I kept hearing hype about a science fiction book from China, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. Mega-reader and Very Smart Guy, Tyler Cowen, says, "My best fiction reading of the year was Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem trilogy,… It is one of the best science fiction classics, ever." And then apparently Netflix was (is?) going to spent $200e6 to make it into a thing for illiterate people who love esoteric physics-based plots. Cool. And then controversy arises based on the Chinese author saying some things to defend China’s honor (if you read his book, you’ll learn that maybe he was forced to say those things!). I’ve got no opinion about those things, which I know very little about! But I can read the book and be opinionated about that. So I did and here we are.

Style - There’s ESL and there’s its apotheosis, Chinese. The fact that this book (the version I read) was a translation from Chinese is pretty unusual. The fact that it was really well-crafted comfortable prose is a credit to the superb translating job of Ken Liu. This book didn’t make me desperate to read all the Chinese fiction I could lay my hands on — you know, in that way that, say, Japanese anime can take over people’s brains; however, with no disrespect to the author, if I were going to follow up with more writing like this book, I’d be looking at Ken Liu’s own oeuvre.

Organization - Good. Some sensible time jumping flashbacks. Some sensible interludes set in another (virtual) reality. But not so much that you get confusion whiplash. The lengths of the chapters and sections were sane.

Character names - I get it. Really I do. I suspect that to Chinese speakers, uttering my name aloud probably sounds like "big idiot who has literary prosopagnosia". But Chinese names for me are just not easily filed in the same place as people names. They’re more like subatomic particle names. At best, they’re more likely to go into a kind of comedy section like Zaphod Beeblebrox, except they’re not funny. Well, unfortunately, except when they are — best not to dwell on what the name "Dong Dong" conjures up. When names are merely foreign like "Franz", "Nacho", or "Magnus", I know, ah, these are people, men probably, etc. But with "Shao Lin" I’m unable to not think of Shaolin Kung Fu. That was a real character in this book. "Shi Qiang" was another one that was a challenge; he was also called "Da Shi" which irked me because I worked with someone called "Da Shi". Was I misunderstanding his name the whole time — is it really a goofy nickname as the book suggests? No idea. My colleague was such a good sport about it; I’m sure I was mispronouncing it too. Well, you’re either good with Chinese names or your bad at it. There’s a reason that "character names" is an entire section in my fiction reviewing matrix. At least Ken really is cognizant of this and has an index of names. I scoffed at it when I first saw it, but was grateful for it the 300 times I referred to it, each time feeling like an idiot. I’ve got to confess, I read the whole book before realizing that the author and translator shared a name. Is that their family name or their intra-family name? Who knows? (Well, besides the 1.4e9 obvious people.) I’m going to continue my parochial Anglosphere-centric belief that "Ken" is Ken’s first name.

Believable characters - Graded on a pass/fail, this passes. What makes it extraordinary and somewhat special is that the characters are very smart people. It’s pretty cringey to wade through some impression of smart people performed by someone who is on the outside looking in. All of the characters were smart, but not drastically smarter than a guy who can write a coherent modern physics based novel. Did the fictional rural 1970s characters act with the sensibilities of real 1970s rural Chinese people? No idea, but nothing struck me as out of place.

Natural dialog - Again, I think we have to defer to Ken here who did a really good job. Writing good natural dialog is always challenging and thus a section in my review matrix. There is no way crafting sensible utterances in English out of things written in Chinese can be an easy job. It was handled well.

Plot complexity - Normally I kind of like plots on the more complicated end of the spectrum, but the real goal is to get it right and I think this book succeeds. It really wasn’t too baroque — I actually imagined a more convoluted plot than what really ended up unfolding. Make no mistake, however, this definitely is clever and enough so to keep your brain busy. Most of the complexity was in keeping the complicated technical elements coherent. It did a very good job of keeping the hard science fiction hard, similar to The Martian.

Plot resolution - I hate books that "end" in some vague way with a meandering change of style that hints that the author is simply tired of writing. This book did not do that. It was well thought out. It even set up for its sequels in a classy way. There was one plot point where the author might as well have thought to himself, what is the literal most unbelievable thing that could possibly happen? And then he wrote that into the story. And then later provided a hard science fiction rational explanation for how it happened.

Erudition - Good as it gets. On par with Peter Watts, Ted Chiang, Neal Stephenson, etc. When a character easily created a login username of a famous personage’s name (n.b. it was not already taken) I was concerned that the author wasn’t quite ready to write about MMO games. But later I got the feeling he actually didn’t. So all good.

Gems - Poor Ken. He had to keep footnoting how clever the original was. Other than that, a bit austere. Ain’t gonna lie - glad I speak English pretty well if the rest of the world is reading our literature with so much missing. For me, the most memorable gem about this book — which focuses on the alignment of celestial bodies in a solar system — is the fact that I’m writing this review on the solstice.

Immersion/world building - I think that the extraterrestrial world building was a little cartoonish, but that was probably deliberate and acceptable. The really excellent work here was the whole Red Coast project from conception to ambiance. That was really well done. And since I’m no expert on such top secret Chinese military projects of the 1960s, it all seemed legit to me.

Believable tech - Clearly Cixin Liu knows physics. And math. And to a lesser degree, some practical engineering and computer stuff. I have to say that one of the key technologies smelled a little fishy to me. Here are some nerds wondering about the details of using the sun as an amplifier. Whatever. Ultimately it was not fishy enough to invalidate its story use for me. More in my domain of expertise, at one point in the story a (not-very-fun?) VR "game" features a "computer" composed of millions of NPC soldiers configured as logic gates. This is so implausible sounding that it was backpedaled in the story as overly fanciful. But, it turns out, Minecraft redstone can actually do such things. I’ll even let slide the very fanciful technology behind the plot’s really miraculous parlor tricks. Aliens, right? Always coming up with the cool new tech. But what did chafe my metal cutting instincts was the use of magic nanowires to cut metal. Yes, in the story they were duly being researched and in limited supply, blah blah. But still, too much deus ex nanotech and you’re basically one of the bad plot premises of Michael Crichton.

Imagination/creativity - This is very hard to get right — either the story is ordinary and believable, or fanciful and less so. Much of this book was grounded in mundane details about historical events that were actually kind of interesting themselves (e.g. the Chinese Cultural Revolution was quite an interesting clusterfuck). But the author still was able to effectively draw heavily from popular science articles that feature the word "could" in the title. It’s very easy to go from yawning to eye rolling with science fiction and I think this book kept things pretty well adjusted.

That and the Wikipedia plot summary are basically all I need to remind my future self about this book. Hopefully you were suitably enlightened and, if intrigued, not too spoiled by spoilers. It’s a fine book, but I think reading it really taught me that I’d probably be just as happy reading the translator’s Star Wars books than the sequels to this book.