Monday, May 7, 2018

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu was originally published in China in 2006.  This book won the Hugo award for best novel as well as several Chinese science-fiction awards. The novel is an example of what I call hard science fiction. I agree with the many commentators who contend that this book is already a science-fiction classic. The “classic” descriptor has a double meaning, as this book resembles much of the classic science fiction of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. 

The narrative alternates between China in the 1960s during the cultural revolution and twenty-first century China of the very near future. This novel pulls no punches in regards to the horrors of China’s cultural revolution.  That period is depicted as a time of brutality, when irrational forces were destroying truth, science and peoples’ lives. Ye Wenjie is a young physicist whose father is murdered in front of her by a state-sponsored mob. When she gets into her own trouble with the government for reading forbidden books, she chooses a life where she must permanently reside at a secret government base called Red Coast as an alternative to prison. This base is dedicated to sending transmissions to potential extraterrestrial civilizations as well as to searching for signals from those civilizations. This narrative continues through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Signals from an alien civilization, dubbed by humans as Trisolaris, are eventually received. The initial message is a warning from a Trisolaran pacifist that as the Trisolaran civilization is threatened by unstable stellar events, further communications from Earth will likely trigger an invasion of Earth by Trisolarians’ looking for a new home. Ye manages to keep these transmissions a secret and begins communicating with the aliens. Ye has experienced the horrors of the cultural revolution, and she is also convinced that humanity is causing the destruction of Earth’s environment and fears that nuclear war may be coming. Though the aliens’ intentions are not benign, she looks to the Trisolarisarians for salvation. 

In the twenty-first century, the narrative centers on Wang Miao, a young scientist. Wang begins to experience strange events. He discovers messages in photographs that he takes and observes bizarre data from scientific instruments. Wang discovers a strange virtual reality game that simulates a world that orbits three stars, like the Trisolaran home world. He eventually encounters a much older Ye Wenjie, who is now leading a bizarre organization called the Earth- Trisolaris Organization, or ETO. The ETO is trying to actively help the Trisolarisare takeover of Earth. The ETO members have become completely disillusioned with humanity. 

Wang eventually gets pulled into a secret alliance of world governments that are battling the Trisolarians and their human allies. Shi Qiang is also an important character. He is a police counterterrorism expert who is gruff and abrasive, but who provides invaluable assistance in thwarting the alien threat. 

The book is filled with hard science. Current day human technology and science is interwoven into the plot. This includes physics and astrophysics, virtual reality, nanotechnology and more. Extremely advanced science and technology of The Trisolarisarian’s are described. Even wondrous innovations are based upon real physics and current theories. At times, the text becomes a little technical. Though I found it interesting, I think that readers who are less interested in these technical passages can easily skim over them without losing much in this book. 

Though published in the last decade, this book very much resembles works of older classic science fiction. The author clearly was influenced by such writers as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. As mentioned above, the science and physics are all plausible in this work. Even when describing mind boggling alien technology, Cixin Liu provides a scientific basis. The story is also logically consistent. This is a work of hard science fiction. The writing, at least in translation, is straight forward. Most of the story’s characters are scientists. The alliance of world governments uniting to fight off an alien invasion is right out of so many earlier works.

The fact that this was influenced by earlier works is not to say that this is not a very creative book. This novel is filled with creative speculation and imaginative situations. For instance, The Three Body Virtual Reality Game is original and full of unprecedented touches. The way that the Trisolarisarians attempt to undermine human civilization by using just radio and electromagnetic transmissions is wildly inventive. The philosophy behind the story is also original, as will be explained further below. 

The novel has environmental, anti-war and anti-totalitarian themes. Humanistic values are championed.  While the Trisolarisarians attempt to destroy Earth’s civilization, they worry that transmissions from Earth might undermine their own oppressive system. Two members of their leadership observe,

“The humanism of Earth will lead many Trisolarans onto the wrong path. Just as Trisolaran civilization has already become a religion on Earth, Earth civilization has this potential on Trisolaris.” “You’ve pointed out a great danger. We must strictly control the flow of information from the Earth to the populace, especially cultural information.””

