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Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

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The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Ken Liu translator)

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The 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.

The Three-Body Problem opens in 1967, one year into China’s Cultural Revolution, on a battle between to Red Guard factions. The typical Western Reader is probably already in speculative territory. We might have some notion of the chaotic, disruptive, destructive period, but it can still be hard to imagine internecine warfare among teenagers. As much as this is an introduction to a tumultuous period that will be recalled again and again in the novel, it’s also full of intimate details. A single death is rendered poetically, imbued with exquisite meaning yet ultimately pointless.

She waved the battle banner as though brandishing her burning youth, trusting that the enemy would be burnt to ashes in the revolutionary flames, imagining that an ideal world would be born tomorrow from the ardor and zeal coursing through her blood.… She was intoxicated by her brilliant, crimson dream until a bullet pierced her chest.

While the devastating reality of a disordered political environment are shown plainly, there’s little sense of judgement.  Compromises are made and hardships are survived. What’s perhaps most fascinating about seeing the political minutiae of another country’s history is that it tends to illuminate our own.

It’s via this careful exploration of Ye Wenjie’s experiences in the past that we come to understand the parallels Liu Cixin draws between the Cultural Revolution and the mystery in the present narrative. While her father, Ye Zhetai endured numerous “struggle sessions” and never renounced the science he knew to be true, many other scientists sought to preserve their lives rather than their minds. Still others, committed suicide in fear and despair.

That’s what we come in on in the present. The clever cantankerous Shi Quang, a sort of hard-boiled detective straight out of Raymond Chandler, interrogates nanotechnology researcher Wang Miao about the mysterious ETO, an organization somehow tied to a recent pattern of suicides among theoretical researchers. At first Wang Miao can’t understand how his practical work could possibly be connected.

That’s the essence of the three-body problem. In classical mechanics, it’s the problem of taking an initial set of data that specifies the positions, masses and velocities of three bodies for some particular point in time and then determining their motions in relation to one another. In quantum physics, it focuses on the motions of three particles. In the novel both are important and scientifically unpredictable. But Wang Miao’s relationship to Ye Wenjie and the suicides is just as interesting.

It’s impossible to give a full accounting of what makes this book so fascinating without spoiling much of what makes it so enjoyable.  However, a few simply must be mentioned in hopes of attracting readers.  A massive online virtual reality game where scientific concepts come fast and dense, but also humorously literally represents the struggle for a species’ survival .  Elements of detective noir, Hollywood blockbusters, political drama, and documentary meld seamlessly together.  And I haven’t seen multi-dimensional physics explored with this kind of simultaneous seriousness and delight since Postsingular and Hylozoic.

Cixin Liu explores the similarities between first contact and revolution, the relative capabilities of states, civilizations, and worlds in a book bursting with science, ideas, and humanity.  Ken Liu has done an admirable job of translating one of China’s most popular science fiction titles, including several footnotes for the uniformed reader.

Recommended for fans of Rudy Rucker, Anathem, and hard scifi.

Ken Liu will translate the third book in the trilogy, Dead End as well.  He commented on Tor.com that the compressed schedule required multiple translators.  The Dark Forest was translated by Joel Martinsen, who will also translate 2004’s Ball Lightning.

Tor.com has made Chapters 1-3Chapter 7, and Chapter 9 available online.

You can read translator Ken Liu’s story “Paper Menagerie” that won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards here.

The Dark Forest, the second title in the trilogy, is scheduled for July 7, 2015.

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