amiss seemed like warnings overlooked--the author's seething contempt for intellectuals in particular. I think it's maybe impossible to really understand something without growing to love it at least a little, and so it must be difficult to write a convincing character that you hate.

In The Three-Body Problem, I pick up that same vibe and I wonder if a similar meltdown is coming. Liu has some axes he means to noisily grind. He seems to particularly hate environmentalists, casting them as villains belt on exterminating all of humanity for no reason that he can be arsed to explain in any convincing way. I guess it's merely to be understood that they're crazy like that.

As for the maoist characters...I'll digress a bit. Kurt Vonnegut had no reason to love nazis, soviet spies, or white supremacists, and still managed to write such characters as recognizably human. You don't finish Mother Night and feel that you've read clumsy agitprop.

I've seen subtler and more insightful characterization of villains-slash-ideological-punching-bags in Chick tracts.

The gee-whiz stuff is super neat, though. Excellent marks for sensawunda. "Qb abg erfcbaq! Qb abg erfcbaq!! Qb abg erfcbaq!!!" gave me chills. I love it when a story can do that. It definitely lands ahead of No Award on my Hugo ballot.

Edited at 2015-05-07 02:21 am (UTC)
Keith Glass
May. 8th, 2015 12:40 pm (UTC)
The interesting thing about Liu Cixin's books. . .
. . . is the little bits of Chinese culture that seep through. Three-Body is two books down on my reading list, but based on reading "Sun of China", "Taking Care of Gods", and a few other of his shorter works, it's FASCINATING.

There are an entirely different set of basic assumptions in Chinese culture, and discovering them via Liu's work is a bonus...

Looking forward to about a week from now, when I start on it. . .
May. 8th, 2015 07:26 pm (UTC)
re: Three body promblem.
Yes I read it and it was a surprise. Since it was a popular book in mainland China( award Winner), it raise some interesting questions, for one, the reference to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. That was very surprising, assuming that small section was also included in the Chinese editions. I still in the Goblin Emperor should win camp but only because in this particular year, a book about understanding one another seems like a natural choice.
May. 9th, 2015 07:01 am (UTC)
Hi Martin, I’m a Chinese reader of yours, and a big fan, among thousands of others. THREE-BODY seems to me the only decent SF novel written in Chinese (I hope there will be more in the future). I've read the whole trilogy and I like the second volume best.

I finished reading the English edition two months ago. The translation is good, the cover art a lot better than that of Chinese edition. I’m really thrilled to know you like it!

I agree on every word you say about the three characters. It’s quite commonly agreed among Chinese readers that Cixin Liu is not so good at building characters, and I believe he knew the problem and tried to improve in the two sequels. I cannot say he succeeded, but I can see the efforts and the progress.

Anyway it is the wild imagination that I love about the book and the two followed. In the first book, the efforts to solve the three-body problem intrigue me most, and in the sequels the dark forest theory. I can’t wait to see how the second volume will be received.

Liu himself is a fan of your early SF works. He spoke of you in several of his interviews, with admiration. He reviewed SANDKINGS eight years ago, and I couldn’t have imagined that one day you would review one of his works!

Only recently did I get to your early works through DREAMSONGS, and it proved to be a most pleasant journey. I’m eager to read more, especially your “a thousand worlds” stories. Do you plan to finish AVALON someday, in the future? I really hope so!

Edited at 2015-05-09 07:03 am (UTC)
May. 10th, 2015 04:27 pm (UTC)
A Chinese reader
i am a Chinese myself,and i have read all the three books. i love this story, there is few demerit i can tell about the first book of the three bodies. as a reader instead of a professional writer, I don't think the protagonist's character is too flat, he is just a normal guy, in fact, he can serve as a perfect example of a common Chinese people, yes a dull guy, I' m surrounded by dull guys like that. But I can' t disagree with you about the ending of the first book. It seems to me, liu is afraid of the outcome of his own logic.
May. 10th, 2015 04:36 pm (UTC)
The second and third book
Well, even though I love the first book, the second book seems to be way less appealing. Again, I think the more proper version of the story is too scary that liu tried to detour it. But in the third book, liu' s philosophical thought has reached an astonishing height, I have never seen in any other book. It is insane and not in a good structure, a masterpiece. The new thought are always worth readings, by the way when are you going to finish the "ice and fire"? I love that story too.
May. 10th, 2015 04:45 pm (UTC)
Translation problems
I have never read the English version, but I guess there will always be dissatisfaction in translations. What's. Worse some cultural can' t be translated, the first book showed a despair that I can understand more than you do, it is not just about cultural revolution! It is about what's going on now! He just can't be too obvious. China has a serious problem, it is just China? Or it is the human nature?
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