Universal Nature: A Review of The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin

Readers will be forgiven for believing that all science-fiction originates in the West.  Since the inception of the genre, American and English authors have dominated the field, telling the stories we all know.  Jules Verne was a pioneer with The War of the Worlds, William Gibson created the modern vision of virtual reality with Neuromancer, and George Lucas will go down as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time for creating the universe of Star Wars.  But science-fiction does not belong to the West alone.  The Three-Body Problem, written by Liu Cixin, is a work of Chinese science-fiction.  Part one of a trilogy, the novel is not just a good read, but an important one as well.

Liu Cixin was born in China during the 1960’s, just before the advent of the Cultural Revolution, when Chairman Mao Zedong was at the height of his power.  As a child, his parents worked in the mines of Shanxi province.  As young as he was, he would have witnessed the violence of the Cultural Revolution and was in fact sent back to the family’s ancestral home in Henan to avoid the worst of it.  The Cultural Revolution saw the wort of humanity rise to the surface.  Millions of people were killed by Chairman Mao’s followers, and multiple civil wars broke out between Communist factions, all claiming to be true Marxists, and the all rest were imitators.  This period left a scar on the country still felt today.  Academics were murdered en masse for advancing theories and practices deemed counter-revolutionary, such as the Theory of Relativity.  The mark of the turbulent period forms the foundation of The Three-Body Problem.

As The Three-Body Problem is a Chinese language novel, the book required a translator.  Originally serialized in 2006 and published as a novel in 2008, the task of opening the novel up to Western audiences was granted to Tor books.  Chinese-American author Ken Liu (no relation to Liu Cixin) took up the monumental task of taking something so quintessentially Chinese and translating it in such as a way that American audiences could both enjoy and understand the story.  This was no easy tasks, as so much of the novel requires knowledge of Chinese communist history and practices.  The Cultural Revolution forms a backbone, and there are multiple references and phrases which would make no sense without context.  Overall, Ken Liu performed an exquisite job of taking this book and maintaining the essence while changing the language.  Context is not messed with in order to appeal to Western audiences, and anything that is not immediately understandable is granted a footnote.  While this practice is common with history and reference books, it is not normal for novels.  However, with The Three-Body Problem, the footnotes provide much needed background while not distracting from reading the book.

The story of the novel is split into two narratives.  At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie’s father is publicly executed for teaching factual science and physics.  In the face of ignorance, he refuses to speak anything other than the truth of the universe.  This section of the story is told from Wenjie’s point of view as she weathers the effects of the time period and is brought to work for the Chinese government on a top-secret facility, all while facing the scorn of her peers.  In the present of the novel, which is actually slightly in the future compared to the real world, Wang Miao is an engineer working on a new type of nanomaterial which promises to revolutionize infrastructure and kick start projects around the world.  The effects of the Communist government area felt much less in this modern China, though the attitude towards science and progress appears to have become the polar opposite of Chairman Mao’s beliefs.  These two POV’s are initially completely separate, and it is unclear at first how they connect, until Wang Miao meets Ye Wenjie in the present as an old woman somehow connected to a vast conspiracy.

In the present, scientists around the world are committing suicide under suspicious and mysterious circumstances.  Wang Miao is asked by the Chinese government to work with a police detective, Shi Qiang, or Big Shi, to investigate.  While Wang Miao is not told exactly what is going on, he witnesses the unprecedented level of cooperation between governments of the world.  During a briefing by Chinese officials, he witnesses representatives from multiple countries, including CIA operatives and an American army general.  They speak of a shadow war being fought around the globe, a war the public is not aware of.  The only casualties so far are scientists and science itself.  A suicide note left by the most recent victim boldly declares that physics does not exist.  Wang Miao is asked to go undercover with a radical scientific and environmentalist group eventually revealed as the Earth-Trisolaris Organization.  By doing so, Wang Miao places himself in their crosshairs and starts experiencing visions which shake his very faith in established science.  Since we experience the story from his perspective, much is not known, and, before the strange visions, we have no idea what path the science-fiction of The Three-Body Problem will take.

Aside from the visions and near-future technology, the main aspect of science-fiction present in the novel is a game known as Three Body.  A fully virtual reality game, playing required a haptic feedback suit along with an Oculus-type headset for full immersion.  While in the game, the real world disappears.  The players are never in danger, but they fully feel the virtual world as if it were real.  Three Body is not like most games, however.  The point is not really to win.  There are no fights, no exploration, no familiar puzzle solving.  The game world takes place on a planet that experience unpredictable Chaotic and Stable eras.  During Stable Eras, the sun rises and sets as one expects, and life is near to life on Earth.  During Chaotic Eras, the sun may never rise, or may never set.  Heat, freezes, storms, and other natural dangers occur without warning.  The goal of the game is to understand the physics of the world, eventually revealed to be a planet with three suns, hearkening back to the title of the novel and, in retrospect, turning the title of the game into a spoiler.  The Three-Body Problem was a orbital mechanics question long before it became a novel.

The game of Three Body is where the largest twist of the book occurs and sets the stage for the rest of the trilogy.  Extraterrestrial life has been discovered.  The Trisolarans occupy a star system with three suns, and the game world is their world, created by a faction on Earth trying to solve the problem of their home planet.  This is where Ye Wenjie’s story collides with Wang Miao.  During her time at the top-secret facility during the Cultural Revolution, Wenjie traded messages with the Trisolarans.  Her heart turned cold by the violence and pointlessness of the Cultural Revolution, her eyes opened the ugliness of humanity, she invited alien invaders to our world and established a network of like minded individuals to aid the coming conquerors.

The Three-Body Problem is an inventive work of science-fiction from an author who underwent a technical education and worked for a number of years as an engineer.  Liu Cixin is the rare engineer with a talent for words and turning the scientific ideas in his head into fiction loved by all who read it.  But, this is only the first part of a trilogy, and the story at the finale of the novel is far from concluded.  The promise of invasion at the end of the novel is more apparent than ever, and the Trisolarans make a statement to Earth.  They are on their way, and they are not impressed.  When subtlety fails, go bold.  The Three-Body Problem is proof that genre fiction belongs to the entire world, and more attention should be paid to science-fiction from outside the West.  When it comes time to expand your horizons, this novel is the perfect place to start.

The Three-Body Problem may be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 9 days

Next on the List: The Fall of Gondolin, by J.R.R. Tolkein, edited by Christopher Tolkein

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