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The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin: A Review

The Three Body Problem is a science fiction novel written in Chinese by Liu Cixin. It was translated into English by Ken Liu, who I praised in my "What I Read" post a week ago for his talent in fully developing a clever idea (The Clockwork Soldier). The pairing between Ken and Cixin is an inspired because in someways Liu Cixin writes how Ken Liu does, using easily digestible ideas to build up to  enormous conceptual undertakings.

The Three Body problem is a sprawling novel, embracing the story of a Chinese physicist in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution in China (Ye Wenjie), a nanomaterials researcher (Wang Miao), a big city cop (Da Shi) investigating a series of murders of high-profile scientists and  the first possible contact with an alien race. The setting is lightly futuristic, with technology and politics perhaps a decade hence. Liu Cixin presents the events of this novel, particularly the first contact, with his own spin. Saying much more would spoil the fun of discovery, but it can be mentioned that the learning about the alien race and their motivations for contacting the physicist are only a small part of the plot.

I freely admit I picked up this novel to satisfy my curiosity about Chinese science fiction. It comes highly recommended and, as I said, the translator brings his own considerable talents to the table. I assumed that I would get an interesting perspective on a  few well-worn staples of speculative fiction, and that would be counterbalanced by the muffled pleasures of any translation. In other words, I was keeping my expectations firmly in check. What I found, however, was a novel as timely and dense as a Stephenson thriller but with about half as much filler. This is no novelty read. Liu Cixin writes with dramatic energy and conceptual honesty. His characters are well-drawn, compelling, and entertaining. His aliens are at once familiar and yet very jarring. He also makes deft use of the motif of virtual reality to provide the aliens’ point-of-view, but to also foreshadow the more immediate threat, the human reaction to their existence.

This volume might mark a surge of such cross-cultural projects bringing more of what is going on in Chinese speculative fiction into wider prominence. I studied in China in 1997 and have kept a degree of contact with the language ever since. Chinese culture and Mandarin as a whole are truly world treasures and in a better, more seamlessly global world, they would be more widely known and appreciated. With China’s rise as a world power, Beijing has made more of a deliberate effort to exercise this most benign of soft powers. Whether or not The Three-Body Problem is the product of that, Cixin embraces a matter-of-fact inclusiveness. The heroes and, for most part, villains of the piece are Chinese but the rest of the world is no where near as invisible or impotent as would be the case in a certain class of American thriller. In my humble opinion, China would do well to find other examples of other authors like Liu Cixin in projecting its image abroad. Liu's viewpoint is at once humanist and warm, but also cautious and pragmatic. There are worse attributes to embrace.

Both author and translator write an afterward and Ken Liu puts considerable effort to describe his philosophy behind his translation. Having translated a Chinese story myself, the difficulty of Chinese is not so much the difference of vocabulary, grammar, symbols, and use of imagery as the basic invisible assumptions one body of literature makes about the world versus another. The concerns of a Chinese novelist are not always the same concerns of a Western novelist. Also, the Chinese experience of the 20th century was a very different one than the typical Upstate New York kid. Big, society shattering events happened during Chairman Mao’s reign and after. A novel such as Three Body Problem can mention these events, and even supply helpful footnotes, but the impact of one of these events is almost certainly more immediate to people actually affected by it.

The question in reading any work of translation is how much is from the original text and how much is the translator. Liu very consciously pulled back from a completely natural English translation. Some essential character of Cixin’s Mandarin remains in the pithy dialogue and elegantly pleated descriptions, but other places the prose seems to veer back to the conventional prose of every other English SF book. Is that Ken Liu’s influence or Liu Cixin?

One of those big ambiguities is the character of Da Shi. In the book he appears as a cynical, world-weary Shanghai cop who fills in the main character about some details about the assassinations of scientists from around the world. Liu Cixin keeps his backstory minimal, and his role in the story opaque. As mentioned, he enters the story in a more or less sensible way but remains an active participant in events of a truly world-shaking nature, blithely insulting scientists and world leaders along the way. I’m not sure this is handled in a believable manner but he’s such an entertaining character I didn’t really mind. It’s almost like he fulfills some basic conceptual requirement for this type of story - if there’s a scientist of course there has to be a hard-boiled cop. I want say this is a Chinese thing but then again almost the exactly formula was used in Leviathan Rising by Corey. So there you go.

The other two volumes of this series (known as the Remembrance of Earth’s Past) are available - the final volume also translated by Ken Liu. What makes this book stand out is that the fantasy is presented alongside realistic science in a way that illuminates both. If this is what Chinese science fiction is like, I can’t wait to read more.
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