My pick for a summer beach read

The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest
By Cixin Liu

Chinese science fiction, or Chinese ghost story, or maybe even Chinese reinvention of the novel? These are the works of fiction I am most enthusiastic about since Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. I say read a plot summary of the first volume before starting the book, unless you are inclined to read it twice, as I did. — TYLER COWEN

That is from Bloomberg, the link has picks from other regular contributorrs.


What's with summer reading anyway? Summer is the time to be out in the garden, fishing, bird watching, canoeing, cycling, hiking, indulging in outdoorsy activity. Winter is the time for reading by the fire.

+1, though I read all year round. Working on my tan now...

Depends on where you are. Where I live I get cabin fever during July & August because of the heat.

In contrast to Christie who avoided the tan using a baseball cap.
"Run for Governor " is the new " Let them eat cake."

Don't read books!

Make America Great Again.

I quite enjoyed The Three Body Problem.

I just read the Three-Body Problem on Wikipedia. No wonder TC likes it, it has a "Great Stagnation" theme! (slight spoiler, obfuscated for spoiler purposes): " halt science research and development through the ... lockdown of particle physics, which has already begun" - so that's why particle accelerators haven't worked all that well!

I really enjoyed both of these novels.

Should we take this to indicate that you didn't like the third volume in the series (Death's End), or just that you haven't read it yet?

Maybe he doesn't want to influence the Hugo award voting.

What is Jupiter Hollow and It Makes No Difference?

Very good books. I'm looking forward to reading the third in the trilogy.

The most interesting thing about the Three Body Problem is that the PRC government is OK with a plot where the cultural revolution thugs are indirectly responsible for the likely end of human existence.

And that the author and publisher had the balls to put out such a book.

PS, trying out my old pseudonym, to see if i have been unbanned by the Wordpress mafia.

And he is back in his uncontaminated form without suffixes!!!

I was disappointed by both of the Cixin Liu novels. They began very strongly, and then tapered towards dull, predictable endings without a discernible narrative arc. Maybe I'm just raised on literature in the Greek tradition, but given the hype, I expected them to be much more surprising and thought-provoking. That, and I found the clunky Maoist-style monologues, itemized political denunciations and trans-generational planning to be, well, not quite tongue-in-cheek enough.

I read TPB when it was up for the Hugo, and felt it worked best if you thought of it as a thriller where the alien invasion was a hoax set up by the anti-human activists, using a few bits of cutting-edge technology and a lot of drugs.


"I was disappointed by both of the Cixin Liu novels. They began very strongly, and then tapered towards dull, predictable endings without a discernible narrative arc."

That's what I was thought. It amazed me that such a slow moving story could get that much praise.

I found the clunky Maoist style monolgues to be the most interesting part. Because they are by no means just Maoist.

Humans are capabable of weird, extreme ideas that will come out like that when expressed in words. I am sure that at any given moment there are thousands of people who want to extinguish the human race like Liu's characters do -- and that he is right about them being mostly educated elites.

Normally, all such weirdness gets turned down and filtered out by living among other humans in a complex society. But sometimes, as around communist revolutions, society actually amplifies some of it. So it is interesting to read Liu's characters doing and shouting things so bizzare that they seem to transcend evil and human nature.

They seem like stilted card-board cuttouts, but then I look at the first half of the 20th century and wonder.

The Three Body Problem books (didn't bother with the third) were terrible. Aside from the Three Body Problem's description of how ridiculous the communist show trials got in China (e.g. quantum physics as a bourgeois conspiracy), they were just not good. Inconsistently applied technological ability (that nano-string in Three Body Problem was just stupid) and boring side stories (The Dark Forest's protagonist has a flashback to a past girlfriend that is just completely inane and goes on forever). I feel Tyler likes them just to have a sense about Chinese science fiction rather than any innate qualities they possess.

Hmmm, should I buy them or not? From these reviews, not too sure. I bought a book by Knausgaard influenced by Tyler's recommendation, and though the book was sometimes interesting, it was just extremely boring most of the time, really hard to motivate myself to read it...

I just finished Dark Forest yesterday and really enjoyed both. Usually, Tyler's recommendations are too artsy for me but this one hits about the perfect blend for me.

3BP won all sorts of awards. I couldn't even finish it. It was horrible. I also got an anthology of Chinese sci-fi since apparently the Illuminati have recently discovered that the Chinese can write. My take is that the genre is young in China, I have no idea whether this is true or not but the stories don't seem ...what's the word? vivid. There's a general lack of color, and a black-and-grey tone which I took as representing their society's confinement by the State.

"a black-and-grey tone which I took as representing their society’s confinement by the State."
I would buy a grey Mao suit over an American Hawaiian shirt anytime. In matters of taste, Communist and pro-
Communist (capitalist democracies whose Communist Parties were strong during the Cold War) countries like Red China, France, Spain, Italy, so-called Chile, Cuba (OK, very poor, but taste per se they have - look the guayaberas), Russia, etc. have better taste and a rich culrural history. You can not buy taste in literature, clothes, architecture, etc (OK, you can not eat it either even it is al you would have to eat at Kolima). Russia had Dostoyevsky, Italy had Dante, France had Balzac, America had Rockefeller.

