The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu
|Book Name:||The Three-Body Problem|
|Author:||written by Cixin Liu and translated by Ken Liu|
|Publisher(s):||Tor Books (US) Head of Zeus (UK) Chongqing Publishing House (China)|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook|
|Release Date:||November 11, 2014 (US) July 2, 2015 (UK) January 1, 2008 (China)|
The Three-Body Problem is about aliens. It’s also about Revolutionary China, Communism, and human nature. There’s a fair bit of philosophy thrown in, some well-explained math, and a computer game that I really wish was real. It’s a masterpiece of science fiction, and the English-speaking world is lucky to have this brilliant translation. Cixin Liu is one of China’s most beloved sci-fi authors, but his work was only translated recently, revealing it to a huge new audience and blowing English-speaking sci-fi lovers away.
I don’t know much about recent Chinese history, something that I hadn’t even realized until I read this book. Although it doesn’t require you to know the context behind much of what happens, and Ken Liu includes helpful footnotes for the ignorant (like me), it would be helpful to know the basics of China’s Revolution. Things like “struggle sessions,” where dissenting academics and other intellectuals are tortured and shamed publicly sound absurd…but they really happened. The first important turning point in the book comes only a few pages in, when a physicist dies, beaten to death by four fourteen-year-old girls during a struggle session. His daughter Ye Wenjie watches, and it changes the world forever.
The book follows a few different storylines. Ye Wenjie remains a central figure as we watch her grow up in the midst of the Revolution, trying to lay low among other youths sent to the country. She fails, but instead of going the way of her father, she gets recruited by the mysterious Red Coast program because of her knowledge of astrophysics. At the same time, over forty years later, we follow the story of Wang Miao, a researcher developing nanomaterial when out of the blue he gets a visit from the Army, begging him to attend a meeting at the Battle Command Center. He is baffled, because China is not at war.
Cixin Liu skillfully weaves together the story of Wang Miao as he discovers a computer game called “Three Body,” and Ye Wenjie, forty years earlier, as she works at the Red Coast Base. Instead of continuing his comfortable work with nanomaterials, Wang Miao finds himself embroiled in a confusing morass of secret societies and a nagging mathematical problem. Is it even possible to solve the three body problem? What does the computer game he becomes addicted to have to do with anything? And why do scientists keep committing suicide?
It’s a perfect blend of detective story, first contact, alien invasion, and disenchantment. It simultaneously exalts science and dismisses it entirely. The first half of the book goes deep into the psychologies of characters, particularly Ye Wenjie. Her personality was forged in China’s Revolution and astrophysics, and the examination of her inner landscape is beautiful. Liu’s descriptions are striking in their clarity. If Wenjie feels despair he tells you directly. Then he spends a few elegantly crafted sentences detailing how her despair affects her and her surroundings, perhaps jumps several years ahead to make a prediction of how it would affect the world in years to come…and then he goes on with the story. It’s an effective technique for simultaneously letting the reader sink deep into a character’s inner struggles while still making her seem untouchable, foreign, somehow other.
The second half deals a lot more directly with the aliens, though again, we see them from a distance. As with Ye Wenjie’s internal landscape, the external world of the aliens appears secondhand, through the eyes of Wang Miao looking at an anthropomorphized projection of what they and their society might be like. It reinforces the feeling of otherness that winds through the entire book. It’s a story told at the edge of science and fiction, about characters isolated from normal society by their brilliance and unusual ways of thinking.
As a Western reader accustomed to Western modes of storytelling, this style was effective. I entered my reading experience off balance because characters reacted in ways that I would never expect. I’m not familiar enough with Chinese history and culture to even make a guess at the worldview of a scientist who survived the Revolution. Every sentence was a surprise, every twist caught me off-guard. The deliberate exploration of emotional and physical distance in the text magnified this effect, and forced me to pay attention to what I was reading.
This was a good thing, because some of the ideas discussed took a lot of thought. The Three-Body Problem lands comfortably in the realm of “hard sci-fi,” in that it deals with a lot of real and close-to-real science and mathematics. The three-body problem at the heart of the book is a real problem in orbital mechanics. Multiple mathematicians and scientists have proposed solutions over the years, many of which make an appearance in the book. I doubt any of those people thought through the implications of the three-body problem as applied to an alien civilization, however. For that we needed Cixin Liu.
I’ve rarely enjoyed a book about aliens as much as I loved this one. It took some brainpower to read, some serious creativity to write, and a willingness to accept that the reactions of a completely different society would be different from my own. I’m not talking about the aliens. A friend who read The Three-Body Problem told me that his favourite thing about it was how he had to constantly put his expectations aside. It’s not a Western book, and it doesn’t read like one. It is brilliant, innovative, fascinating, inventive, fun. It’s a book to read with your eyes open.