Sci-Fi November: Review: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

ThreeBodyProblem1About The Three-Body Problem

Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

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.

About the Author

Liu Cixin is the most prolific and popular science fiction writer in the People’s Republic of China. Liu is an eight-time winner of the Galaxy Award (the Chinese Hugo) and a winner of the Nebula Award. Prior to becoming a writer, he worked as an engineer in a power plant in Yangquan, Shanxi.

Ken Liu (translator) is a writer, lawyer, and computer programmer. His short story "The Paper Menagerie" was the first work of fiction ever to sweep the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards.

My Thoughts

(This review is based on an advanced reader's copy received from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Liu Cixin, one of China's most popular science fiction authors, is making his US debut thanks to Tor Books' publication of The Three-Body Problem. Originally published in China in 2007, Liu's novel is the first in a trilogy (the next installment, The Dark Forest, will release in July 2015) and the first Chinese science fiction novel to be translated into English, thanks to the efforts of Ken Liu.

The Three-Body Problem is a work that unfolds across time, beginning in the late 1960s at the height of China's Cultural Revolution. After witnessing the murder of her father by revolutionaries, Ye Wenjie finds herself politically tainted, yet useful to the new hierarchy of command. As an astrophysicist, she possesses skills that make her suitable for work at the Red Coast Base, a secret installation that she'll never be able to leave and that has spawned much speculation and rumor.

In the present (or, at least, very near-future), Wang Miao, a nanotechnologist, is enlisted to infiltrate a cadre of cutting-edge scientists and learn their secrets. What he finds, instead, is an ominous layer of secrecy that has left several other scientists, including Wenjie's daughter, dead. Along the way, he stumbles upon Three Body, a virtual reality simulator depicting the end and rebirth of civilization on a world surrounded by three suns. The conflicting gravity fields and the ebb and flows of the planet's orbit inevitably leads to disaster, and the game's participants are challenged to find and exploit a pattern in the chaotic three-body problem.

Liu presents a science fiction story that is grounded in modernity and physics, fully utilizing the aspects of "science" alongside his fiction. The narrative thrust is largely cerebral, as well as political, and constantly engaging. He has a skillful hand in layering the many mysteries at the book's core, and pulls all the various threads together for form a complete whole by book's finish.

While the book's description bills this novel as an alien invasion story, it's really not until late in the game that the plot dovetails toward that revelation. It's clear that this ingredient will play a larger role in the other two installments, but for now it's a simmering plot point that helps to really blow up the novel in the third act. I've seen some marketing that claims this book has the "commercial action of Independence Day," but that's really not the case. The Three-Body Problem is a far more subtle and nuanced work that favors a slow-boil approach, rather than attempting to be a run-and-gun actioneer. As for the aliens themselves, what we learn of them is pretty magnificent and I can't help but think that their evolutionary tract must have been pretty damn innovative. Their scientific savvy is mind-blowing, although Liu is able to relate the real-world high-level physics supporting his plot in easily digestible chunks.

In fact, I found the strongest elements of this novel to be on its scientific and (mostly) Earth-based foci. As an American reader with an interest in both science and history, I was truly fascinated by the political machinations that dogged these characters, particularly Wenjie, and which shaped their approaches to science and their world. This intersection of politics and science is a topic Americas would do well to pay keen attention to, particularly in light of science-denying politicians, like Lamar Smith and James Inhofe, garnering positions of power. The focus on China's Cultural Revolution and how that would shape a first-contact scenario was a very refreshing break from the presentation of similar material shaped by largely democratic, English-speaking countries. While I felt a bit of tonal similarity to British sci-fi author, Alastair Reynolds, the cultural forces informing their works are nicely dissonant.

The only real problems I had with the story were a rather bland set of characters, but the thriller-like momentum of the plot itself kept the story moving briskly despite not having a solid protagonist to really latch on to or worry about. Wang is bit too stiff and lacks any really strong elements of characterization. As I said earlier, this is largely a cerebral effort, but it lacks a lot of heart. There were also several instances where the dialog felt a bit stiff and stilted, with characters frequently going into long-winded monologues,  but perhaps something was simply lost in translation. In the end, though, these are minor gripes that are far outweighed by the sense of mental excitement and enjoyable brain-games the novel carries.

Overall, I found The Three Body-Problem to be a solid work and a wonderful introduction to a terrific writer. I was truly delighted with the way Liu developed his plot and the follow-through he exhibited in unraveling the scientific quandaries of this first-contact scenario. As the first in a trilogy, it promises enough scope and an epic scale, along with a spectacular thoughtfulness, to keep me eagerly awaiting the remaining two titles. I really need to know how the rest of this series plays out!

buy The Three-Body Problem At Amazon

Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.

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