Amid the turbulent events of the Cultural revolution, astrophysicists Ye Wenjie's life is turned upside down. She witnesses her father, a once well-respected professor, be killed by the Red Guard, and is branded an enemy of the revolution after being caught reading the subversive novel Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Her knowledge is too valuable to waste away in some reeducation camp however. She is assigned to a military base that serves as a Chinese answer to the SETI project. There, she witnesses what without a doubt is the most important event in human history.
Tor hit the jackpot with this novel. There is of course a large cultural gap between China and the western audience, and that is apparent in the novel. The story and themes clearly reach back to classics of the genre however. Liu's novel is firmly grounded in science. The title refers to a well known mathematical problem in both classical and quantum mechanics. On top of that there is quite a bit of astronomy and references to nanotechnology. I was surprised by the inclusion of ecology in the novel. I must, to my shame, admit to never having read Carson's Silent Spring. A great sin for someone who studied environmental science. It is a very influential novel in the field. Of course the Cultural Revolution and a number of other developments in Communist era China did great damage to the environment so perhaps it is not that surprising.
Chinese novels tend to contain an awful lot of references to the long history of the nation and the literary traditions that go back more than two thousand years. Much of which would be lost on the reader without a little explanation now and then. In fact, when I read Chan's novel I did have the feeling I was missing quite a lot. Translator Ken Liu has tried to help the reader a little bit with a series of footnotes explaining some of the details. In an afterword he also explains some of his choices in translating the novel. There is always a lot of tension in translation between the literal meaning and the intent of the words and I suspect Ken Liu has been a bit more liberal in his translation than Michael S. Duke has been for his translation of The Fat Years. It is a novel that reads very smoothly for the western reader. I did note some things that you don't come across in many western novels, most notably the way the writer conveys the information the reader needs to follow the plot. It borders on infodumping at times and it is something I also noticed in Chan Koonchung's writing. That being said, the differences in this novel are not so obvious that I got the feeling I was missing things.
Liu tells his story out of chronological order. We have sections covering the 1960 to the 1980 that tell the story of Ye Wenjie and her discovery in the military observatory. Her views on humanity and the decision she makes on behalf of the species is the mystery that forms the centre of the plot. The man to unravel it is the nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao. His part of the story is set sometime in the early twenty-first century. Liu doesn't mention a specific year but around now feels right. Near future from the perspective of the novel. The Chinese edition was published in 2007. Wang is caught in a web of mysteries, manipulations of a global movement with, to him, unknown goals and seemingly impossible manipulations of the physical reality at the quantum level. It drives Wang to desperation and many prominent theoretical scientists to suicide. The very foundations of natural science are shaken. This part of the story reminded me of the short story Division by Zero written by Ted Chiang.
The scope of Liu's tale is much larger than that of Chiang of course. Over the course of the novel the meaning of the Three-Body Problem, the mysterious computer game so many of the characters are playing and Ye's discovery and subsequent actions fall into place. Liu has built a story out of these and many other elements that fans of classic science fiction will appreciate. It is also very much a first book in a trilogy. Ye's view on humanity is not overly positive, shaped as her life has been by violence and political insanity. She feels the human race is not capable of cleaning up the mess it has created and takes drastic action. This novel mostly deals with the motivations for that action and Ye's secrets becoming public knowledge. The full impact, it is to be expected, won't be felt until the next volume of the trilogy.
Ye is definitely the star of this novel. Her character is by far the most well rounded of the bunch, for the most part skilfully navigating the political minefield she finds herself in. Wang is a spectator by comparison. With his actions mostly guided by others he is not a very interesting man to read about. I would have liked to see him break away from the suggestions of others which he unfailingly follows up on. His scientific world view crumbles to the very foundation but he doesn't think this is enough to put a toe out of line. Around him, many of the secondary characters have less problems with rash action. It lends some parts of the novel an almost thriller like level of suspense. I can't help but wonder what The Three-Body Problem could have been if the uncovering of this enormous secret would have been a bit less orderly.
The Three-Body Problem is not a flawless novel but it is certainly a very good one. So good in fact, that I wouldn't be surprised if it shows up on a few award shortlists. Ken Liu has obviously put his heart into the translation, as well as his impressive knowledge of both the English and Chinese language. As someone writing is a second language, I cannot emphasize enough how hard translating is. The linguistic and cultural differences that find their way into the text and the shades of meanings and connotations that words can carry in one language but not in another make translating an art as much as writing. The novel itself has many elements of classical science fiction to make it familiar to the reader and enough Chinese culture and history to make it different to the reader, but not overwhelmingly so. It was probably a very good choice picking this novel to bring Chinese science fiction to a western audience. I enjoyed reading it a lot. Bring on the second volume!
Title: The Three-Body Problem
Author: Cixin Liu
Translation: Ken Liu
First published: 2007