The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin (Translated by Ken Liu)

About the Book

With 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.

400 pages (hardcover)
Published on November 11, 2014
Published by Tor
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This book was sent for me to review by the publisher.

I read a lot. All of this reading causes me to get rather sick of some tropes/settings/situations fairly quickly. One thing I’m getting kind of exhausted with is the western setting. Yes, I live in the West, and yes I like to read books that happen somewhere I can visualize it, but the world is an absolutely huge place, and speculative fiction really should explore that more.

It’s hard to write about places and cultures we don’t really understand or haven’t experienced. I understand that. I think that might be a big reason why I haven’t read many Eastern based speculative fiction books. In a lot of ways we write what we know, and that narrows things down a bit. When I saw The Three-Body Problem, I got really excited. Here was a book that took place during the Chinese cultural revolution. This is an award winning and celebrated science fiction book translated into English for the first time.

It has everything I’m really, really looking for my books to contain.

First of all, this is a translated book. I tend to shy away from translations because I’ve had some pretty bad experiences that have colored my desire to read them. This one is not a bad experience. In fact, it’s so flawlessly translated that unless you know it’s translated or pick out that point from some of the footnotes, you probably won’t even realize it. The writing is smooth and flowing. There are just enough descriptions to make everything really come to life for the reader. Furthermore, there are footnotes sprinkled throughout the book that help readers understand some points of Chinese history and culture that we probably don’t know going into it.

The plot is complex and does take some work to adjust to, but not too much. The rather sparse footnotes help educate readers about some terms and plot points as you go, and once you get used to the names and situations, things start to fall into place pretty easily. The Three-Body Problem focuses on two main characters. Ye Wenjie is a young physicist during the cultural revolution. Her life is one heart wrenching tragedy after another, while she’s thrust into work camps and forced to see things no one should have to see. On the other hand we have Wang Miao who lives in the modern day and is thrust into politics when his fellow scientists start dropping like flies in suicides. Both of their narrative threads are incredibly well done, to the point where I had a hard time liking one more than the other (which is rare for me). It takes some times, but eventually it becomes fairly obvious how these two individual’s stories weave together.

The Three-Body Problem is pretty dark. The cultural backdrop during much of the book is very visceral. It’s hard not to feel very intensely for these people who have to struggle through such dark times. However, this darkness does a great job at illuminating the innate human goodness that shines throughout the novel. There are a ton of small instances of kindness, hope, and people who strive to do good in the face of so much struggle. While it might be easy to overlook some of these instances, they are sprinkled throughout the book in such a way that they balance out the darkness very well and give readers plenty to think about regarding human nature.

There is a lot of science fiction fodder here, a sort of first contact story with the advanced science and flood of details that would make grandmaster Peter F. Hamilton proud, with a nice dollop of psychological and political thriller mixed in for good measure. The Three-Body Problem isn’t very long, but it does demand a bit of effort with some of the foreign (to me) cultural references, and the complex science that it is based on. However, a book that requires effort on the part of its reader usually has a big payoff, and this is no different. It’s hard not to feel strongly for the characters and their struggles, just as it’s hard not to feel strongly when you see those little bits of hope and goodness in the plot.

When the science and politics start crashing into each other, the book gets truly and absolutely fascinating. It stops feeling reflective and starts becoming a mixture of philosophy and action. Things take some really unexpected turns, and some deep and important questions are asked while readers are forced to examine issues like class, religion, nationalism, faith, choices and consequences. While things at this juncture did start feeling a bit too unbelievable in some respects, it was all very well done and incredibly thought provoking. Easing readers into many of these weighty topics with characters they will inevitably love makes it all a lot easier to digest and more memorable.

This novel is deep and multifaceted, delightfully foreign and fantastically thought provoking. The Three-Body Problem has all the complexities I love in my science fiction, explored through incredibly human eyes. It absolutely astounded me. This book is exactly what I’ve been craving in my science fiction.

I have been itching for nonwestern science fiction and fantasy books, and while my itch has been moderately scratched by some truly fantastic authors and books, this is the first time I’ve ever really finished a book and thought, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for!” The Three-Body Problem has left me with plenty of deep thoughts and a feeling that I’ll probably have to read this book a second time to fully grasp it, but that’s okay. I look forward to what happens next and I’m beyond grateful that this book has made me look at the genre, and the world, completely differently.

4/5 stars

6 Responses

  • I’m looking forward to the chance to reading the whole thing, based on how Ken’s talked about it and the bits and pieces I’ve seen on the internet

  • bsidb

    Many Chinese readers describe the trilogy changing their view towards cosmology totally…

  • If you’re interested in exploring some other translated titles, I’m a huge fan of The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem (just make sure you get Michael Kandel translation!) and Sergei Lukyanenko’s (author of the Nightwatch series) scifi novel The Genome just got translated and is coming out in Dec. I’m about a quarter of the way through it, and enjoying the heck out of it. Karin Tidbeck is also very good, her collection Jaganath came out a few years ago, it should be pretty easy to find.

    The Apex Books anthology series of “World Book of SF” has a lot of good stuff from around the world, I don’t remember how much of it is translated and how much was originally written in English.

  • I adored this book, and I can’t wait for the sequel to come out in English. I hear from people who’ve read the Chinese original that it only gets better as it goes on, too, and that thrills me!

    I too have had a similar problem with translated works. There was one I read a while ago, a translation of a Japanese light novel, that was so clunky in places and made use of odd phrases that were very awkward in English, and from what I know of Japanese I’m pretty damn sure I know what the original terms were and about a dozen better ways of rendering them in English. And in that case, also, some footnotes would have been useful, since the book referenced a major crime from 1997 that I don’t think got much media attention outside of Japan, and I had to Google what the whole thing was about in the first place. I kind of lost my taste for translated works for a while after that. It was The Three-Body Problem that actually made me want to seek out more translations, though, becase clearly there’s some good stuff out there!

  • I am very much looking forward to reading this book. I’m glad to hear that the translation wasn’t jarring – I have had some bad experiences with that myself. I’ve seen plenty of sci-fi from China and Japan that piqued my interest, but this is the first that I want to actively seek out.

    I second Andrea J’s recommendation of the Michael Kandel translations of Stanislaw Lem, which are done quite well.

  • Matthew Crocker

    I have really enjoyed the Sergei Lukyanenko Night Watch series. I adore Haruki Murakami, although that is definitely not SF.

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