Review by Sam Sheikh
The Three-body Problem
by Cixin Liu
“Science fiction is a literature that belongs to all mankind,” says Cixin Liu, arguably China’s most famous sci-fi writer.
And now more of mankind can read and enjoy a solid entry in the genre. The Three-body Problem, Liu’s award-winning book originally written in Chinese, is now available in English. Kudos to Ken Liu for his superb translation and to publisher Tor Books for making this sci-fi classic accessible to the English-speaking world. As someone who can speak very basic Mandarin and is familiar with the Chinese culture, I appreciate Ken Liu’s tremendous effort translating the novel.
Something mysterious is happening to members of China’s scientific community: They’ve been committing suicide. All had connections or were members of a secretive group of international scientists and scholars called Frontiers of Science. The latest victim left a short cryptic note, which included the chilling sentence, “Physics has never existed, and will never exist.”
Enter Wang Miao, a respected nanoscientist and a former boyfriend of that victim. He is brought by a brash and loud police captain Shi Qiang to the ominously named Battle Command Center, before high-level members of domestic and foreign military to provide more information about Frontiers of Science. There is talk of “battle zones” and hints of an impending world-wide catastrophe. Despite his misgivings and antipathy toward Captain Shi, Wang agrees to infiltrate Frontiers of Science.
While visiting a member of Frontiers, he discovers a virtual reality game. “The Three Body”, reminiscent of the VR game in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, poses mysterious and mystifying problems in a surreal world chronically devastated by solar heat and light, then turned frozen and lifeless by their absence, with few temperate periods in between.
By advancing through the game and providing satisfactory answers, Wang is invited to a meetup. Eventually, he learns that the Three Body world is real. It exists in the Alpha Centauri system four light-years away. Inexplicably, an old astrophysicist, Ye Wenjie, the mother of Wang’s late girlfriend, seems to be at the heart of this mystery. Thus begins the tantalizing unveiling of first contact with another world.
There is something refreshing about The Three-body Problem. Readers tired of familiar tropes about the Chosen One battling a totalitarian regime in a dystopian setting will find much to like in this hard-sci-fi novel. Throughout the novel, the reader is continually aware through context, language, and cultural cues that the story takes place in a country of this Earth but distinct from the usual geographic and cultural settings. Set in China, it uses as a backdrop the Cultural Revolution, which hangs like a grim reminder that events in the past have an effect over the present.
Liu uses rich examples to show the political conditions as well as the environmental and social aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Yet, the novel serves not to denigrate the old regime. Indeed, there is a sense of the need for reconciliation, though not necessarily reparation. Rather, Liu uses this historical context to shape his characters’ motivations and actions, providing realistic responses to real events.
Hard science powers this novel, and Liu writes with the confidence, vision, and ambition of the old masters like Asimov and Clarke. Aside from the expected heavy astrophysics, Liu also goes heavily into multidimensional and particle physics. He tackles the science in fresh and exciting ways. Where the novel falters slightly is in the lengthy and complex setup that takes places within a culture unfamiliar to many Western readers. Once past the early going, the novel builds rapidly towards an encounter that is thrilling yet filled with the unknown.
Liu says that a considerable part of his sci-fi reading comes from America. It is only fitting that his contribution to the sci-fi genre has been recognized in America. It won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2015, the first for an author from Asia. The Three-body Problem is the first novel of a trilogy completed in the Chinese language. Unfortunately, its sequels have not been translated yet. For now, readers in the English-speaking world will have to be content with Liu’s trailblazing, intriguing novel.