Book Review: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
What would humanity do if it was discovered that we weren’t alone in the universe? What would we do if we knew that the extraterrestrial species that we’ve suddenly come in contact with wanted to destroy us? And what if some of us willingly accepted such future destruction?
Such questions are at the heart of The Three-Body Problem, a novel by Chinese SF author Cixin Liu, which was translated into English last year by multiple-Hugo-award-winning author Ken Liu. The book takes a look at China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and imagines a world in which the Chinese government secretly set up a radio antenna base in the countryside to communicate with alien life.
That’s an oversimplification, of course, but the discovery of extraterrestrials — called Trisolarans here, because they come from a planet with a highly irregular orbit around three suns that happens to be the source of the title — is central to the plot.
There are several interweaving storylines here.
One is about the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution as seen through the eyes of disaffected astrophysicist Ye Wenjie. Her father was killed by Communist fanatics for refusing to renounce scientific thinking, and her residual anger and resentment over his death form the basis for her willingness to encourage the Trisolaran invasion.
Another is that of modern-day nanomaterial researcher Wang Miao, who has been recruited by a government organization to infiltrate a scientific organization whose members have been committing suicide at an alarming rate.
Finally, there’s Trisolaris, the world of the three-body problem itself. We see events leading to the invasion of earth unfolding from their perspective as they search for a world with a less punishing environment. Their planet and its three-sun problem is also the inspiration for the virtual reality video game that Wang Miao plays to unwind from his reconnaisance missions.
Spec-fic writer K. Tempest Bradford just about blew up the internet earlier this year when she wrote an article on xoJane challenging her readers to read no books by cisgender straight white males for a year. Although I haven’t explicitly taken her challenge on, I do want to make my reading more diverse — so when the Hugo award nominees were updated to include The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu in the Best Novel category, I was excited. I rarely, if ever, read books translated into English from another language, and I’ve rarely read any work by authors born in China.
I thought this book would be a great way to expand my reading horizons.
Unfortunately, such noble intentions don’t lead to pain-free action. I really struggled with how to approach this book. My brother-in-law, who also read it and is far more knowledgeable about world politics than I and has several degrees to prove it, absolutely loved The Three-Body Problem. However, I don’t have the political or historical knowledge that would give me the same insight.
Because of that, I fell back on reading this book through my publishing/slush-reading/editing lens. And I was constantly thinking to myself: This just isn’t working for me at all.
There was purple prose, especially in the beginning. There were huge plot holes. There was very little character development, and what character development there was was told, not shown. Worst of all, it felt like most of the characters in the book were puppets without agency being pushed around from plot point to plot point.
But here’s the rub: are these the standards I should be applying to this book? Who am I to make these assumptions? There’s obviously a lot I’m missing, as my brother-in-law’s positive experience indicates.
I really wish I could have appreciated this book on its own terms. I recognize that my inability to do so speaks more about my own lack of historical knowledge and my inexperience with reading translated fiction than about the book itself. I mean, the publishers at Tor have obviously got to see something in The Three-Body Problem that I don’t have the context to understand — I like a lot of their other books, at any rate. But boy, given my current mindset and mental limitations, this reading experience was frustrating.
However, I haven’t completely given up hope. Ken Liu wrote an afterword in this edition of the book explaining his approach to translating it and his writing gave me new insight into the process. He also revealed that the sequel to The Three-Body Problem will have a different translator than the first — I’m really curious to see what effect a different translator will have on my reading experience.
In any event, while I understand why this book got nominated for a Hugo award this year, it didn’t top my ballot. You’ll find out what novel I think deserves to win in my next review.