Cixin Liu seems to be illustrating how harmful environmental damage, totalitarianism, anti-literacy, etc. are to humankind. However, the message of the book seems to be that people should not fall into despair and to give in to gloom and doom. The members of the ETO do this as they betray humanity and court a cataclysm.

“The most surprising aspect of the Earth-Trisolaris Movement was that so many people had abandoned all hope in human civilization, hated and were willing to betray their own species, and even cherished as their highest ideal the elimination of the entire human race, including themselves and their children.”


Ironically, when the aliens seem so very omnipotent, it is the politically incorrect Shi Qiang that rallies the protagonists with a message of hope and defiance. The Trisolarisarians are able to invade the visual cortex of the members of the group fighting them with a message that they are all forced to see - “You’re bugs!” This completely demoralizes the scientists and the military leadership trying to fight the aliens, but Shi brings the main characters to a region being devastated by locusts and observes, 

“Look at them, the bugs. Humans have used everything in their power to extinguish them: every kind of poison, aerial sprays, introducing and cultivating their natural predators, searching for and destroying their eggs, using genetic modification to sterilize them, burning with fire, drowning with water. Every family has bug spray, every desk has a flyswatter under it … this long war has been going on for the entire history of human civilization. But the outcome is still in doubt. The bugs have not been eliminated. They still proudly live between the heavens and the earth, and their numbers have not diminished from the time before the appearance of the humans.”

The book is not perfect. While several of the characters are interesting to read about and Ye shows a little complexity, they are for the most part simplistic. Better crafted characters would have made this book so much stronger. The writing, at least the translation of it, is at times a little flat. 

This English translation by Ken Liu restored the author’s original sequence of chapters which was changed by the book’s editors upon original publication. It also contains a fair number of helpful notes relating to Chinese history and culture. 

I highly recommend this work to anyone who likes the older science fiction.  Such readers will likely enjoy this book a lot. It is a great piece of science fiction. There are follow-ups to this novel. The Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy refers to this novel and its two sequels. I will likely be reading the remainder of the series soon.

43 comments:

Mudpuddle said...

i grew up on hard sci fi and this sounds right up my alley... i'll look for a copy; tx, Brian...

seraillon said...

I'm happy to see this reviewed by you, as I trust your taste in science fiction and have been curious about this work for some time. I'm particularly interested in its grounding in contemporary Chinese particulars. The only other Chinese sci-fi I've read is Lao She's classic Cat Country, a great little dystopian novel in line with 1984 and Brave New World.

Suko said...

Brain Joseph,

I don't read a lot of science fiction, but this does sound fascinating. Excellent, thoughtful commentary, as usual.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle- If you love the hard science fiction of the past. I think that this book is for you.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Scott - I think that this is the first Chinese book That I have read period. I must give Lao She a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - This was so intriguing. Though it was a very worthy book, I think that I would start with its predecessors first.

Kathy's Corner said...

Great commentary Brian. I'm thinking that in creating the character of Ye who suffered terribly in the cultural revolution the author is making a point about how people who have been damaged by life or by their government can be open to cults, movements and in the case of this novel the aliens. Sounds like a novel worth reading.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy Indeed, Ye’s terrible experiences did lead her to embrace terrible things. I agree, I think that this is one of Liu’s messages.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Excellent review. I think this book must have been a great read. This is the type of sci fi I like: provocative ideas and possibilities with some history thrown in. Thanks for letting me know about this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon- I think that you would like this. It is really full of ideas.

James said...

I found the technical passages challenging when I read this three years ago. I also had problems with the characterization and was disappointed with the book as a whole. However I think most of the members of our SF book group enjoyed the novel more than I did.

Stefanie said...

I really enjoyed this one. I thought the various plot points that seemed to have nothing to do with each other were brought together nicely in the end. I have not managed to get to the second book yet. I am hoping this summer I will. Do you have plans to keep reading the series?

Tracy Terry said...

Whilst not a big fan of this genre there are so many elements of this book that really appeal to me making it a must for my 'Wanna Read' list.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - When it comes to science fiction, I tend to take difficult technical stuff on fate.

I agree that the characters were often weak

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - The plot did tie together well. I am actually on the third book now. I will have commentary up it in a week or so.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - If you read this I would love to know what you thought of it.

HKatz said...

