Three Body Problem has problems. Or does it?

From SRP author Cameron Cooper:

I’ve had the English translation of Liu Cixin’s science fiction novel, The Three Body Problem, sitting in my TBR pile for a couple of years. It won the Hugo. I figured that made it a must-read.

But I never cracked it open.

Why? Because I kept hearing rumours:

  • The dialog was stilted
  • The characters are wooden
  • It reads like early Asimov.

As much as I love Asimov, his very early writing is often superficial and school-boyish. He was far too in love with ideas, and his characters and dialogue often got hammered and warped in favour of showcasing the idea.

So calling another author’s style “Asimovian” isn’t a compliment.

Apparently, these issues with The Three Body Problem are not a translation issue, either. On r/books, a Chinese speaker who read the original Chinese novel, said that the issues are in the original, that the translation was faithful to the style of the author.

If you scratch the surface of the social webs, you find a lot of disparagement for the novel, from it being unrealistic, and “scientist porn,” and much more.

So when the TV series turned up [named Three Body Problem because TV always edits down wherever possible], I watched it because I thought that the show writers would possibly avoid all the issues in the novel.

Yes and no.

The characters are still very two-dimensional, although the dialogue wasn’t bad. But character arcs are set by the original story, so I suspect the writers did what they could while trying to remain faithful to the novel for the sake of its many fans. After all, it won a Hugo.

But watching the TV series let me absorb the concepts and plot of the novel in an entertaining few hours, instead of slogging through a book with bad prose.

And the concept at the base of the story is great. Liu Cixin took a famous, unsolvable physics problem, and ran with it.

Unfortunately, everything else layered on top of that basic premise moved what could have been an absorbing, hard science fiction story into a lit fest of fantastical and highly improbable situations (including, at the end, giving three people complete control over the entire world, including the ability to ask for anything at all, and have it delivered immediately).

It wasn’t science fiction. It was science fantasy.

And if you approach the TV series with that qualification in mind, it’s glorious. There’s mind-boggling, massively scaled ideas that are wonderous to behold, including watching Ghenghis Khan’s army use black + white placards to respond to computer programming, and run a digital sequence for time travelling scientists.

And I really enjoyed seeing the Cultural Revolution from an intimate insider’s perspective.

It’s enormous fun, but you just can’t watch the show and expect a decent SF story, because it doesn’t exist. Netflix went for sensational, not sensible, or even thoughtful.

It is pure entertainment.

And there’s nothing wrong with entertainment for the sake of it. I consider my novels to be entertainment first, and any other value extracted from them is purely a bonus for readers who demand more from their reading.

I’m not sure I’ll ever read The Three Body Problem, now. The bad reviews and plethora of bad-mouthing about it have made me gun-shy. I can put up with bad writing if the plot or the characters make up for it, but it sounds as though both the plot and the characters are at the same level as the prose. If the issues with the TV series are a result of the weaknesses in the book, then I really don’t want to read it.

The TV series is fun, and I never object to being entertained, so I will likely watch the second season.


Cameron Cooper

SRP Author

Cameron writes best-selling science fiction, including the very popular Hammer and Crucible space opera series.
Check Cam’s books here on Stories Rule Press.