With The Three-Body Problem, first in a trilogy, readers in the West are at last getting to sample the work of Liu Cixin, mainland China’s most popular science fiction superstar. Given a graceful and accessible translation by multi-award winning author Ken Liu for its 2014 US release, it’s a unique tale of first contact and alien invasion set against the tumultuous political history of Liu’s homeland and the most mind-bending speculative frontiers of theoretical physics. It’s far from perfect, but in its best moments is so unlike anything hard SF has thrown at us before that no dedicated reader of the genre should overlook it.
The story opens in the heat of the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, where Ye Wenjie, the young daughter of a prominent professor of physics, witnesses her father beaten to death by Red Guard fanatics. The event sears itself not only into her memory but her very psyche, as she channels her anger into a state of emotional numbness and becomes more or less a misanthrope. Years later, her own political loyalties suspect, she is conscripted into working at Red Coast, a secret government radio telecommunications facility that she is initially told exists to detect and disable the satellites of enemy nations. Its real purpose is far more fantastic. And when she discovers a clear and unambiguous message from an extraterrestrial intelligence, she is faced with a fateful decision: can she actually take it upon herself to help cleanse the Earth of a morally irredeemable human race and usher in what she believes will be its redemption via conquest?
This premise, and the electrifying early chapters that relate most of it, alone make The Three-Body Problem essential reading. They provide a window into a world of political upheaval most of us in the West have inadequate knowledge and appreciation of, for one thing. And for another, they reveal some disturbing parallels to the present day that I found deeply frightening. For while we aren’t exactly at the point where we’re publicly murdering intellectuals and scientists just yet, we are seeing a politically and ideologically driven hostility towards science in what we like to think is our own free and enlightened Western society right now.
But the book is uneven. The majority of its characters are either weakly developed or not especially developed at all. Apart from Wenjie, the only memorable one is the boorish police detective Shi Quian. For much of the narrative, our viewpoint character is Wang Maio, a nanomaterials researcher who is drawn into unfolding events when members of a group of academics called the Frontiers of Science begin turning up dead. At first, Wang, also a hobbyist photographer, experiences an odd phenomenon: every photo he takes, no matter what camera he uses, has a digital countdown superimposed over the image. Soon this appears overlaid onto his actual vision. Desperately seeking answers, he finds himself drawn into a VR game called Three Body, which simulates an unstable world whose civilizations rise and fall due to the unpredictability of the gravitational effects of its three suns. Through story turns that defy simple summary, this all ties into an actual world inhabited by a species called the Trisolarans, and their own desperate plans for survival, which involve things ending kind of badly for us.
All of the book’s in-game scenes are utterly dazzling spectacle, and if the Chinese movie studios that are planning to film this entire trilogy actually have the resources to pull them off, I’ll be stunned. But Wang himself, as a viewpoint character, is quite simply boring. There seems to be not much of an actual man there, just a mostly passive observer of unfolding events, into whom I guess we’re meant to insert ourselves as a kind of reader surrogate. Wang never does what a protagonist is meant to do: make decisions that influence and determine the outcome of the story. Even his photography hobby and nanomaterials research end up as little more than plot devices. In contrast with Wenjie, whose backstory and emotional history are central to unfolding events, Wang is practically a cipher. Also — and I understand this may be an unavoidable artifact of the translation — almost all the characters speak in rather stilted and much-too-mannered dialogue.
It’s also the case that for every brain-boggling and reality-bending setpiece, there is exposition infodumping mountains of level-9000 science on us. It’s a credit to both the author’s writing skills, and Ken Liu’s meticulous translation, that none of these passages are bewildering or wholly inaccessible to lay readers. And they’re also, admittedly, necessary to get the book’s advanced ideas across. But they can also be dull reading, even if, at times, the book makes up for it by having the Trisolarans come across as almost droll. And you do get the sense from Cixin Liu’s other scientist characters that, to a scientist, the universe as revealed to us by science is as glorious a vision as the work of any master painter or great musical composer, and more spiritual than any religion.
The Three-Body Problem aims high and then higher, which ought to be the goal of science fiction generally. While its breathtaking vision is occasionally tripped up by shortcomings in storytelling, it remains a true achievement by an important writer on the global SF scene.