The three-body problem (Liu Cixin, 2008)


The three-body problem, by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu, 2008).

Score: awesome.

The book opens in Cultural Revolution China, where young physicist Ye Wenjie witnesses her father’s death during a public struggling session, after her mother and sister joined the Red Guard. Marked as a subversive element, Ye agrees to spend her life in a military research facility as a scientist. In the present, nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao is asked to infiltrate a shady organization called Frontiers of Science because a lot of scientists have been quitting their research and committing suicide lately. In the process, Wang starts playing a VR video game about a world where day and night cycles and therefore climate is chaotic except during brief periods called Stable Eras. The goal of the game is to explain and predict Stable Eras in order to save the civilization that lives there.

I really enjoyed reading a science-fiction book set in another culture. Liu’s assimilation of science-fiction tropes and transplanting into his own upbringing in order to tell a compelling and new story was very interesting to read. I hope to read many more books like this in the future and learn about other cultures and other countries’ history.

It’s not a very long book and the pacing is nearly perfect. Chapters set in different periods and contexts follow one another seamlessly and the action almost never stops. The first section provides historical and cultural context to the characters, and the mysteries start almost immediately in the second section, leading us to their progressive unraveling and final setup for the rest of the trilogy. Liu even adds chapters with different formats, such as written reports, interrogations and memories told in the first person. Some of these are awkward when introduced but work well in general.

The chapters with the Three Body video game were very exciting. I wanted to play a video game like that one! The recurring annihilation in freaky astronomical events was hilarious, like a particularly cruel game of Banished. Okay, I have a weird sense of humour. These chapters kept me interested and up reading until very late at night, definitely a highlight of the book.

The planetary scale of the conspiracy and unexplained events reminded me a lot of Spin, though luckily the characters in The three-body problem were not irredeemably stupid and insufferable like the main characters of Spin. In fact, the bad guys in this book are quite well achieved. They are given motives to be evil, as well as flaws and doubts. Hell, they even sound reasonable sometimes.

The style is quite sober, though I’m guessing that is because the translation from Chinese makes a lot of nuances and quirks of language disappear. Ken Liu speaks in his postscript of trying to strike a balance between translating faithfully, adapting culturally and not adding too many footnotes. The result is pleasant to read, but since I don’t speak Chinese I cannot assess his effort further.

This book falls on the quite hard side of the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness. I don’t know enough advanced physics to justify whether what Liu lays out as an explanation for the events of the book makes a lot of sense or not, but for someone with a very basic understanding of quantum physics the result seems truthlike. Willing suspension of disbelief is not broken.

This book is entertaining, exciting and cleverly written, so I recommend it to all of you who like science-fiction.

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