The Three-Body Problem is a fascinating novel, a real masterpiece of the genre, a challenging but compelling read.
Title: The Three-Body Problem
Author: Liu Cixin
Publisher: Tor Books, 2014
Translator: Ken Liu
Original language: Chinese Mandarin
Original title: 三體 (literal translation: Three Body)
China, the early years of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution; physicist Ye Zhetai is lynched by an angry mob before his teenage daughter, Ye Wenjie. A few years later Ye Wenjie, who has graduated and moved to the countryside, is recruited to the Red Coast Base, a top secret military organisation created in order to establish first contact with aliens.
In the present, nanomaterials expert Wang Miao starts seeing, as if superimposed before his eyes, an ominous countdown. To what, he doesn’t know – but it stops when he interrupts his researches. Meanwhile, he starts being interested in a new, extremely complex full-immersion videogame called Three Body, in which he gets to play a character he decides to call Copernicus on a planet stuck between three suns, victim therefore of a physics issue called “The Three-Body Problem”. The aim of the game is to learn to predict when the planet will undergo a “stable era”, with a moderate climate suitable for human living.
The Three-Body Problem, published in serial form between 2006 and 2008 in Liu Cixin’s native China and translated into English in 2014, received the 2015 Hugo Award for best novel after having been nominated for the 2014 Nebula – the two most prestigious science fiction awards worldwide. It’s the first volume of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, followed by The Dark Forest and Death’s End.
It is a very complex, “hard science fiction” novel, in a style that has been considered obsolete for decades now; but Liu Cixin has brought it back to relevance, acquiring along the way a few extremely passionate, high level supporters such as former US President Barack Obama and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who has gone on record mentioning it as one of her favourite works of fiction.
The translator, Ken Liu, himself an accomplished science fiction writer – one of his short stories was the first work of fiction to ever win the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy awards – did a tremendous job, clarifying to the reader all the nuances of Chinese life, both past and present, with a few well placed footnotes and, as he explains himself in an afterword, some minor additions to the text he agreed directly with the author.
The author’s work on the characters is not exactly in-depth, their development is not exactly superficial but definitely not profound as modern science fiction prefers; some may consider this as a result of the depersonalisation that characterised the Cultural Revolution.
In this, Liu Cixin can be compared to masters of the genre such as Isaac Asimov – a name who a lot of contemporary science fiction writers and critics tend to consider obsolete at least from this point of view. What drives The Three-Body Problem is exclusively the science, the story of what could happen in certain situations; of course there are characters whose opinions and reactions are key to the plot, some of which are incredibly interesting (my personal favourite is stubborn policeman Shi Qiang, known as Da Shi, “Big Shi”), but they are never the real focus of the story.
Despite (or because of) this, The Three-Body Problem is a fascinating novel, a real masterpiece of the genre, a challenging but compelling read; definitely not a light or easy book, but one that will reward the reader with a new point of view on several things.