Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Windycon Phandemonium Discussion- "The Three-Body Problem"

I recently had the pleasure of attending the 42nd Windycon (appropriately, Hitchhiker-themed), and as a result I got to attend two bookclubs as well as a few fun panels.

First on deck was Cixin Liu's "The Three-Body Problem", hosted by Phandemonium, the folks who run Capricon in the spring as well as SF/F book clubs in Evanston & Elgin. It's the most recent winner of the Hugo Award for best novel; notable for being the first translated work so honored. Lots of fascinating drama around that, actually, but enough! To the book itself!

"The Three-Body Problem" is the story of Earth's contact with an advanced and (currently) distant alien race, and how that contact will inevitably bring about great change. It's also steeped in Chinese culture, particularly the fallout from the Cultural Revolution.

It's an interesting, somewhat tough read, with our most frequent questions revolving around issues of translation and culture--what was being lost with the idiom, how much was Cixin's personal style versus SF or fiction norms in its original language. A wonderful discussion. Notes in brief and possible spoilers below:
Around the table we had quite a few folks who hadn't yet finished it due to problems with the style. Someone quoted Delany (on his own work?) that "the problem is you started at the beginning--just open in the middle and you'll be fine!"

Many of us found the cultural aspects of the book more intriguing than the science-fictional ones.

On the three-star system itself, we noted that it's a "great idea, wrong starsystem"--Alpha Centauri doesn't actually work like that, celestially-mechanically. Also it's a bit problematic to really conceive of a system this a.) stable and b.) able to keep a planet in the life-zone long enough to support complex life-forms evolving.

But! As someone wisely put it, "don't let the science get in the way of the SF".
Also, the 3-body problem itself (as something surprisingly chaotic and unpredictable, despite a small number of pieces in play), is a pretty cool motif to be playing with throughout. We noted lots of "things in 3's" here.

The style! "Not quite Dan Brown bad," was the verdict, but there is a lot of exposition, a lot of "as you know, Bob," monologuing, and most of the characters seemed extremely flat to us. But we wondered how much that had to do with how they presented themselves, kept themselves in reserve due to a paranoid culture, how much was merely formality that only read as flatness to us.

This extremely slow-motion invasion is intriguing. We talked for quite a bit about the believability (or not) of humans willing to betray the entire species. Many of us found it quite, quite believable. There's an element of revenge here, an element of "humans don't deserve the planet" that reminded me of some of the hyper-radical Earth-First-type fringes, and, what I'm most intrigued by, this kind of messianic view of the Trisolarians, that somehow when they come wrongs will be made right, there will be justice and punishment meted out, etc.
Just show up in the fifth act and claim
Denmark the predictably cyclical
solar system, I guess?

Lots of Shakespeare references, particularly Hamlet--both iconic phrases and at the plot-level. Does that cast the Trisolarians as Young Fortinbras?

We continued talking quite a bit about fidelity of translation and possible "cultural translation". Noted the inclusion of Carson's "Silent Spring" (1962) and attendant ecological awareness. Long aside on KFC in China.

The Three-Body Problem: The Game! And how that takes over large chunks of the narrative, is its own intriguing thing. Tons to talk about here. Much discussion of the seriousness of weather predictions to ancient cultures--Joseph's dream-interpretation mentioned, leading one to ponder the Trisolarian's Technicolor Dreamcoat

The game itself as a central plot device led us to bring up Card's "Ender's Game" (1985) and Castle's 1984 film "The Last Starfighter". While I haven't read it, a number of people at group mentioned that Cline's latest, "Armada" (2015), is essentially a remake of "The Last Starfighter" in novel form. I was also strongly reminded of "A for Andromeda" (1961), the series written by Fred Hoyle about a very long-distance alien invasion--a radio signal that contains plans for a computer that in turn has plans for Earth.

We also talked for a bit about the transcendence of real objects compared to the virtual--that real-world objects are inexhaustibly describable, while the virtual have finite bounds.

Discussion of the more out-there science here, especially the physics manipulation bit, and how much we were all willing to look into or believe that, versus those of us who could buy it as technobabble and move on.

We all really dug Da Shi, the detective who was a recognizable type to us and really moved the plot forward whenever he got involved.

Original cover.
One thing that would have enhanced our reading of the book, we felt, was some pronunciation guides to names. Extended discussion of logograms and their difference from alphabetic writing, especially their unique opportunities for visual puns & references, and how people from different spoken languages can use the same written one. Chiang's incomparable "Story of Your Life" (1998) brought up as intriguing science-fictional examination of how language can change one's mind. I think someone also brought up Delany's "Babel-17" (1966), about an infectious language that converts everyone who learns it into a traitor.

Good discussion, and many of us are looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy, and seeing the forthcoming film adaptation.

Next time for Phandemonium: reading Elizabeth Bear's "Karen Memory".  I also suggested the blog Chaos Horizons for good lists of books that are probably award material.

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