Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three Body Problem is a science fiction novel by Chinese author Liu Cixin. It was originally published back in 2008, but an English translation wasn't available until 2014. I picked up a copy from the library recently.
There are a lot of different aspects to The Three Body Problem. At the core, the novel is about discovering an alien species via long-range contact. Along the way, it goes through political and cultural upheaval in China's Cultural Revolution, explores the psychological effects of knowing we are not alone in the universe, uses virtual reality gaming as a teaching and recruitment tool, and shapes an entire alien race based on the physics of their star system. All of this and more is revealed bit by bit as characters meet and learn each other's stories.

There's a lot to absorb in the world that Cixin has created, which I admit did cause me to work a bit at suspension of disbelief. The science and alien aspects were the easiest. Advanced nano-materials, discovering a way to greatly amplify signals to the stars, full-body virtual reality suits, the existence of aliens...those are pretty standard science fiction themes. Later on the advanced alien technology did some things that were more difficult to believe, specifically some strange dimension-warping actions with subatomic particles. But I had the hardest time with the idea that a large number of educated people, upon learning about the aliens, would decide that there's no hope for humanity in the long term, and we'd be better off either wiped out by the aliens or under subjugation. I'm used to that kind of thinking being the province of lone fanatics or cults, usually driven by charismatic individuals dominating the poorly educated. Here, though, it's a well-organized and funded world-wide conspiracy consisting mostly of society's elites - business leaders, academics, government officials. I had to stop and adjust my thinking a bit through that part of the story.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Three Body Problem for me was the difference in style and culture from the Western works that I'm used to reading. There's a lot of references to recent Chinese history, mostly related to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Footnotes are strategically placed to explain those, which I appreciated. More subtle aspects of Eastern culture show through in the writing style, and in the actions of the characters. For instance, in several places Wang Miao, one of the main viewpoint characters, is upset by the rudeness of others, most notably the policeman Shi Quiang. His reaction is quite a bit stronger than I'd expect from a similar situation in Western culture. Those kind of small differences are present throughout.

The translator Ken Liu did an outstanding job. He wrote a note explaining his goal, which was not just to translate word-for-word, but keep the flow of the story and maintain the tone. I've not read the original Chinese work, obviously, but I certainly felt like he accomplished the goal of keeping the Eastern feel to the novel while making it accessible to English readers.

There are two more novels that follow The Three Body Problem, which is a very good thing since many of the biggest plot threads remain unresolved by the end of this book. The English translation for one of them is already available, and the other is due out later this year. Looking forward to having a chance to see how it all unfolds.

No comments:

Post a Comment