the three-body problem [book review]

“Back then, I thought of one thing: Have you heard of the Monte Carlo method? Ah, it’s a computer algorithm often used for calculating the area of irregular shapes. Specifically, the software puts the figure of interest in a figure of known area, such as a circle, and randomly strikes it with many tiny balls, never targeting the same spot twice. After a large number of balls, the proportion of balls that fall within the irregular shape compared to the total number of balls used to hit the circle will yield the area of the shape. Of course, the smaller the balls used, the more accurate the result.

Although the method is simple, it shows how, mathematically, random brute force can overcome precise logic. It’s a numerical approach that uses quantity to derive quality. This is my strategy for solving the three-body problem. I study the system moment by moment. At each moment, the spheres’ motion vectors can combine in infinite ways. I treat each combination like a life form. The key is to set up some rules: which combinations of motion vectors are “healthy” and “beneficial,” and which combinations are “detrimental” and “harmful.” The former receive a survival advantage while the latter are disfavored. The computation proceeds by eliminating the disadvantaged and preserving the advantaged. The final combination that survives is the correct prediction for the system’s next configuration, the next moment in time.”

While I had read rather negative reviews of the Three-Body Problem, I still decided to buy the book from an Oxford bookstore and give it a try. Ìf only because this was Chinese science-fiction and I had never read any Chinese science-fiction. (Of course the same motivation would apply for most other countries!) While the historical (or pseudo-historical) part of the novel is most interesting, about the daughter of a university physicist killed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution and hence forever suspect, even after decades of exile, the science-fiction part about contacting another inhabited planet and embracing its alien values based on its sole existence is quite deficient and/or very old-fashioned. As is [old-fashioned] the call to more than three dimensions to manage anything, from space travel to instantaneous transfer of information, to ultimate weapons. And an alien civilization that is not dramatically alien. As for the three body problem itself, there is very little of interest in the book and the above quote on using Monte Carlo to “solve” the three-body problem is not of any novelty since it started in the early 1940’s.

I am thus very much surprised at the book getting a Hugo award. For a style that is more reminiscent of early Weird Tales than of current science-fiction… In addition, the characters are rather flat and often act in unnatural ways. (Some critics blame the translation, but I think it gets deeper than that.)

One Response to “the three-body problem [book review]”

  1. I agree that the most interesting part of vol 1 are the presudo history in the computer game. The story is developed into a larger picture in the next two vols. Some main characters are well developed. such as Luo Ji. The lines of guard of sword and the dark forest principles are also interesting.

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