Translator: Ken Liu
Series: Three-Body #1
Published by Tor Books on November 11th 2014
Source: Ottawa Library
[Spoiler alert! In my opinion, the official blurb reveals elements of the plot happening quite late in the book. I would advise against reading it to keep the surprises in the book intact.]
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.
[widgets_on_pages id=”Science-Fiction & Fantasy World Tour”]I had an absolute blast reading The Three-Body Problem. To begin with, this is the first Chinese book I’ve ever read, and second, Cixin Liu is advertised as one of the most prominent Science-Fiction writer in China. I really wasn’t disappointed: The Three-Body Problem is one of the best Science-Fiction novel I’ve read this year and I certainly look forward to reading the sequel (or any other book by Cixin Liu for that matter). This novel offers everything I hope to find in a science-fiction book.
The first thing I loved about The Three-Body Problem was that it qualifies as hard science-fiction. Too often nowadays, a story is considered science-fiction only because it features some spaceships or artificial intelligence, or is simply set in the future. It doesn’t happen often that a book gives a mere thought about science. The Three-Body Problem does: it’s in the title. The three-body problem refers to the impossibility to predict the motion of three bodies in space, based on their respective gravitational attraction. To put it simply, if three celestial bodies are revolving around each other in a system, we can’t predict their trajectory at any point in time because it’s close to random.
In the book, this mystery is translated into an online virtual reality game called Three-Body: the player is sent on a planet with the most extreme and fastest climate change, compromising the survival of its inhabitants. Fortunately, life has adapted to those recurring disasters and, given time, always blooms again. The goal of the game is to find a pattern in the climate changes and offer a reliable way to predict them. Of course, it has something to do with the three-body problem. I really loved how the book turned into a scientific investigation… and had me search Wikipedia to broaden my (meagre) knowledge of physics.
But The Three-Body Problem is not a dry speculation about physics: it’s also a reflection about the consequence of China’s cultural revolution (the cultural revolution is, in a nutshell, the violent repression and social purge that followed the establishment of the first communist government in China). We meet Ye Wenjie, a university student and daughter of a teacher who was accused of being a reactionary, on the account that he was teaching Western science. Ye Wenjie had to watch her father tortured and murdered. Then, she is herself treated as a “reactionary” and refused a proper job. A few years later, she is sent against her will to a secret research base. There she will participate in scientific experiments that will have a deep impact in humanity’s future. The book retraces her life up to the present time and nicely shows the impact of violence on people’s vision of humanity.
In parallel, the book tells the story of Wang Miao, a nanomaterial researcher, in modern day. Against his will, he is pulled into a mass crime investigation: China is facing a wave of suicide amongst abstract science researchers, for no apparent reason. With the help of Shi Xiang, a scruffy cop, they will lead a breath-taking investigation, with even more hurry when Wang Miao appears to be himself in danger.
What I found spectacular with The Three-Body Problem is the crafty crescendo in the story: it starts with a few individuals, like in a close-up. Slowly, the plot draws more and more people in. The intrigue never stops getting bigger till it turns truly epic. By the way, I really believe it’s better to not read the blurb of the book, which gives away too many elements. This novel is full of surprises, don’t spoil it!
Finally, I must say a word about the fantastic translation of Ken Liu. You won’t even realize it’s a translation. I asked my Beloved to help me compare the translation to the original text in Chinese and from the few paragraph we looked at, it was extremely close, though sometimes rearranged to feel more natural in English. Helpful footnotes were added to explain cultural and historical references. Apparently Ken Liu won’t be translating the second book of the series but will be back for the third one. It will be quite a challenge for the next translator to live up to the first translation!
All in all, The Three-Body Problem was a stunning read. It reminded me of the best Philip K. Dick novels, talking about science and humanity all at the same time. It’s a gripping thriller as well as a reflection about the worth of humanity. Science-Fiction fans simply can’t miss this book!