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Book Review: The Three-Body Problem (Updated)

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


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 is presented 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 modern 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 Arthur C. Clarke.

Cixin Liu is a member of the China Science Writers’ Association and the Shanxi Writers’ Association. He was awarded the China Galaxy Science Fiction Award for eight consecutive years, from 1999 to 2006, and again in 2010. He received the Nebula (Xingyun) Award in both 2010 and 2011.

The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.

Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer.  He is a winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards.  Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a fantasy series, will be published by Saga Press, in 2015.

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

While the first two novels ground the reader in a familiar China with recognizable socioeconomic conditions, the third, in Liu Cixin’s own (trasnlated) words is pure science fiction.

“I wrote the third volume for myself and filled it with multi-dimensional and two-dimensional universes, artificial black holes and mini-universes, and I extended the time line to the heat death of the universe.  And, to our utter surprise, it was this third volume, written only for science fiction fans, which led to the popularity of the series as a whole.”

I’m actually looking forward to re-reading The Three-Body Problem come July, and again before the third installment.  Folks who’ve read both assure me that the quality and scope increases and enjoyment intensifies.  “Eliminate human tyranny! The world belongs to Trisolaris!”


Author: Cassandra

mom, wife, accounts payable, serial dropout, theory bitch, anarcho-idunno-syndicalist, literary alchemy enthusiast

One thought on “Book Review: The Three-Body Problem (Updated)

  1. Find an ETO here~


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