Review of ‘The Three-Body Problem’ by Cixin Liu

The Three-body Problem was written in 2007 by prolific Chinese science-fiction author Liu Cixin, and has now been translated into English by Ken Liu and is being published in November of 2014. The first book of a trilogy, it slowly and subtly builds up into a fascinating and very realistic rational science fiction tale of possible alien invasion. At times also very philosophical, this book pretty much hit every note I need a book to land on to be really excellent. Not your ‘typical’ Western sci-fi novel, and a stronger entry for it.

Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

The one thing that doesn’t so much immediately jump out at you as gradually enter your awareness, is that The Three-body Problem is paced VERY slowly at the start. It took me multiple chapters to even feel sure that this was actually a science-fiction novel, and not just a general fiction story that somehow snuck into the SFF section. You get a plus of forty page section involving a character Ye Wenjie, which is steeped in the politics of the Cultural Revolution, and only dances around the edges of science at all, let alone science fiction. It’s only after that, which takes on meaning in retrospect, that we are even introduced to Wang Miao, who is essentially the protagonist of the story. He also takes a very slow walk into the actual SFF elements of the story. Part of this is because it’s just the first book in a trilogy, but I very much think this was a purposeful stylistic choice on Liu’s part. Knowing that something strange is going on, but not exactly what, helped build a good deal of both tension and speculation on my part. Since I was given an eBook advanced copy, I wasn’t exposed to the blurb above which would appear presumably on any physical copy of the book, so I had no idea what I was in for, which I think added to it. That said, once these elements begin to appear, the pace accelerates substantially. We’ve had that long grinding ka-chunk trip up that first roller coaster hill, but once it’s done, away we go. It’s a deliberate build up which lands right when it needs to.

Another thing The Three-body Problem does very well is handling the science-fiction elements in a very logical, reasoned way which is treated as just bona-fide science by everybody involved. There are parts where, due to my own lack of knowledge of how these things actually work, I had to take a moment to check myself and think ‘Yeah, if it worked that way, we’d know about it, so this must be more sci-fi.’ It was refreshing to not have a story where it’s all faster-than-light spaceships, and teleportation, and ray guns, and instead have it feel more down-to-earth as it were. To make the uninitiated unsure which bits were current real technology and which were not is a great feat and added a lot of engagement to the story.

In another life on another website, I and some colleagues there held an event where we each nominated one fantasy novel to be the ‘great fantasy novel’ and after the event, we had one reader be highly critical of the fact that we had basically only nominated English, American and Canadian authors. While there’s the obvious response that people generally read what is available, and there are far more authors on shelves in stores here than we could possibly read anyway, it’s bound to happen. It’s also definitely the case that the obvious language barrier is going to be involved. I could never have read The Three-body Problem in the original Chinese. The translator’s note at the end of this version took pains to point out that a number of elements of the plot and pacing and story were very ‘not typical’ for Western sci-fi, but that he tried to preserve that flow as much as possible, and it was great that he did. I really hope that the release of this book does well, and that it will encourage great writers like Liu to continue pushing to get English translations. There are so many excellent authors whose work I’m unable to read, and until now, Liu Cixin’s The Three-body Problem was one of them. Highly recommended.

Dan received an advanced review copy of this book from Tor via Netgalley

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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