November 11, 2014 by mmileti
The first novel in the sensationally popular Chinese science fiction series has been translated into English for the first time in The Three-Body Problem. With the pacing of a thriller, the heart of a drama, and the intellectual stimulation of a thought-provoking classic, this novel is sure to soon be as celebrated as much in the rest of the world as it currently is in China. It is rare to come across a story that is scientifically brilliant that also has a depth of character development and exploration that can bring the reader to tears. For this and many other reasons, The Three-Body Problem is one of my favorite reads of 2014, and a novel that I would recommend to any fan of speculative fiction who enjoys reading a novel that challenges the mind as well as entertains.
The novel follows the story of two main protagonists, Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao. Ye Wenjie’s story starts in the 1960’s during China’s cultural revolution. After she is forced to watch helplessly as her father is murdered because of his refusal to renounce his scientific ideals, her life starts to completely fall apart. When years later she finds herself in danger of facing the same fate as her father, she realizes the only way to stay alive is to use her skills as an astrophysicist to work for the Chinese government on a top-secret military project. Wang Miao’s story takes place decades later during a time when Chinese physicists are apparently committing suicide in alarming numbers. When Wang attempts to discover the reason behind these mysterious suicides, he unexpectedly comes across a game called The Three-Body Problem. Liu expertly weaves the stories of Ye, Wang, and The Three-Body problem together with the discovery of an alien civilization on the brink of destruction which plans to invade Earth. It is not until the story progresses to the point where the people of earth split into two competing factions- those that would welcome the aliens and those that would fight the invasion- that it becomes obvious to the reader that Liu has created a science fiction masterpiece that is meaningful on a variety of levels, and that will captivate and exhilarate readers from every corner of the globe.
Though the novel’s plot is a little slow at first, it quickly becomes incredibly fast paced and engaging. It is also a thought provoking story that blends in-depth character development and social commentary with complex scientific ideas. Liu makes the science fiction portion of the novel seem so plausible, and explains the intricate concepts behind his speculation in enough detail to make them fascinating and easy to grasp. The book’s setting also provided an educational opportunity to me, as I have not read much speculative fiction (or any kind of fiction I suppose) set in China and involving Chinese history and culture. I also found the translator’s footnotes fascinating, as they explained a lot of the references to everyday life and history in China. I know that most people do not usually read footnotes, but I highly recommend paying attention to those in this novel, as they really deepened my understanding of the story.
I was also impressed by how lyrical and stunning Liu’s writing could be despite the fact that I was only reading a translation. The translator did a wonderful job preserving Liu’s unique voice as a writer. He manages to use his skill with prose to draw the reader in, and his blend of many disparate elements that are both intellectual and thrilling to keep the reader engaged. Liu’s passion for physics and astrophysics comes across in his writing, and it is infectious. It has been a long time since I have read a science fiction novel that engaged me and made me so excited about the subject matter. It is easy to see why Liu’s series already has a cult following in China.
Currently China is going through the same golden age of science fiction that America experienced in the 50’s and 60’s. Their modernization and rapid advancement in technology has allowed the people of China to start looking towards the future, and this change in thinking has influenced China’s literary minds as well. This translation of The Three-Body Problem has transferred this excitement for Science Fiction back to our culture, and has re-vamped a genre that many literary critics have recently started to dismiss. Liu’s story is wonderful, but even if you read it and do not enjoy it, take some time to celebrate the fact that this novel has made a number of people who once would have dismissed speculative fiction to sit up and take notice of the genre. 2014 has been a year full of groundbreaking speculative fiction releases, and this novel in particular brings us one step closer to introducing the genre to a whole new subset of readers.
My rating: 9/10
I received a copy of this novel from Netgalley and the publisher in return for an honest review.