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The Three-Body Problem
Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu
Tor, $25.99, 400pp
Publication Date : November 11, 2014 (originally published in 2006)
One of the most buzzed-about books this year, The Three-Body Problem is the long-awaited English debut of acclaimed Chinese author Liu Cixin. Originally released in 2006, it has now hit American shores in a new translation from Chinese-American writer Ken Liu (no relation), author of the beautiful short story The Paper Menagerie, which won the triple crown of Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards in 2013.

The novel, which kicks off a trilogy, details the upcoming invasion of Earth by the Trisolarans, an alien race from Alpha Centauri. On Earth, different factions struggle to adjust to the inevitable destruction of civilization – some welcoming the aliens as a cleansing Armageddon, some attempting to ingratiate themselves to the invaders, some seeking to repel the invasion.

It takes its name from the classic physics problem that posits that two bodies may interact in an orderly fashion, but introducing a third body to their relationship will cause chaos (or at least that’s how I understood it — I don’t claim to be a physicist.) The metaphor in the title points at China’s rising importance on the global stage — it’s injection of itself into the Cold War between America and Russia causes disruption to life on earth.

The novel starts in 1967 at the height of the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. Ye Wenjie witnesses the bludgeoning death of her father, physicist Ye Zhetai, at the hands of student radicals. A physics student herself, Wenjie is sent to a work farm in the country, laboring to clear cut a forest underneath the shadow of an enormous radio telescope.

Inspired by a smuggled copy of Silent Spring, she writes a letter advocating for environmentalism, only to find herself condemned for supporting Western ideas. Through luck she is rescued by a former comrade to work at the radio telescope, but her view of humanity is destroyed. Eventually she uses her position to answer a message from an alien race, inviting them to come to Earth.

From this point the story jumps through multiple points-of-view. A nanoscientist named Wang Maio, discovering a mysterious phenomenon caused by disruptions in a magnetic field; Shi Qiang, a policeman investigating the murder of scientists, including Wenjie’s daughter Yang Dong, all tied to a secretive international cabal. And a strange virtual-reality MMO (massively multiplayer online) called “Three-Body” seems to be at the center of everything.

The book ends with all the conspiracies revealed and humanity preparing for the inevitable invasion as the Trisolarans send a two-word message to humanity “You’re bugs.”

But Shi and Wang realize the Trisolaran confidence may be misplaced:

“Look at them, the bugs. Humans have used everything in their power to extinguish them: every kind of poison, aerial sprays, introducing and cultivating their natural predators, searching for and destroying their eggs, using genetic modification to sterilize them, burning with fire, drowning with water. Every family has bug spray, every desk has a flyswatter under it … this long war has been going on for the entire history of human civilization. But the outcome is still in doubt. The bugs have not been eliminated. They still proudly live between the heavens and the earth, and their numbers have not diminished from the time before the appearance of the humans.”

The Trisolarans who deemed the humans bugs seemed to have forgotten one fact: The bugs have never been truly defeated.

I struggled mightily with this book. Not that it didn’t hold my interest; I love a good space opera filled with futuristic technology and deep philosophical questions. And Cixin’s sweeping vision is clearly indebted to the past masters like Asimov and Clarke. I did find the physics left me reeling under the weight of a mathematical info-dump in places, however.

The Three Body Problem is also INCREDIBLY Asian. The tone was radically different than what I’m used to reading and the characters’ motivations and interactions often felt alien. Ken Liu did not attempt to downplay the “Chinese-ness” in his translation, rather he relied on lengthy endnotes to clarify details for Western readers.

I’ve seen The Three Body Problem compared to Dune but that doesn’t seem appropriate. It doesn’t have the grandeur, at least not at this point in the series. The vision of the Trisolaran world, buffeted by alternating hot and cold ages (depending on the placement of the three stars in its system) was an intriguing premise though.

Actually the only thing I found comparable between The Three Body Problem and Frank Herbert’s masterpiece was my initial struggle to get into the book, which gave way to my unwillingness to put it down. Once it kicked into gear I read breathlessly and was disappointed as the novel ended on a cliffhanger.

At least I don’t have to wait too long — the second book in the trilogy, The Dark Forest, comes out in July. ~~ Michael Senft

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