^Hahaha... oh yes... that great communist Dante.

I should mention that I almost always finish a book, over 95% of the time, easy. So saying that I didn't finish 3BP puts it in a special category of bad.

Could you explain why you think this is a "reinvention of the novel"? That sort of language is typically reserved for Joyce or Pynchon, this series seems like standard scifi that's been done a million times before (and better, by Asimov and Clarke).

The third book of the trilogy, Deaths End was translated last year and has been out for a while.

Have to agree with those who were less impressed than Tyler.

Rather more interesting is Hannu Rajanemi's Jean le Flambeur trilogy.

In defense of Russo: Invoking the Thoreaun anthropic principle

Pepys' diaries are also more engaging than many of the novels on the list, and make good carry-round books as they lend themselves to episodic perusal.

I read all three TBP novels and found them in some ways throwbacks to the kind of SF we had in the US in the 50's and 60's. The characters were not generally strong but the plot rumbled along with one wonder after another. That makes it sound like I didn't like them but in fact I found them really engrossing, like reading an alternate-reality version of the SF I grew up with.

From the perspective of economics and politics, I found them rather terrifying. They posit a world politics and world response to problems that is (perhaps unsurprisingly) what one might expect of the PRC writ large, and that's not even getting to the aliens. It was in fact refreshing to see aliens who were in no way human but could somewhat present as human. Their policies (without going into spoilerish detail) were so totally at odds with what we would think of as human as to be literally shocking but plausible.

Or, to put it another way, the idea of universal "Dark Forest" behavior was one of the more unusual SF ideas I've seen in a while (pace Fred Saberhagen's Berserker books).

"I read all three TBP novels and found them in some ways throwbacks to the kind of SF we had in the US in the 50’s and 60’s."

The first two novels (didn't read the third), did feel like 50's/60's SF However, the editing wasn't as good and the author would have definitely been a B class writer. These works aren't really comparable to Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke in their hay day. The characterizations were meandering at best. And while Asimov's characters were often flat, they didn't tend to distract from the story.

Just ignore the haters if you like Big Idea SciFi, give the first one a chance. Lots of good conceptual stuff on first contact and the Fermi Paradox more generally.

Among the other recommendations on Bloomberg , my favorite is " Three men in a boat..." Timeless humor.

"Three Men In A Boat (To say nothing of the dog)". The dog's name was Montmorency, if I remember right. I read the illustrated Folio version in the 1990s (you had to buy 4 books a year to be a member and that was a cheap one, so I went for it). Great stuff, and, as you say, timeless.

The bit about traveling around with stinky cheese was funny... otherwise, the humor doesn't hold up.

I've read the whole trilogy and enjoyed it. It's weird how much criticism it's gotten from people with some kind of political ax to grind. The characters aren't all that great, so if you like more character driven books I would say pass. If you don't like Sci-fi, then obviously that's a hard pass as well. The books' strengths are the big and interesting ideas and the thoughts about human nature and what does and does not change over time. I found the ending to the last book a bit disheartening, but it does fit with the overall themes Liu is going for.

I don't think it has anything to do with grinding political axes; they are just bad books. Yes, the characters are terribly written (arguably at the median of 1950s American sci-fi), and while there are a couple of interesting ideas about human nature, those are better explored almost anywhere else. The topics of escapism and sharing technology between rich and poor countries (as addressed in the Dark Forest) were interesting, but just because you bring up something interesting doesn't mean you can discuss it or explore it in interesting ways. As far as interesting tech goes, that nano-string that can cut through anything and unfolding a proton into 11 dimensions to program it is bonkers and not actually that insightful about future tech. But let's just be honest, most Hugo winners are utter rubbish anyway (this coming from a fan of sci-fi).

"It’s weird how much criticism it’s gotten from people with some kind of political ax to grind."

I didn't have a problem with politics. I had a problem with meandering plots and long flashbacks that added little to the plot. The books would have been much better with an editor that cut the size down by 20-30%.

The Dark Forest was a fantastic read for "U.S. as least bad hegemon" view of geopolitics.

I would agree that the whole TBP trilogy is full of entertaining, broad strokes. Billions-of-years story arc and the brutality of time, interaction between multi-dimensions, epic yet indifferent destruction, suggestion of cyclical existence. There were a couple times i finished a chapter and just went, "Whoa!" at the trippiness. I also think the translator did a great job. I never felt like i was missing something or wondered if parts packed a bigger punch in the original language. I also appreciated the translstor's notes. I don't understand the strong criticism either, but then I remembered what site I was on and thought, "Of course."

The best fictional representation of life under communism is the murder mystery/thriller "Child 44", somehow long listed for the Man Booker.


The beginning of TBP is good.

Jerome K. Jerome is great, for humor.

Thought of this trilogy when I read the recent NY Times arcticle "Greetings E.T. (Please don't murder us)"

Comments for this post are closed