The Three-Body Problem
by Cixin Liu
Translated by Ken Liu;
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765377067
Date: 11 November 2014 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Books in translation traditionally do not do well in the U.S. Only about three percent of American books were originally published in foreign languages. This is even truer in written science fiction, aside from a few exceptions like Jules Verne, Stanisław Lem, and Arkady and Boris Strugatsk. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards lasted just three years before its organizers shut down. However, recently, science fiction magazines, including Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed have printed translations of stories from China and Japan. Ken Liu, an award-winning science fiction author in his own right, has translated over 20 stories by Chinese authors. So it is not surprising to see his name as the English translator of The Three-Body Problem, the first book in a trilogy of best-selling Chinese novels by Cixin Liu (each book sold over 500,000 copies). Ken Liu translated the first and third books.
The book has lots of ties to Chinese history (conveniently footnoted for those not familiar with Chinese history). It opens with the execution of a scientist during the Cultural Revolution. His daughter Ye Wenjie is sent into the wilderness as part of the Construction Corps where she gets in trouble with the Political Department and is only rescued when she is recruited for a mysterious project at the Red Coast base involving sending transmissions to find aliens in outer space. The book jumps 40 years into the present when scientist Wang Miao is asked by a group of army police to investigate the connection between a group called the Frontiers of Science, composed of influential scientists, and the suicides of several prominent physicists, including Ye Wenjie's daughter who left a note saying the evidence points to the conclusion that physics never existed and will never exist. Meanwhile Wang, who is an avid photographer, discovers a countdown appearing on the film he shoots, but not when someone else uses the camera.
A large part of the book is devoted to Three Body--a game that mixes Earth historical characters and settings with a world that alternates between Stable Eras in which civilization can build and unpredictable Chaotic Eras when most of the population dehydrates themselves to survive extreme weather and other effects. The goal of the game is to try to understand the patterns and predict the timing and duration of the next era. Wang soon becomes engrossed in the game and advances quickly in it, only to discover the game is a recruiting tool for the very conspiracy he is investigating.
While the idea of a computer game being real is old hat to Western science fiction, Three Body is no shoot 'em up Last Starfighter but a philosophical and mathematical game. This carries over to the book which is closer to a Philip K. Dick type novel with conspiracies and a hero struggling to find truth, than to space opera or action adventure. The book is not really about an alien invasion but on human reactions to it. The pace may strike some readers as slow but there is enough to hold the reader's interest throughout the novel.
The book has flaws. Considering the worldwide scope of the conspiracy, it is surprising how many major figures involved are a short drive from Wang Miao. One also has to wonder whether there would really be so many people so disillusioned with modern life that they would help an alien takeover. Perhaps this could have been explained with better characterization, but everyone here seems somewhat reserved, as if going through a filter. This could be an artifact of the translation process or a cultural difference, but the result is a book that feels much like pre-new wave golden age science fiction. A New York Times article quotes the author saying, "Everything that I write is a clumsy imitation of Arthur C. Clarke," which is an apt description of the feel of the book.
The book is a challenging read, forcing the reader to adjust to a culture alien to most of us. Readers who want action or a book similar to what they just read should stay away. Those who relish the alien and different, who believe in experimenting and taking a chance on something novel should give this a try, especially if they like classic old wave science fiction.