As the Hugo nomination debacle unfolded, one of the few bright spots was the replacement of Marko Kloos’s novel with The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, who is apparently a Big Name in SF in China. This got a good deal of buzz when it was released in the US, and I’ve sorta-kinda been meaning to read it for a while. Having it move onto the Hugo ballot provided a great excuse to finally crack it open. And given that I wasn’t blown away by the other two non-Puppy nominees on the slate, or the one Puppy book that I had already read, I had great hopes this would redeem the category.
Alas, it was not to be. As I’ve already said on Twitter, I didn’t like this book at all, and very nearly gave up halfway through, but it’s pretty short, and when I looked for online lot summaries it sounded like there might be some cool setpieces toward the end, so I stuck it out. And, yeah, I probably should’ve given up.
The problem isn’t the concept of the book, which is loaded with cool ideas– secret societies, scientific conspiracies, alien messages, apparently miraculous events. All of this in a primarily Chinese setting, with the Cultural Revolution as a background. It has fantastic potential.
The problem is that it reads like second-rate Asimov. The characters are incredibly flat, and the key points of the plot are explained in horrible, leaden expository speeches. A lot of the plot turns on scientific ideas, and the speeches where the characters explain science to each other are just excruciatingly awful. The big setpieces toward the end that sounded cool in an online plot summary sounds pretty much the same in the actual book– like an online plot summary of something that would’ve been awesome in a different book. And the big reveal at the end is presented in the form of an awful infodump about what is basically comic-book science.
And, you know, as a good squishy liberal, I feel a little guilty about not liking this, because, you know, maybe the style that I really hate is just a characteristic of Chinese storytelling or something, and it’s culturally insensitive of me to not appreciate it more, etc. But that only goes so far– honestly found the science-y exposition intensely awful to read, both in a “human beings don’t talk like this” sense and a “that’s not how science really works” sense, and there’s just no getting past those.
This leaves me in a bit of a bad spot Hugo-wise, because I’m not sure how to vote this. I’m not sufficiently outraged about the concept of slate voting to put the two Puppy nominees below No Award just on principle, and the authors of those aren’t the sort of awful people I feel free to No Award just because they’re consistently awful (like, say, 80% of the Novella category). I don’t think the latest Dresden Files book was worthy of a Hugo, but I certainly enjoyed it more than I enjoyed this, and I might very well like the Kevin Anderson book more than this.
As for the other two non-Puppy books, Ancillary Sword was… fine. It’s very much the second book of a trilogy, though, so it wasn’t as strikingly original as the first book, and it was kind of lacking in the satisfying ending department. And I gave up halfway through The Goblin Emperor, which I can at least recognize as a very well done example of a kind of thing that would have great appeal to people who aren’t me.
So, yeah. Didn’t make the voting situation any better.
And now I kind of want to read the new Neal Stephenson book as an antidote, just because the expository bits will probably be the best part of the whole book…