When I was a teenager, I read lots and lots of science fiction. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club early on and bought the magazines (Galaxy, Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) as often as I could. But the only science fiction I can remember reading in the past forty years is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. So I’m surprised that I started reading The Three-Body Problem. The back cover’s extremely complimentary blurbs from The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and even Barack Obama helped get me started. The story was interesting enough and suspenseful enough to keep me going through 400 pages.
It all begins with China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Scientists and other intellectuals are being persecuted, even murdered. A young woman watches three Red Guards beat her father, a professor of physics, to death. The young woman, a physicist herself, eventually joins a secret government project that’s looking into the possibility of extraterrestrial life. This project way out in China’s middle of nowhere leads to humanity’s first contact with aliens (unfortunately, it’s the aliens’ first contact with aliens too).
I kind of regret finishing the book. There are interesting parts, mostly the ones that delve into fundamental physics. A chapter involving the relationship between subatomic particles and multiple dimensions is terrific. There is a bizarre assault on a ship passing through the Panama Canal. It’s intriguing how the characters, both human and alien, react to the possibility of first contact. There are plenty of other parts that are tedious, however. Some of the characters are tiresome. Their motivations are hard to believe. Lengthy excursions into a complex computer game made me start skimming.
It was the suspense that kept me going. What will happen when first contact finally occurs? I thought I’d find out in the book’s concluding 25 pages. I didn’t realize the last 25 pages of this paperback edition are devoted to postscripts about writing and translating the book and a preview of the author’s forthcoming novel. The abrupt ending was disappointing.
Aristotle said you cannot properly judge a work of art by considering its parts in isolation. You have to judge it as a whole. If it’s a story, you have to finish it. On that basis, I don’t think The Three-Body Problem, although intriguing, lived up to its blurbs.