Book Review:  The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is a science fiction novel first written in Chinese and then translated into English by the award-winning writer Ken Liu. The Three-Body Problem has also won its share of awards, including the Chinese Galaxy Award for best science fiction novel and The Hugo Award given annually by the World Science Fiction Convention. It truly is an extraordinary and singular work full of awesome majesty, thrills, terror, a sense of wonder, and amazingly original viewpoints on major science fictional themes.

One of the things that impressed me about this unique novel is its eastern perspective. It is set mainly in China and its main characters are Chinese. It begins, in fact, during the brutal Cultural Revolution of the 1960s when scientists and other intellectuals were being killed or banished to remote wilderness work camps. In the midst of all this chaos, an astronomical facility called Red Coast has been set up to cripple enemy spy satellites. While working at Red Coast, an astrophysicist named Ye Wenjie receives a message from another world, called Trisolaris because it is in a system with three suns. Embittered by the murder of her father and the treatment she has received as an intellectual, she responds to the message, knowing that this will result in an alien invasion that will destroy humankind. These are merely the rudiments of the plot, though; it also includes a dark and complex video game meant to persuade players to ally with Trisolaris, an elaborate organization set up to welcome the invaders and help them succeed, and sabotage of Earth’s scientific progress.

The three-body problem of the title is the motivation for the abandonment of Trisolaris and the invasion of Earth. Nobody can figure out an algorithm to predict the movements of the three suns; as a result, civilizations are continually collapsing when confronted with extreme weather events and have to be rebuilt from scratch.

There are a lot of plot-threads in this story, but Liu deftly weaves them into a complex and compelling narrative. I don’t understand enough astrophysics or history to know if everything that Liu proposes has a basis in hard science, but it has verisimilitude, and that’s good enough for me. The important thing from my perspective as a reader and a writer is that it all works well as a novel brimming with adventure, excitement, emotional depth, and a wealth of coherent and cohesive ideas. It is one of the best science fiction novels I have read in recent years. It encourages me to look abroad for more literary perspectives. Most of the science fiction I read is from American and British writers; part of the reason, I suppose, is the difficulty of getting good translations. Ken Liu, a master wordsmith of his own material and familiar with both American and Chinese language and culture, is the perfect person to bring this novel to an English-speaking audience.

By the way, The Three-Body Problem is actually the first volume in a trilogy called Remembrance of Earth’s Past (alternatively known simply as Three-Body) – so this is just the beginning.

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