Sunday, December 7, 2014

Review: The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem
by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

Format: Hardcover, 399 pages
Publisher: Tor
Cover Art: Stephen Martiniere
Release Date: November 11, 2014
ISBN-13: 978-0765377067

Wang Miao is a Chinese researcher working on nanomaterials with the eventual goal of creating a space elevator.  He seems to be living in strange times however, as scientists are committing suicide and the military asks him to join a secretive scientific organization as a double agent.  He also comes involved in an online video game that seems deceptively simple at first, but turns out to be incredibly complex and may be have staggering implications to the real world and mankind’s place in the cosmos. 

The name Cixin Liu, or more properly Liu Cixin, is probably not familiar to most Americans or other English speakers and that’s because the author is Chinese.  To others, he is one of the biggest authors of speculative fiction in China, and his Three-Body trilogy, of which The Three-Body Problem is the first book, is China’s biggest-selling hard sci-fi series, spanning time from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution to the end of the universe.  This is not the first time Liu’s work has been translated, but The Three-Body Problem is his first novel to have been so. 

One of the first things someone might ask about this book is how well was it translated and how does it stand up.  To my eyes, it does so extremely well.  The translation was superbly handled by Ken Liu, one of the best emerging sci-fi authors of the last few years.  In his translator’s postscript, Liu mentions that very slight changes, with the author’s permission, were made to help explain background detail of China and to streamline the storytelling differences between Chinese and English. 

So what is different about the story than most Western readers would expect?  It’s actually a little hard to put my finger on it.  If I were pressed, I’d say one thing is that while the plot is very straightforward and linear, the structure is somewhat unusual in that it jumps around a lot focusing on bits here and there that contribute to the story.  In other words, the plot may be pretty direct but the story is not.  Those who prefer a simpler novel may be put off, but those used to unconventional narratives should be fine.

One thing in particular I want to mention about this book is that I think it works better if you don’t know much about it going in.  I believe the story reads much better if you ignore the official blurbs in order to avoid spoilers.  That’s why the synopsis I provided above is fairly minimal, and it’s therefore why I won’t say much other than that the novel involves aliens, complicated physics, and an interstellar struggle for survival. 

The final point I do want to make is that this book, and the trilogy by implication, is quite complex.  It has many of historical and literary aspects that would appeal to Literature readers while also covering many philosophical, mathematical, scientific issues in often mind-numbing detail.  A rudimentary understanding of physics is not just recommended, it’s required.  It’s easy to see why these books have garnered so much popularity and acclaim in China.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is a great, enthralling book and I’m glad it’s now available in English.  It is a complex science fiction book and it’s easy to see why it is so popular in China.  It is a welcome addition to world speculative fiction.  Strongly recommended. 

Rating: 8.5/10.


Peadar said...

This looks interesting, Ben. I may give it a go over Christmas. Thanks!


Benjamin said...

Peader, you're welcome! Hope you like the book. :)