Written 24 June 2021
I thought my next venture into the science fiction genre would be to read The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin and while it’s still on the list I didn’t find myself approaching the prospect with any real relish so looked for something else. These books were recommended to me on Twitter and having read the review of the first book in the series I thought I’d give it a go, or at least read the first book The Three-Body Problem.
I have started writing this review despite being just half way through the third and final book (Death’s End) but as the sweep of the series is pretty vast I decided I should put down some thoughts sooner rather than later.
The subject of the series is humanity’s encounter with alien civilisations. Recaps of the plot are available on Wikipedia and I won’t even attempt one here but it is enough to say that the story spans centuries, starting in Cultural Revolution Communist China and stretching into a multi-dimensional future and through various eras. It really is a vast undertaking and deals in an intelligent way with what forms an encounter with alien civilisations might take and how humans and societies might react over a long timescale to the shift in perception that such encounters would mean. Lui also considers how encounters with humans might affect a more technologically advanced alien civilisation which throws up some interesting angles.
The cast of characters is largely Chinese, or at least have Chinese names, but there are Westerners and Americans too. It’s made clear that in the future the universal human language is a mix of Chinese and English, and indeed one character’s name is a hybrid of Latin and Chinese characters. This presented a bit of an issue for me at first simply because as a non-speaker without any sort of toe hold in the language I found Chinese names a bit difficult to remember. But it improved as I got into it and I think any attempt to anglicise the names would have been a huge detraction (I remember talking to friend who had read War and Peace and referred to “Andrew” (Andrei) and thinking it sounded just odd). I think it also helps to remind oneself that the author is Chinese (this is the first book I have read by a Chinese author) and of course that must bring something to the author’s perspective.
So, is it any good? My answer is an emphatic yes, it is very good indeed. With Asmiov’s Robot Trilogy this is easily the best science fiction I have read. It is very well crafted and written (and by implication very well translated), the characters are interesting and well developed, and it deals with crunchy themes in a very intelligent and interesting way. It takes quite a deep dive into the science (which as it’s science fiction and futuristic necessarily means that some big assumptions are being made, but that’s all part of the genre). It’s quite long, it won’t be for everyone and perhaps inevitably there were a couple of hundred pages in the middle of the second book I found a bit heavy going. But half way through the third book I’m glad I’ve stuck with it and am looking forward to the rest with a bit of regret that it’ll be finished, always a good sign.
Anyway, probably not the longest review, not the most comprehensive and certainly not a recap of the plot, but it’s definitely a strong recommend from me. I believe the series is lined up for the Netflix treatment from the people behind Game of Thrones (see here) so will probably receive a huge boost in recognition. I’ll certainly tune in, I’m sure it will divide fans of the book (TV adaptations usually do!) and it will be nice to be an early adopter for once!