Dealing with Difficult Books – Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem

The phrase “difficult book” is such a loaded one, it’s hard to even say it without feeling weighed down. There’s an implication that this won’t be fun but that if you can’t get through it, then the problem is with you as a reader. That’s a puritanical approach to culture that I just can’t get behind.

An Important Book?

The Three-Body Problem comes loaded with that baggage. One of the most popular science fiction novels ever published in China, it was translated into English by American author Ken Liu. Its publication by a mainstream anglophone publisher was a groundbreaking moment. When the translated version won a Hugo award, it felt like recognition of the importance of international voices. Within sci-fi circles, that makes The Three-Body Problem a big deal.

As I started reading The Three-Body Problem, I could tell that it wasn’t popular for its accessibility. The prose and pacing feel old-fashioned. The structure is strange and sometimes uncomfortable. The exposition is sometimes intrusive.

The Chinese context adds to the challenge for a western reader. The first tenth of the book is set during the Cultural Revolution. For Chinese readers, the significance of events would be obvious. Western readers will need the footnotes and I’m sure I missed many implied connections. Once the story skips forward to the modern era, life in China is just alien enough to put bumps in the western reader’s road.

Then there’s the science. This is a book about physics. The science is central to the story and the protagonist achieves his goals by grappling with it. Though the author explains enough to make it comprehensible, it’s still challenging in places. This is hard science fiction in both meanings of that phrase.

This book has earned great prestige within western sci-fi circles but will be challenging for most western sci-fi readers. It’s practically the definition of a difficult book.

My Reading Experience

For me, difficult books are usually an emotionally unengaging experience. The more I’m challenged by the book, the less I’m engaged with the characters. Stopping to make sense of it all doesn’t make for a smooth read. They can be useful in learning technique, but they aren’t often much fun, and I like my leisure time to be fun.

This one wasn’t like James Joyce’s Ulysses, where I wanted to throw the book across the room, and which I’ve not finished after 19 years. But I certainly wasn’t feeling the thrill of reading, wanting to dive straight into each new chapter. I only cared about one character, and he was a grumpy cop cliché.

And yet, despite my cynicism about difficult books, I found this one rewarding. I don’t read a lot of hard sci-fi, the works focused on science rather than futuristic adventures. It was satisfying to read something clever with science at its core. It was also intriguing to see recent Chinese history through the lives of these characters and to read a story set in an unfamiliar society. The story didn’t engage my emotions as much as an author like John Scalzi does, but it really got its hooks into my brain. I left feeling unsettled yet intrigued.

Sometimes it can be good to read the difficult books. Not because hard work makes you better or gets you into some imaginary club of well-read readers, but because any book people place value on must contain something of interest. In the right frame of mind, that something can be well worth your time. I had to set aside my comfort-seeking brain to read this one, and that’s not something I want for all my reading. But I’ll be doing it again soon to read the next one in this series, feeling both thrilled and daunted at what I’ll find there.