The hyphen in the title is important, of course. Without it, you could be forgiven for thinking of this as some kind of thriller, in which a killer has the problem of disposing of three bodies. The hyphenated title refers to the problem of calculating the chaotic orbits and relative positions of three massive objects or bodies (stars, actually) in space.
Nominated for several awards, I picked this up at the same time as The Goblin Emperor. Whereas one is a fantasy with steampunk accessories, this is a hard science fiction novel* set against the background of Chinese society in the years since the catastrophic Cultural Revolution. There are helpful footnotes (from the translator), for those of you who didn’t study relatively recent Chinese history for ‘O’ level. I did, in 1979! Although this novel doesn’t make mention of The Gang of Four. The Cultural Revolution is important here, because if you ever wondered what might make someone completely lose faith in humanity…
It’s an alien invasion story, though you wouldn’t necessarily realise this in the opening half of the book, which jumps between the mid-1960s and (more or less) the present day, with odd interludes spent inside the virtual reality environment of a sophisticated computer game (more of a puzzle than a game). The science here is hard (as in hard SF), and the book does spend considerable time explaining it all to the reader in lengthy exposition dumps. It doesn’t let up, either. In the last few pages there’s a lot of discussion of folding protons into various numbers of dimensions. Just as they do in the movies, these info dumps do have the unfortunate effect of throwing you out of the plot and keeping you at a distance from the characters, who are hard to root for.
*In fact, I’d go as far as to claim that the multiple exposition dumps make this more of a Menippean Satire than a novel. I noticed a similar effect with Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids and his earlier Islands in the Net (neither of which I enjoyed) and (of course) with Don DeLillo’s unreadable Ratner’s Star (and his more readable The Names, arguably). In Menippean Satire, a central character meets a variety of other people, who take turns explaining or attacking a point of view or philosophy. There’s no plot to speak of. It’s surprising how often you read something marketed as a novel that turns out not to be.
There’s sort of a plot in The Three-Body Problem, but it is really more of a set-up than a full-blown narrative. Inevitably, when it comes to this genre, there are two sequels, forthcoming, and reading to the end of this merely puts you into a position to experience the next volume. Huh. The problem with Three-Body Problem is that I didn’t really enjoy it enough to consider picking up the next in the series. In fact, I’m more inclined to pick up the second of The Hunger Games series, having just read the first book in order to prepare for teaching it next year.
It’s kind of interesting to experience science fiction from China, but it also left me a bit cold. All in all, perhaps, I would rather The Three-Body Problem had omitted its hyphen and had been some kind of SF-Thriller in which an anti-hero was forced to dispose of three corpses.