Other Books

Run-on Sentence Summary

Hard science fiction and Chinese philosophy: what’s not to love?


With last year’s “Arrival” and this year’s cinema release of the “Three Body Problem,” it seems that all the best modern science fiction is coming out of China. This novel is a landmark as the first by a Chinese author to win the prestigious Hugo award. It is an exemplar of “hard” science fiction, managing to be technical and sciencey while turning the pages.

The story begins with a young Chinese physicist being persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. The events of the whole book lead from what happens to her, and her resulting existential doubt about the basic goodness of human nature. Also, there are aliens.

Unfortunately, the book falls into the trap of many others in the genre. It emphasizes ideas first at the cost of storytelling. The characters are wholly unmemorable. The protagonist Wang is made of cardboard, and even Ye, the philosophical cornerstone of the novel, feels hopelessly remote. I was left wondering how much was simply lost in translation and cultural differences.

The notes on translation, coincidentally done by “Arrival” author Ken Liu, were one of the most interesting parts of the book to me. Juggling syntactic and cultural accuracy with connecting with a western audience seemed like a monumental (insurmountable?) challenge. Translation is a unique and fascinating art form.

Final Thoughts

Even though it won’t make you cry, the weaker storytelling is more than buoyed by the high-concept sci-fi rigamarole. If you are a fan of the genre, you’ll like it.

Favorite Quote

“I’ve always felt that the greatest and most beautiful stories in the history of humanity were not sung by wandering bards or written by playwrights and novelists, but told by science. The stories of science are far more magnificent, grand, involved, profound, thrilling, strange, terrifying, mysterious, and even emotional, compared to the stories told by literature. Only, these wonderful stories are locked in cold equations that most do not know how to read.”