This sounds interesting and reminds me of a conversation I had recently with someone who said that a lot of the themes of current-day problems (like erosion of free speech) seem to get explored more freely in sci-fi and fantasy works than in recent literary fiction (at least, in the English-speaking world). I don't know if this is the case, but it's interesting to consider whether authors may in some way feel less inhibited exploring major human problems in the context of an alien setting.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I think that science fiction has traditionally explored areas that other genres did not go to. This might be a little less so these days as books in general seen to be willing to go in all kinds of directions. With that, I still think that science fiction writers can more easily go into territory that other writers hesitate to tread. I am actually reading the third book in this series now. Liu does get into some controversial territory there.,

Whispering Gumes said...

Oh, I've never heard of this Brian, but I guess I'm not really up on sci-fi. I do like the fact that, as you say, "the message of the book seems to be that people should not fall into despair and to give in to gloom and doom". I don't shy from gloomy books, but so many people are pessimistic about the state of the world, that it's nice to have futuristic books they are encouraging, even a little bit.

Re your comment on characters, I was discussion this issue the other day - that is character development in "ideas" books, which sci fi books often are. That is, it can be a challenge to make characters "round" and stand for something?

And, translation! Yes. I wish I didn't have to read translations because I feel I really can't fully comment on a work when I know I'm reading someone else's interpretation of a book. I love reading and hearing discussions of translation for this reason, love hearing about the thoughts and decisions translators have.

Marian H said...

Wow, this sounds really interesting! This book has been on my radar for a while, but I hadn't read a detailed review till yours. I like fantasy and sci-fi with a historical element.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - I have not kept up on what is popular in science fiction. When I was younger I did though. Lately I have looked into the genre just a bit and heard about this book.

I do know that dark and gloomy science fiction has been all the rage. I think that this book cans as a bit of a relief to that.

It is interesting about the character verses message book thing. In the end though, I think that books like this could be better had the characters been stronger. There were s few science fiction writers, such as Frank Herbert, who did a much better job.

I feel the same way about translations. Sometimes it feels as if I am looking at a painting, but not the original, just a version thaf someone recopied. When it comes to classic works, I spend a lot of time looking for the right translator. I have a fantasy that I can learn any language in a matter of hours and can this read anything in the original.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Marian - I also think that it is neat when history is incorporated into science fiction. This book does it very well.

thecuecard said...

Hi Brian: is the alternating narrative fairly easy to follow amid all the characters etc? It sounds good and I'm interested in stories about the Cultural Revolution etc. It seems the author was able to be quite harsh about the Revolution and still continue to live in China. I had not heard of this one but might like to give it a try. I see it might even come out as a Chinese movie later this year. I'm glad you will continue with the series.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan. I thought thaf the narrative was easy to follow.

I might be wrong about this, but I believe that, though China is still a totalitarian state, the Cultural Revolution is officially looked upon as a time of great oppression.

I had heard that they might make s film. I would love to see it.

Carol said...

The mix of Cultural Revolution & SciFi interests me. I read some science fiction in my late teens but haven’t really since. Dystopian lit has been more my bent & I’ve read some great books about the cultural revolution. It actually sounds like a book my husband might enjoy.

Carol said...

P.S. I just finished War of the Worlds...not sure what I think of it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - I have a very soft spot in my heart for science fiction. I love War of the Worlds. I love all kinds of books including dystopias. They are so popular lately, a book like this seems like kind of s relief. The Cultural Revolution was such an important, but tragic event.

Lindsay said...

This isn't something I'd usually read as I read very little science fiction, but it sounds incredibly interesting from your comments about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - It was a very interesting story. If you habe not already you might want to start with Asimov or Clarke first.

Sheree Strange said...

I think we often underestimate the art-form of translation and the influence that a translator can have in our perception and understanding of the work; as you allude to in the final paragraphs here, it sounds like the translation can make a big difference in how the work comes across :) This one sounds great in the sense that I love science fiction that's grounded in real technology and logical expansions upon current science... but the timeline seemed a little bouncy/confusing to me, I'm not sure how I'd go with that. Still, you've piqued my interest - another fantastic review! Thank you, Brian! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharee - Oddly enough, in this case, the translator seems to have restored the author’s original intent that was changed by editors. Translating is indeed an art and translators can have a great affect on the work. That is why I try to do research when there is a choice of translators.

