Review of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

The Three-Body Problem opens at a “public rally intended to humiliate and break down . . . enemies . . . through verbal and physical abuse until they confessed their crimes before the crowd.”  Who are those enemies?  Academics.  And what was their crime?  Daring to disperse the ideas of “reactionary academic authorities” that represent “reactionary idealism.”  The reactionary academics (their accusers are the sort of people who use the word “reactionary” a lot) had started out as “arrogant and stubborn” but were softened up by the public humiliation sessions that consisted of “someone scream[ing] in their faces to make them mechanically recite their confessions, already repeated countless times.”  Eventually the conditioning took its toll and “[t]hey began to really believe that they were guilty.”  The admissions of guilt themselves, though, are boring.  The real sadistic joy comes from breaking the will of academics who refuse to admit their already-determined guilt.

Three Body Problem Cover

Is The Three-Body Problem a near-future dystopia, with the victims American academics who refuse to pander to the half-baked postmodern, critical studies orthodoxies of students who think Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity represents the height of thinking?  No, rather than an all-too-plausible future, The Three-Body Problem opens during China’s Cultural Revolution.  Liu does jump to the near future after opening in the Cultural Revolution, but the events of the first three chapters both have a very specific consequence—after watching her father killed at one of the rallies, one of the main characters, Ye Wenjie, is spurred to much later take the single action that serves as the catalyst for the entire series—and set a certain tone.

The Three-Body Problem only spends three chapters in the past before rather abruptly shifting to the near-future.  Part II opens with Wang Maio, a physicist working on nanotech, being pulled from his home by two cops and two PLA officers, including a swaggering, chain-smoking police officer named Shi Qiang, a character that grates in the best sort of way.  He is taken to a meeting of a cross-functional, pan-national group that asks him to infiltrate an organization called the Frontiers of Science in the wake of the suicides of three prominent physicists.  That’s when things start to get weird.  Wang Maio learns that three recently completed giant particle accelerators have been producing different results (impossibly).  Then a mysterious countdown begins to appear on Wang Maio’s photographs.  Not content to idle away his time on photography, Wang Maio also becomes immersed in a virtual reality video game called Three Body.

From here we get into spoiler territory.  The video game features a world that varies unpredictably between “stable periods” and “chaotic periods.”  During the chaotic periods the sun may rise from any direction, for any amount of time, may vary dramatically in size, or may not rise at all.  The game revolves around predicting the periods, and a wrong prediction frequently leads to the death of a civilization and the end of the game.  Wang Maio eventually figures out that the chaotic periods are caused by three suns, each exerting gravitational pull on the planet on which the game is set and on each other.  This is the seemingly insurmountable physics problem from the title.  The video game is a test of sorts—anyone who gets far enough along is recruited by a shadowy organization, and it is revealed that the game is based on a real alien race that has been in contact with humanity.  Now they are on their way to earth with conquest in mind (it’s going to take them 450 year, though, so we’re safe for a bit).

The Three-Body Problem is a different sort of book.  It is hard science fiction (there is a physics problem right in the title), when that sort of thing has fallen out of style.  The protagonist is an academic and a physicist, not a soldier or a politician.  It wears its science fiction elements lightly at first, saving much for late in the book and instead (very effectively) borrowing the structure and tropes or thrillers and mysteries.  Wang Maio may be the first protagonist in a thriller to spend most of his time on photography and video games instead of investigation.  Characters like to stop and chat about science and philosophy.  The Three-Body Problem is also a translation.  That’s a feature not a bug.  The stark difference in style threw me off at first but a quickly grew to appreciate its freshness.  It also has footnotes from both the author and translator with wonderful bits of Chinese history and culture.

Book two in Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, this time translated by Joel Martinsen, will be released on August 11, 2015.

I previously reviewed Hugo best novel nominees Skin Game, The Goblin Emperor, and Ancillary Sword.  I will post a review of the final nominee, The Dark Between the Stars, tomorrow or Wednesday and plan to do a post on my ballot on Thursday.

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About H.P.

Blogs on speculative fiction books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.
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14 Responses to Review of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

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