'Three-Body Problem' Asks A Classic Sci-Fi Question, In Chinese
English translations of foreign-language science fiction are becoming more common, still, they face an uphill battle. The American market is already crowded with books written by native English speakers, and it takes a conscientious reader to seek out treasures that originate from other parts of the world — that is, if they're even translated in the first place.
When the other part of the world is, say, China, the effort becomes even more complicated. But China has a thriving science fiction scene, and Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem is stunning, elegant proof. Published in China in 2006 and newly translated by award-winning Chinese-American author Ken Liu, the novel is the first installment of a trilogy that asks one of the oldest questions in SF: What would it mean for the human race to come in contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence? From there, though, it transcends expectation — not to mention borders.
The Three-Body Problem spans multiple decades and characters, but it zooms in on Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, two scientists in the very near future. Wenjie is an astrophysicist with a haunted past; she's the daughter of a physicist who was executed during the Cultural Revolution for daring to teach the "reactionary" idea of general relativity. Miao is a nanotech engineer, and he's been swept up in a virtual-reality, online video game called Three Body that's so deeply metaphysical, it's begun to resemble a cult.
Either of these premises alone would be make for a rich SF novel, but Cixin Liu is only getting warmed up. By the time the book hits its peak, it's unveiled a conspiracy that spans solar systems — one that not only threatens to alter the human race, but the very building blocks of physics that we've evolved to understand.
Cixin Liu clearly loves golden-age SF authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke; accordingly, The Three-Body Problem turns a boilerplate, first-contact concept into something absolutely mind-unfolding. While in the virtual world of Three Body, Miao confronts philosophical conundrums that border on the psychedelic, all while remaining scientifically rigorous. The way the book's alien race seeks to assert its presence on Earth is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
This is hard SF, full of lovingly lengthy passages of technical exposition about everything from quantum mechanics to artificial intelligence. But Cixin Liu supports all of that braintwisting theory with empathetic characters and a strong action-thriller backbone. That's a lot to set up, and The Three-Body Problem flounders somewhat until it finds its footing. The story begins slowly despite its many chronological leaps forward, and it takes a while to untangle exactly who or what the focal points of the plot are supposed to be. Once it's up and running, though, it's gripping.
For all its universal appeal, The Three-Body Problem is set against a specific backdrop, one that most English-language readers only know from a distance. Many of its major points hinge on the knowledge of Chinese history and culture — and while Ken Liu's translation is clear, tasteful, and lyrical, there's a lot of exposition to chew on. It's worth every ounce of effort. The book's well-earned suspense hinges on moral dilemmas that resonate far beyond its nationality or even its heady, abstract physics. At what point does science become dogma, and what point does that same dogma become religion?
Cixin Liu doesn't pose that question so much as let it play out in a sweeping drama that risks the highest stakes imaginable — and some that can barely be imagined at all. If The Three-Body Problem (and the next two books in the series, whose translations are in the works) helps bridge the gap between Eastern and Western SF, it will have performed a great duty for the literary world. But as a science-fiction epic of the most profound kind, it's already won.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club.
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