Books taking place on different time periods are popular these days. This is actually my first one though. I did not find that confusing.

baili said...

i less like science fiction though i found this book quite interesting through your appealing review Briain!

you made me enter into the world of young girl who indulge in weird situations and get contact with aliens

central idea sounds quite fascinating ,resemblance to old books makes the work more grave and involvement of extremely new technology creates relativity between today's reader and novel

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - A neat thing about this book is the updated science combined with any elements of older works.

Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks said...

I SO adore this series. The first book is slow to take off, like - at first you're even wondering, IS this about aliens? It's about a woman working in a forest xD but it's just so awesome, and then you can never guess what will happen, cause Liu Cixin always manages to turn things completely around!

I also felt like this book is a lot like the older classics. It was very refreshing in that way, because I don't find a lot of new novels like that. The vibe is generally different now.

And also, this book was so Chinese. Like, so unbelievably Chinese, from their own perspective, I absolutely LOVED that. It was so unique and interesting.

You're right about the simplistic characters though - but I feel like it's not a character driven book, especially because further books cycle through the characters quite a lot - so we don't need to get too attached.

I can't wait to hear what you think of the two sequels. Keep in mind though that the second one wasn't translated by Ken Liu, and you can REALLY feel the difference. Also, the ideas are still brilliant, but it's a little harder to get into, so just keep going when you start it. It's well worth it, and the third book is just AMAZING as well.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Evelina - I am actually on the third book now. I agree that the books get better as they ago. I will be posting my commentary on The Dark Forest soon.

I noticed the difference in translation. I think that I read somewhere that someone who read the Chinese and English versions of the series thought that Ken Liu actually made the books more literary then the originals.

Caroline said...

I've come across this book so many times in book shops and always wondered whether it would be for me but after reading your excellent review, I actually don't think so. I'm less into hard sci-fi than other types of sci-fi. I think I have one of his short story collections or is that not possible? Maybe I'm mixing him up with another sci-fi author with a Chinese name.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Caroline. I would say that this book would not be the best read if hard science fiction is not your thing. A Google search indicates that Cixin Liu has several short story collections available in Western Languages.

Maria Behar said...

GREAT commentary as usual, Brian!! :)

This does sound like a very intriguing book! The fact that it's been influenced by older SF novels such as those by Asimov and Clarke makes it even more compelling.

One thing I don't quite like, though, is that the aliens are portrayed as being hostile. Since I'm such an ardent Trekkie, as you know, I have gotten used to the idea of aliens being beneficent and non-threatening. (Well, at least, not all of them.)

I wonder if Liu has also read "The War of the Worlds". His book also reminds me of the famous classic (which I must sheepishly confess I've never read, although of course I've heard of Orson Welles's infamous adaptation.

I've never read an SF novel by a Chinese author, so I would be interested to read this one. However, I do think I might check it out of the library. The fact that the characters are not well-rounded doesn't appeal to me at all. As for the technical details, I wonder if they might be a bit boring. On the other hand, it all depends on the author's ability to explain these to a lay person.

Now that you've mentioned that Liu has some short story collections available in Western languages, I'm going to check them out!

Thanks for your insights, and for always including quotes in your reviews!<3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - This is also my first Chinese science fiction novel. I also prefer less hostile aliens. The Star Trek thing Indeed! I am actually on the third book of the series and Liu has introduced some complexity to them.

Though I did not find the technical stuff boring, some of it was difficult to understand. When I run into that with fiction, I tend to just move on and look at it as something technical happening that I do not completely need to understand.

I would guess that Liu is a fan of War of the Worlds. It seems to have influenced the entire series.

So many books, so little time said...

I don't read a lot of sci fi but this sounds like an interesting series! xxx

Lainy www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I really liked this. It was very reminiscent of Asimov and Clarke so I would say that if you like this book you will probably like thier books.

Andrew Blackman said...

Love the idea of weaving together science fiction and cultural history. I don't read much sci fi, but this one sounds good! Thanks for the review, Brian :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Andrew - This one really dug into cultural history. I just admit that I was surprised that it did so.