Liu Cixin – The Three Body Problem

cixinliu-thethreebodyproblemWith the scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence Day, Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

Diversity and giving space to voices other than those of the privileged majority have been a huge talking point in SFF in the past year. One way to achieve this is through translating foreign-language titles into English and to introduce these new perspectives to English-speaking readers. Yet this is still a very rare occurrence, as few foreign-language titles are translated and published each year. Off the top of my head the only authors I can think of in speculative fiction are Haruki Murakami, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Pierre Pevel, and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, and of course, Thomas Oldeheuvelt’s Hex series that will be published in English in the autumn of next year. So  it was really exciting to see this novel brought to print in English by Tor. It’s the first Chinese SFF series ever to have been brought over, at least by one of the big Five, as far as I’m aware. This is exciting because China is one of the biggest and fastest-developing countries in the world, where there is some great voices we’ve never heard of and we finally get to discover one of them. Liu Cixin is one of the best-known and most successful SF writers in China, so his being the first to be translated into English isn’t actually that surprising. 

The Three Body Problem is set in China, partially during the years of the Cultural Revolution and partially in the book’s present. As China developed along far different lines than Western culture – the most obvious being moving from a monarchy system to communism, instead of capitalism, and having what is essentially an oligarchy instead of a democracy for a long time – its cultural outlook and values are different from the familiar ones we usually encounter and I really enjoyed discovering these differences. I did need to quickly look up some of the background – Wikipedia for the win –  as it has been a long time since I learned about the Cultural Revolution in secondary school. It also made the way Liu CIxin treated the Western scientists and philosophers who show up in the Trisolaris sections awesome, because they were so irreverent, lacking the gravitas they’d usually be embodied with in Western literature.

In-between the past and present storylines, Liu Cixin introduces us to a world called Trisolaris, which as the name indicates is a world with three suns. The titular three body problem stems from these three solar bodies and their effect on the planet and to be honest this part just went right over my head somewhat, because science, but it didn’t do it in such a way that I felt dumb or lost. In the context of the Three Body computer game and the way the problem was explained there, I could kind of squint and understand it. Enough to be going on with anyway. The game mechanics Liu Cixin uses to explain the Trisolaran quandary and its society and culture was fantastic, especially as gamification is something that is a technique that’s used in teaching and literacy instruction as well and so it is actually something quite familiar.

In addition to the hard physics of the three body problem, there is also a lot of technical and mechanical science in play between the computers and telescopes that are used at some key points of the novel and let’s not forget all the stuff the military brings to bear. Yet when we set the science (fictional) elements aside, the core of the book is essentially a mystery, including murders and conspiracies, which Wang Miao and Shi Qiang need to solve. I loved these two characters. Wang is our main point of view, be it in our world or that of Three Body, and he is such a calm, methodical thinker, testing and retesting his theories, but one forced out of his usual habits through the events described in the story. Shi Qiang, or Da Shi as he’s nicknamed, is his polar opposite almost: worldly, impulsive, and always on edge, he’s a great foil for Wang. The other main viewpoint character, the one through whose eyes we get most of the story set in the past is Ye Wenjie. The daughter of an intellectual executed during the Cultural Revolution, she’s a very sympathetic character. However, she doesn’t come through her experiences unscathed and the way Liu Cixin develops her and changes how the reader sees her over the course of the novel was brilliant. She goes for sympathetic, to eerie, to scary in the space of a book.

One aspect of the story that has to be mentioned is its translation. I often translate web texts for work and that just plain, vanilla Dutch-to-English, without literary flourishes, but it can be quite challenging at times, especially if there is a specific sense I want to convey for which there is no direct English equivalent. So, having heard Ken Liu talk about translating The Three Body Problem on the Coode Street Podcast and the issues he encountered, I can only imagine how hard it must have been to translate this novel and do Liu Cixin’s prose justice. In my opinion, he has done a marvellous job with this first book in the series. The writing is gorgeous and sometimes lyrical, yet hard and clinical in the places where it needs to be and I never had the sense that this was a translated text. I also loved the translator’s notes Ken Liu included, especially as he didn’t just explain some of the Chinese cultural elements Western readers might not understand, he also touched upon some science elements. At one point, he even referenced an academic journal article, which I thought was very cool.

The Three Body Problem is a fantastic book. I loved this story with its old-time SF sensibilities, real, scary aliens – you guys, the aliens! – mixed with modern tech. I want to know what happens next and how Earth will react to the news that “they” are truly out there. It is easy to see why Liu Cixin is so popular in China and I can only hope he’ll be just as popular in the rest of the world now his work has been translated to English. If you want a hard SF novel, mixed with history and social science elements, than I can’t recommend The Three Body Problem highly enough. It’s one of my favourite novels of the year and it will definitely feature on my Favourites of 2014 list in a week or two.

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  • Paul (@princejvstin)

    Yep, I haven’t read this yet but I am planning to get it and review it soon…

    • LOL Paul, I think that’s the reviewer’s lament, isn’t it?

  • I really enjoyed this book. The entire concept of the three-body problem applying to an entire planet left me stunned after reading it. I couldn’t read, I got so wrapped around myself imagining it all. Truly amazing stuff. Incidentally, Tor’s releasing the sequel quite fast; it’s set for July, I think :D

    • Yay! Well, there one title for the next round of Anticipated Books lists then ;)