Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review - The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

Short review: In the Cultural Revolution, China turned on scientists. In the present day, life is better for scientists but they keep committing suicide. Wang Miao wants to find out why.

Secret red program
Disaffected scientist
Ends humanity

Full review: The Three-Body Problem is a near future science fiction novel set in China, authored by Chinese novelist Cixin Liu and translated into English by Ken Liu. A number of commentators have described the novel as hard science fiction. I'm not sure I would go that far, as the science in the novel seems to break down at times. A more apt description might be "hard-ish science fiction", as the novel mostly hews to science as we know it, with a handful of departures. But the interesting thing about The Three-Body Problem isn't the accuracy of the science, but rather the fact that it tells a story is both rooted in Chinese sensibilities, making it seem alien in some parts, and also evokes the classic science fiction style of writers like Asimov and Clarke, making it seem oddly familiar at the same time.

Perhaps due to its Chinese origins, the book isn't structured like most novels that western readers will be familiar with. Instead of a single narrative thread, the book wanders between a couple of interrelated stories, stopping at times to digress about a particular historical or philosophical point, and then plunge back into the action. The story is at various times an exploration of the ills of Chinese political history, a murder mystery, an exploration of a complex and as yet unsolved physics problem, an alien invasion conspiracy, and a description of some relatively dubious subatomic engineering. The various threads are all interesting enough when taken individually that even when the novel seems to have wandered off of the rails or become slightly didactic, it is still engaging and interesting. Even though Cixin Liu is not entirely able to stitch all of the moving parts of the story together into a completely cohesive whole, it still holds together well enough that some of the rough edges are forgivable.

The novel opens during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, as physicist Ye Zhetai is condemned by the Red Guards for teaching the reactionary theory of relativity and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. Unlike many of his colleagues who have recanted and toed the party line, or committed suicide to escape the humiliation and pain of a public savaging, Zhetai has chosen to remain true to his principles. His adherence to scientific truth in the face of ideological assault results in his death, and causes his daughter Ye Wenjie, a college-educated scientist herself, to be sent into exile in the countryside to work as a lumberjane. Years of hard labor and a betrayal that leads to a brief imprisonment and political disfavor later, Wenjie has been radicalized enough that when she finds herself in the unexpected position of being a technician on what essentially amounts to a Chinese SETI project, she elects to betray humanity the second that they make contact with extraterrestrial life. And this decision sets into motion everything that follows in the book. The element here that makes this novel so interesting is that this is an almost uniquely Chinese sequence of events, told from a Chinese perspective. The anti-intellectualism as represented by the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, the exiling of educated urban people to become rural laborers, and the paranoia and treachery all meld together to form a believable backdrop for the betrayal of the human race.

After setting the stage, Cixin move the action forward to near-future China and turns the focus of the novel to Wang Miao, an expert in nanotechnology research who is called in by an international group of senior military and political leaders to help them try to figure out why scientists have mysteriously started to commit suicide with alarming frequency. Wang is provided a handy foil in the form of allegedly corrupt cop "Da" Shi Quiang, who supplies a layman's view of the events of the novel and also serves as a handy person to whom Wang can explain the science in the book. Wang follows up on his one clue - the suicide of a prominent scientist, and this leads him to her mathematician boyfriend who is working on solving the "three-body problem", and a computer game that doesn't seem to make much sense (or even be connected to the plot in any real way at first). The key to understanding the novel is understanding the nature of the three-body problem, which is a basic exercise in gravitational physics. In simple terms, it is easy to figure out the gravitational effects that two bodies have on one another, but devilishly difficult (and some might say impossible) to figure them out for three or more bodies.

The mysterious suicides and the odd computer simulation turn out to be connected, and in a bit of inside-out storytelling, the significance of what Wang has learned is backloaded into the narrative: First, Wang learns things, then he learns what their significance is, and finally, the actual events underlying what Wang has learned are shown. Although the computer simulation sequences can seem overlong, by the end of this portion of the book the reason for their length becomes clear - including the fact that the story simply could not convey the information needed if they were shortened. Through the computer simulation sequences, Cixin builds sympathy for the alien trisolarians, using their plight as a springboard to pull on the reader's emotions. At the same time, the author lays the groundwork for the sharp reversal that the book is building to, demonstrating how trisolarians culture had become so harsh and ruthless. In the broad sweep of events, Cixin's ability to hit just the right emotional note is almost masterful.

