The Three-Body Problem

by Cixin Liu & Ken Liu

Cover image

Series: Three-Body Problem #1
Author: Liu Cixin (刘慈欣)
Translator: Ken Liu
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2006, 2014
Printing: November 2014
ISBN: 1-4668-5344-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 399

Buy at Powell's Books

Liu Cixin (刘慈欣) is one of the best-known and most popular SF authors in China, but, due to the paucity of translated SF in the English-speaking world, was largely unknown to English-speaking SF readers. That made this translation by Ken Liu (no relation) highly anticipated: a window into a large world of SF by authors most of us have never read. And Ken Liu is an excellent writer in his own right (see, for instance, "The Literomancer" or "Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer"), which was a hopeful sign for a good translation.

Indeed, the translation is very good. One can tell that the book comes from a different literary tradition, but primarily from unusual (to US readers, at least) emotional focal points for the characters and lots of Chinese history that the author feels little need to explain. (Ken Liu adds translator notes for the bits most likely to lose non-Chinese audiences.) I found the characters a bit odd and occasionally hard to identify with, but I didn't mind: it added to the feeling of exploring a slightly different literary tradition with different character conventions. Unfortunately, the end of the book went entirely off the rails, at least for me.

The Three-Body Problem opens during the Cultural Revolution, with the murder of Ye Wenjie's father, a physics professor, and the suicide of her advisor and friend. Two years later, she's at a work camp in inner Mongolia, cutting trees, numb, keeping her head down. But a traveling journalist smuggles in a secret copy of Silent Spring and gives it to her. The book both hardens her own belief in the evil of humanity and gets her into deeper trouble when she agrees to recopy a draft of a letter to the central leadership about the environmental devastation caused by the logging. Ye Wenjie is forced to choose permanent exile to an experimental radar facility on a remote mountain in Mongolia.

Ye Wenjie is vital to the slowly-developing plot of the book, but this is the last the reader sees of her for some time. Part II jumps to present time and to a different protagonist: Wang Miao, a distinguished nanotechnology researcher who is recruited by the PLA and the police into a secret war room. Distinguished scientists are killing themselves in frighteningly large numbers, including one that Wang Miao had a crush on. She left a suicide note before overdosing on sleeping pills, one that says only, cryptically, that physics doesn't exist. The government is desperate to figure out what's going on.

The "radar" facility and the suicide of scientists are linked, of course, but it takes much of the book for Wang Miao and his colleagues to piece together how. Key clues come in the form of an odd puzzle virtual reality MMORPG that becomes a popular sensation. In it, players find themselves on an alien world whose suns rise and set at strange and unpredictable intervals: sometimes far too far away and horribly cold, sometimes far too close and destructively hot, and sometimes not seen for long periods of time. The players can somehow dehydrate themselves and the rest of the population to weather the worst seasons, but life is a constant struggle against apparently unpredictable elements. Despite that, players slowly find ways to build civilizations and attempt to predict the strange cycles of heat and cold.

It takes the characters a long time to understand what's happening. Readers will probably be much faster, since they have out-of-band information the characters don't. At first, this game seems entirely unrelated to the suicides of the scientists or, for that matter, to Ye Wenjie, who is easy to almost forget. But they all weave together in a way that's almost compelling.

I say almost because the motivations of the characters are quite tangled and interesting, but the science is... awful.

Those who have read my other book reviews know that I don't insist on hard science in my SF. Usually I'm willing to roll with it, and I can read past even obvious scientific nonsense. But science is critical to the plot of this book; some very specific actions, with a detailed in-book scientific justifications, are the underpinning of the entire plot. And they make utter nonsense of physics.

I've rarely had science in a novel destroy my suspension of disbelief this thoroughly. Physics isn't even alone: biology, chemistry, computing, and astronomy are all in for it as Liu reveals the causes of the book's events. I wanted to be engaged by the conflict of ethics and philosophy that drive the plot, and some of that conflict is quite interesting. But every other page would have another colossal pile of scientific nonsense that would throw me out of the book again, usually in the service of a set piece that missed grand and landed on absurdly silly.

Be warned that this book also ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, and there are two more books in the series. The second has been released in a translated edition, but with a different translator, which is disappointing (Ken Liu did an excellent job); the third isn't out yet.

If you can get past the awful science, The Three-Body Problem is doing some interesting things. The characters are a bit wooden and forgettable, but the philosophical problems they encounter are ones I don't see often in western SF. This a refreshing change, and I'm interested enough that I'm still considering picking up the sequels. But the science hurts the book so badly.

Followed by The Dark Forest.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-09-17

Last modified and spun 2015-09-18