Thursday, July 23, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem is the first book in a trilogy written by Cixin Liu, China's most well-known and accomplished science fiction author (family names of characters are written first, in the Chinese style, although strangely, the author does not do the same for his name). The books were published in China starting in 2008 and have become a sensation. There is a Chinese-language film adaptation poised to be released in summer 2016. It is therefore not that surprising that the book has become the first Chinese-language science-fiction book to be translated into English and published in the United States by a major publisher in a very long time.

Happily, The Three-Body Problem has been well-received by non-Chinese speakers as well, and has been receiving a lot of attention and acclaim in the SFnal community. The book has been nominated for two of the most prestigious awards in speculative fiction: the Nebula and the Hugo. It lost the Nebula award to Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation but (as of this writing) is still up for the Hugo award, where it is considered one of the leading contenders. In fact, it is my vote for the Hugo Award for Best Novel of 2014.

There are many reasons why The Three-Body Problem has struck such a chord with so many people. First, it's really good. Second, it's simultaneously unique and unusual but with surprisingly familiar elements. At it's heart it is a first contact novel, but the aliens are not the central characters of the story, humans (and humanity) are. The book is split into three parts and Part I starts with a chilling scene set in rural China in the 1960s during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie sees the gruesome death of her father (a Physics professor) at the hands of four teenage girls who are trying to prove/demonstrate their loyalty and ideological purity. Wenjie is a graduate student in Physics at the time and despite her father's "crimes" is shipped off to a strange labor camp and then to a secret military project which resembles the SETI project (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence). The depiction of China in the 1960s throughout Part I is fascinating and provided me (as someone unfamiliar with this history) the same sense of wonder I have had when being exposed to a completely fictional alien universe.

Part II of the book occurs "forty plus years" after the events of Part I and introduces the main character of Wang Miao, a "nanomaterials researcher." Much of the criticism of The Three-Body Problem has centered around Liu's characterization of Miao, who has been described as "unconvincing," "pedantic" and "appallingly passive." I would agree that Miao is not that interesting a character (Wenjie is far more compelling, although this may be because her actions are much more disturbing) but this only marginally impacted my enjoyment of the book. I don't think that Miao is any less well-written than some of the characters in less Asimov books, for example. Like Asimov, what appeals about Liu's writing is the ideas that he includes in his story. The central metaphor of the Three-Body Problem (a well-known problem in Newtonian mechanics which involves trying to completely describe the motion of three bodies orbiting each other but which is known to have chaotic solutions) is a lot of fun. The aliens in the book are called Trisolarians because their planet has three different suns and there is an immersive virtual reality game with the same name which Miao plays and is an interesting device used to forward the plot.

Part III of the book is when multiple threads of the story are wound together. By this point Miao has learned that there is a conspiracy to kill off scientists around the world and he has become involved in the fight to learn the truth: there is an organization of fanatical environments who are working with aliens to prepare Earth for a future genocidal invasion. This is a very striking idea (what would it take for a human to betray humanity itself?) but there are even more mind-bending developments before the book ends. There are multiple scenes that occurs on Trisolaris which give us a sense of the technological advantages that our future alien overlords possess over humanity.

Overall, The Three-Body Problem is a very compelling story told from a unique perspective which has an interesting central premise and cliffhanger ending.

Title: The Three-Body Problem.
Cixin Liu.
Paperback: 400 pages.
Date Published: November 11, 2014.
Date Read: March 11, 2015.

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


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