The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin

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Author’s blog (not in English) | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 11, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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.

Thoughts: You read the description for The Three-Body Problem and you think that what you’re going to be getting is a standard alien invasion story where the only thing to set it apart from so many others is that it happens to take place in China. If you go into this book with that preconception, then prepare to have your mind blown by an outstanding intelligent story of discovery and humanity that goes far beyond any justice I can do it here. But nevertheless, I’ll give it my best shot and try to review this book properly.

The story starts in the past, with China in turmoil as society shifts and old ways are discarded in favour of revolution. Ye Wenjie has lost so much: her family, her home, and eventually, her freedom. But the circumstances that follow these losses, combined with her intelligence and education, place her in a prime position to influence the future of humanity, as well as become privy to secrets from far beyond the reaches of our world. Decades later, Wang Miao stumbles across bits and pieces of a scientific conspiracy that leads him slowly down the same road, and to a video game known as Three-Body, ostensibly set in a fantasy world with real-world historical elements thrown in for flavour, in which time runs in unpredictable Chaotic Periods and Stable Periods and discovering the secret behind them is the key to the survival of an entire civilization.

The setting and initial time period, more than anything else, made me very much aware that there is so much that I don’t understand about the world and the people who live in it. What do I know about the past half century in China? Next to nothing, as The Three-Body Problem showed me time and time again as  read. And since part of the point of the novel involved understanding the plight of others whose situation is unfamiliar to you, even utterly beyond your personal comprehension, the first few chapters really set that tone. Liu uses cultural difference and transformation to tremendous effect here, and presents science as an ultimate truth yet something that still isn’t free from political influence. You can’t have advancement without politics being involved, and you can’t influence politics without advancement to back you up. Everything — culture, politics, and hard science — are tangled together inextricably, whether we want them to be or not.

There’s so much to this novel that you very quickly realise that it’s not just going to be a quick read. It deserves taking time on, and it brings up plenty of thought-provoking concepts in science and philosophy that are explained in ways that don’t require years of field training to understand. Liu understands that not every reader will be familiar with every concept and so makes sure that characters appropriately explain their contributions and ideas. Ken Liu’s translation notes help with this, too, allowing the reader greater cultural and linguistic context that can’t really be addressed in the main text. The result is very impressive, more so for the fact that it’s a translated work, which I find often lose a little something in the translation.

To say that Liu’s style of writing is first-rate almost does it a disservice. It’s damn near poetic, insightful and reflective, and the commentary on science and politics is enough to ignite the spark of discovery and learning in even the most jaded of readers. The way he writes, and the beautiful translation by yet another Liu, makes you feel that answers and understanding are within reach, even to questions that haven’t been asked yet. He approaches things as though the reader may be ignorant but not incapable of learning, presents a mystery with enough twists and turns to keep you entertained as well as making you work for the answers you get, and does wonders with grey morality. The Three-Body Problem isn’t a book to be read, but a book to be experienced.

This is a book that can appeal not only to fans of hard sci-fi but also to those who prefer more social sci-fi, such as myself. It walks the fine line between the two, pulling bits from either side and combining them into a brilliant story that gives your mind a workout without leaving you feeling like half of the story just went over your head. After reading The Three-Body Problem, it’s no surprise to hear that the book has won multiple awards and that the author is a well-known sci-fi author in China, and indeed should be better-known here too! It’s one that sci-fi fans can’t afford to miss!

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

7 comments on “The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin

  1. Great review! I am glad to hear that even someone who wasn’t familiar with recent Chinese history found this book fascinating, as of course it was. I do agree that the blurb is a bit misleading–this is definitely no standard alien invasion story.

    My husband is already annoyed that I bug him about reading this book every day…if he would just read it, I’d stop!

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