This mastery, however, highlights on of the serious failings of the book: Many of the characters seem flat and stiff, and their relationships with other people seem almost perfunctory. Wang, for example, has a wife and son, but his wife only shows up in a single scene in which he has her take some photographs so that he can test a theory. Other than this one scene, Wang's wife and son may as well not exist in the novel as the scientist sets about following the various metaphorical rabbits down their metaphorical holes - even when he nearly gets killed in an explosion or jets off to Panama, neither his loving wife nor his son show up to check up on his injuries or see him off on his journey. That's probably okay though - he doesn't really seem to think of either of them much when he's out all night drinking with Da Shi. And this sort of lack of characterization is endemic to the novel. Most of the characters in the novel seem to be defined, at most, by their job, and maybe by their political allegiances, but almost nothing beyond that. Maybe there is a cultural element unique to Chinese fiction that I am missing, but even so, the characters feel like little more than empty mouthpieces for the author to use to move the plot along.

On the other hand, The Three-Body Problem isn't really about characters, but rather about ideas about science on a grand scale. Through the novel, the scientists that Wang comes into contact with are grappling with fundamental issues concerning how the universe works ranging from the titular gravitational problem to subatomic particle physics. For most of the novel, Cixin is able to weave the science into his narrative quite convincingly, but near the end, when he shifts to the actions of the trisolarians, things seem to fall apart just a little bit as he ranges just a bit too far beyond the realm of believability. Liu also makes the somewhat controversial assertion that should the advancement of particle physics be blocked, all scientific advancement would grind to a halt, a notion that seems unsupportable. In the end, the novel is convincing enough that the reader should be able to roll with these quirks, although they do mar the fabric of the story somewhat.

Wang leads the story back to Ye, now the putative leader of a movement dedicated to a brutal and self-destructive, but idealistically driven goal. It is the structure and nature of this movement that illustrates that Cixin chose to start his novel with scenes from the Cultural Revolution not merely to radicalize Wenjie into action, but also to hold up a mirror to show the very nature of both Wenjie's resulting movement. Like the Cultural Revolution, Wenjei's movement is driven by an ideology that is unconcerned with the cost in human lives. Like the Cultural Revolution, Wenjie's movement is riven by factional resentments. Like the Cultural Revolution, Wenjie's movement is opposed to free scientific inquiry. Like the Cultural Revolution, Wenjie's movement drives scientists to suicide. The reader is shown that, in many ways, Wenjie has replicated the Cultural Revolution, but her actions are in the service of an inhuman and ultimately monstrous master. After making Wenjie an entirely sympathetic character in the first act of the novel, Liu succeeds in making her the architect of a terrible organization and keeping her sympathetic at the same time.

Attention must also be paid to Ken Liu's translation efforts. Although I cannot read Chinese, and so am unable to determine how faithful to the original text the translation is, the book has been rendered into English in a form that makes it quite accessible. Ken Liu also helpfully supplied a number of footnotes in sections in which Cixin cites specific events or references whose significance would be readily apparent to a Chinese reader, but whose meaning might be opaque to the average English-speaking member of the audience. The end result is a novel that manages to preserve what feels like a uniquely Chinese sensibility while also being comprehensible and even comfortable for a western reader.

Despite some pretty obvious flaws - whether the result of cultural differences between Cixin Liu and this American reader, or the vagaries of translation, or simply deficiencies in Cixin's writing ability - The Three-Body Problem remains a bold and at times brilliant book. Combining the savage sweep of relatively recent Chinese history with science on both the largest and the smallest scale possible (albeit often weirdly flawed science), Cixin Liu has created an intriguing, engaging, and exceptional novel that is sure to entertain any science fiction fan.

Subsequent book in the series: The Dark Forest

2014 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
2016 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Novel

2015 Campbell Award Nominees
2015 Hugo Award Nominees
2015 Locus Award Nominees
2015 Nebula Award Nominees
2015 Prometheus Award Nominees

Cixin Liu     Ken Liu     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

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