Reading the Hugos: The Three-Body Problem by Li Cixin, plus Kevin J Anderson

I loved this book. I inhaled it. I spent two hours sitting on the floor of a cold, empty house, reading it as I waited for a removalist that never came, and I don’t begrudge that time.

And yet, there is a plot-twist so absurd that if it had come from an Anglophone author I would have asked if he was taking writing advice from Rupert Murdoch.  The male protagonist is bland; his family appear for one scene and then vanish, despite numerous developments that would directly affect them; I have doubts about the earth-based worldbuilding, which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

But I loved it.

It helps that I read the translated version.  A novel in translation can be challenging to read: phrases that felt natural in its original language become clumsy; the dialogue is nearly always stilted.  2013 saw me reading a lot of Japanese and Scandinavian crime fiction, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that my vision of the text was distorted, like I was wearing semi-opaque lenses.  I couldn’t quite bond with those novels.

With The Three-Body Problem, I appreciated that distance, because it kept reminding me not to judge it by the standards I’d apply to western writing.  That helped me tolerate — and even enjoy — the long expository scenes.  It also meant that when I hit the absurd plot twist, I didn’t write it off as hilariously bad right wing propaganda, the way I would if a western author presented such an idea with a straight face.  I’m not really up on contemporary Chinese politics, so I can’t put his work into a proper context.  I had to take it as it is, and that was refreshing.

(I did recognise one political thread: a debate between aliens about the value of totalitarianism versus democracy when it comes to the long-term survival of a culture.  Basically the only thing I know about current Chinese politics is that that is a heated issue.  Cixin himself doesn’t offer any easy answers.)

Probably part of the reason I loved it is that much of the novel is set during and immediately following the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Reading reviews, I’m quite surprised at how little American readers seem to know about this period — several even seemed to think the setting was a Communist revolution.

I have an advantage, in that my mother studied Mandarin at university in the late 70s/early 80s, at a time when the department was basically run by Maoists.  I scribbled in her copy of the Little Red Book when I was tiny, and I’ve always been really interested in the Cultural Revolution.

One of Cixin’s themes is that everything can be distorted by politics, including the seemingly immutable facts of the universe, and the Cultural Revolution is a perfect example of how that works.  (This also makes my instinctive desire to put his work into its political context seem all the more ridiculous.)

I’ve heard that the second volume in the trilogy is more character-driven, and I really hope that’s the case, because the male protagonist here was passive and quite dull.  (As opposed to the female lead, but to say more would be a spoiler.)  But I did love The Three-Body Problem — it had lots of things I don’t like, yet it executed them all on such a scale, and with such confidence, that I was drawn in despite myself.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, even when I was texting Stephanie to tell her that [SPOILERS] are really [SPOILERS] for a [SPOILER].

At this point, I think The Three-Body Problem is likely to get my first preference in the ballot, and it is absolutely deserving.

Kevin J Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars, however, is going to go below No Award.  That, too, is deserving.

Obviously Three-Body was going to be a hard act to follow, but The Dark Between the Stars had numerous strikes against it.  I read six chapters (remember, I said I’d give a book three chapters to convince me, so really, I went above and beyond).

I’d complain about Anderson’s two-dimensional female characters, but actually, the men are no better.  I didn’t much care for his depiction of a bitchy, career-driven wife and mother and the husband who kidnaps their son and escapes her.  (It’s not that these things don’t happen, it’s just the complete lack of nuance.)

I had even less time for the clumsy writing, where characters take several chapters to figure out things that were obvious to the reader from the very first scene.  I have no idea what the plot was going to be, or the history of this universe — which I believe is one Anderson has written in before — because the writing was so terrible, my brain just went NOPE and shut down.

An animated gif of an octopus scuttling across the field, the words

That octopus really speaks to me.

Now I’m reading The Outback Stars, which is also terrible, and yet really interesting?  ABORIGINAL RUNES.  But also a completely dysfunctional stores department on a starship, which is (a) interesting; (b) relevant to my peculiar interest in workplace issues; (c) a side of milSF we don’t often get to see.

I mean, that aspect is still terrible (fake rape claims!  All the Japanese officers are either Yakuza or prostitutes!  The space navy is allegedly based on the Australian navy but has US-style rules against fraternisation!), plus I really don’t care for the romance.  And yet I keep reading, because [see (a) through (c)].

Stay tuned for a No Award post about the trilogy.  It’s quite something.

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5 thoughts on “Reading the Hugos: The Three-Body Problem by Li Cixin, plus Kevin J Anderson

    1. My glob, even the back cover notes are amazing. “The author shows intimate knowledge of the nuts and bolts of what really makes big ships tick…and the careful attention to the elements of Aboriginal culture makes this even more worth of a reader’s time.”

      1. I took a look at the reviews on GoodReads and Amazon — looks like no actual Australians have reviewed it, but lots of Americans think she IS Australian.

  1. victoriajanssen

    I read THE OUTBACK STARS back when it came out, and all I remember is the workplace stuff, and all the vivid details of how Stuff got from Storage to where it was needed and how the protagonist had to wrangle underlings. Absolutely nothing of the plot or runes or anything remains in my memory.

  2. Oh dear FSM Kevin J Anderson is a terrible terrible author. I once started reading one of his books and I didn’t want to finish it. This is a rare occurrence for me, I tend to tolerate bad writing that the rest of my partners will not. But not this book by Mr Anderson. I went and sought out reviews to see if it was just me, or whether KJA was indeed a terrible author. The reviews suggested you either loved the book and it was the best thing you’d ever read, or you loathed the book with the passion of a million suns (does that even make sense?). All the reasons given to loathe the book were ones I agreed with. From that moment on, I have never, ever picked up a KJA book to read again.

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