Book review: The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

4 10 2016

Cixin Liu is a Chinese science fiction writer, with a background as a computer engineer, who has repeatedly won China’s Galaxy Award; he also won last year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel. He’s written several SF novels and numerous short stories, though of the novels only his ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ trilogy (of which The Three-Body Problem is the first volume) has yet been translated into English.

three-body-problem-by-cixin-liu

The title The Three-Body Problem (三体, 2007; translated (2014) by Ken Liu) refers, as the book explains, to the chaotic and technically insoluble problem of orbital mechanics in a system comprising three stars and one planet. (Technically I would maintain that this is, of course, a four-body problem, but we’ll let that pass, since ‘three-body’ is the more general description of the problem; the fourth body, and each subsequent body, is just so much problematic gravy.)

Ye Wenjie, an astrophysics student at Tsinghua University at the Cultural Revolution’s height in 1967, watches helplessly as her father, Ye Zhetai, a lecturer at the university, is beaten to death by Red Guards during a ‘struggle session’. Tarred with the stain of her father’s unrepentant reputation, Ye Wenjie is sent to a hard-labour camp in the Greater Khingan Mountains, where she, and other members of the Production and Construction Corps, are tasked with felling the forests that cloak the mountains’ lower reaches. Here she comes across the proscribed environmental text Silent Spring (by Rachel Carson), and her reading of the book sets in chain a sequence of events which sees her transferred to the mysterious Red Base on Radar Peak, a large radiotelescope facility whose purpose is unclear. Deeply mistrusted at first because of the political cloud that hangs over her, she nonetheless proves herself invaluable to the facility’s operation.

The story of Ye Wenjie ultimately becomes entangled, four decades later, with that of Wang Miao, a specialist in nanomaterials. Wang is contacted by a shadowy organisation that is investigating a cluster of suicides by eminent scientists, whose demise seems somehow to be linked to an astonishingly vivid computer game, ‘Three Body’. As Wang reluctantly begins to probe the situation, it becomes apparent that the Earth is now in a state of extreme jeopardy, because of actions initiated at Red Base …

This is a high-concept piece of hard SF, steeped in Chinese cultural references and offering a fascinating glimpse into Chinese society. For me, the book’s strength was in the detail and honesty with which it recounts the tumult (and, for many like Ye, the torment) of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. While it’s hardly a proper historical record, it nonetheless gives a vivid portrayal of one of the 20th Century’s pivotal phases, from a perspective we in the West aren’t often accorded. (It’s obvious in other ways, too, that this is a book from an ‘unfamiliar’ place: its cadences, and aspects of its structure, are not what one would expect from a book written in, say, the US, the UK, or Australia, or derived from the English-language prose tradition. In this regard, it’s rewarding to read the explanatory postscripts by the author and the translator.)

If, like me, you’re unfamiliar with Chinese SF, a comparison with English-language SF is perhaps useful: I would say that the writer of whom I was most strongly reminded when reading The Three-Body Problem is Greg Bear. There’s a similar blend of robust, driven characters; ideas of heroic proportions; and a sense of doomed urgency. Some of Liu’s ideas are almost preposterously audacious, so much so that I came close to writing the book off before the halfway mark; and yet it hangs together, it redeems itself. If you like your hard SF bold and widescreened, you’ll very likely love this. It’s probably a bit too monolithic (in subject matter, rather than in setting) to truly float my own boat (these days, I prefer my hard SF smaller-focussed, more personal), but it is an admirable example of its type, and devotees of Clarke, or Bear, or Benford should find much to enjoy within its pages.

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