Saturday, July 11, 2015

Book Review: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Over the past year, since the English translation was released in November 2014, The Three-Body Problem (三体) has received a huge amount of praise.  It's considered one of the most popular science fiction novels in China and with its English translation, it's easy for me to see why. Liu Cixin blends together a lot of fascinating concepts in a hard science fiction story reminiscent of the type Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov would write. If you are a fan of classic science fiction, you owe it to yourself to try out this author. I guarantee you will enjoy it.

For my spoiler-free review, read on.

Overall Impression
After finishing this, I can consider this to be a masterpiece of modern science fiction in the style of the classics of old. I found elements of the story to be similar to parts of Anathem by Neal Stephenson, Nightfall by Isaac Asimov, Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, and others. Liu Cixin should become a common place name among the masters of science fiction, especially now that this book has reached a wider audience with its English translation. Like most hard science fiction, the focus is less on the characters and more about the unique universe the people live in and the circumstances by which they explore that. That being said, the characters and plot are interesting enough, though their secondary role in the story is evident.

Plot
I read this book cold without knowing anything about it other than it was well regarded by the science fiction community. Without spoiling too much, I can say it's about Earth's first contact with an alien race, a common enough theme in science fiction stories. The plot is fairly fast paced, starting in the midsts of China's Cultural Revolution in the 60s. This was acutally surprising to me, as I expected such material to be heavily censored in China. After that, the plot shifts to the present/near-future where the majority of the action plays out. In the main storyline, the characters struggle to understand why groups of scientists have been committing suicide and in doing so encounter a mysterious game, Three Body.

The one criticism I have of the plot is that fairly long flashbacks are common. They are most noticeable after several major "conclusive" events. The story does switch back into the present, though, which can make it feel as if the book had multiple conclusions. Fortunately, these flashback scenes are very interesting and absolutely essential to understand how certain events took place.

Characters
Although the focus of hard science fiction stories tend to be on the setting or premise, the characters in Cixin's The Three-Body Problem are quite interesting on their own (though some are a bit stereotypical). Wang Miao, the is the protagonist tasked with finding out why prominent theoretical scientists have been dying. As a scientist himself, he can infiltrate what military and police officials is the organization behind this and as he does so, it seems as if reality itself unravels before him.

Other prominent characters include Ye Wenjie, whose story we follow since the days of the cultural revolution; Shi Qiang, the rude yet highly efficient police officer; and Shen Yufei, who offers cryptic advice to Wang. Through the interactions of these and other characters, the story plays out and we learn with them the mysteries of what is going on. As you can probably tell, the characters are mainly all Chinese and as such their names can be a bit overwhelming for Western readers. However, I don't think it should be too much of a problem as the cast of characters is not large.

Setting / World Building
The book is set in the real world, sometime close to the present or near-future in modern China. A lot of characters are scientists and the story reflects that heavily. While knowledge of astronomy, physics, or computer science is not necessary to understand what's going on, it can certainly help you appreciate some of the intricacies of the plot. Plenty of basic explanations are given by the characters at key points whenever some advanced concept is introduced.

One of the coolest parts of the book are when the characters play the Three Body game. This is a mysterious online game played with what's effectively a virtual reality suit. It places the character in an utterly unpredictable world where the rising and setting of the sun are unpredictable, as are the seasons, weather, and all of civilization. The only constant in this world is that civilizations can disappear in an instant during the unpredictable coming of Chaotic Ages. The first few instances of the game world are quite frightening as they reinforce some of the themes the characters are struggling with in the main plot.

While science is an important aspect of science fiction, it is not required to be "correct". This book is no exception, there are things that are absolutely true as we know it, extrapolations that make sense based on our current knowledge, and a few things that aren't completely accurate (to the best of *my* knowledge), but are there for the story's sake. I can't talk about them without spoiling parts of the plot, but suffice to say that these are minor things that shouldn't hold you back from enjoying the story. Also, some of these aspects are part of the game and as such are suspect to begin with.

Final Thoughts
This was an excellent book. It is important to stress that this is a hard science fiction novel. Generally, hard sci-fi stories focus strongly on the premise of the story (the idea) rather  than characters or plot, so approach the story with that in mind. Notable also is that this is a translation by Ken Liu, another famed science fiction author. I only found one case in the book that could be something lost in translation (Cheng's prayer to Bhudda seemed unremarkable to me, as opposed to the cast), though I'm sure there may be other aspects that readers of the original may catch. There are plenty of footnotes that highly aspects of the cultural revolution or Chinese names that may not be familiar to Western readers. Nevertheless, this was an outstanding story and likely to be among my favorites for this year. While it is technically part of a trilogy, the story stands extremely well on it's own. Of course, I'll be paying attention for more translated works of Liu Cixin.

2 comments:

  1. Heya and thanks for the review. :)

    I've been eyeing this book as well, but, have stayed away because of the label "Hard Science fiction." I've never really fully understood that label, so, thank you for laying it out. Being that it's Hard scifi, does it have a lot of drawn explanations? Eg - Physics, etc.

    One of my favorite scifi books, if not favorite of all time, is Hyperion. Is that Hard scifi? Or more space operish?

    Thanks!

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  2. I've yet to read Hyperion (it's on the list), so I'm not sure about it. From what I understand about it, I wouldn't call it hard scifi.
    As for The Three Body problem, yes there are parts with some drawn out explanations regarding physics and astronomy. They're not very common, nor are they essential to following the story, but it helps to read through them. The author does a good job at explaining things so it shouldn't be too bad. ;)

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