The world is under a mysterious threat. Scientists disappear or go crazy, and there are strange messages in the cosmic background radiation. Saying anything more will spoil your experience, because The Three-Body Problem is a book like a magician’s show, revealing more and more and speeding up the revelations while you read.
It starts out slow, in China’s Cultural Revolution. We see scientists rounded up, denounced and destroyed as reactionary capitalists against the socialist revolution. Half a century later in the near future, something similar happens again, but this time the revolution seems to come from outside the planet. An invisible revolution, steered by unseen powers. The Three-Body Problem is a cracking good tale of accelerating plot twists.
In the West, we were unfamiliar with the Chinese author Cixin Liu, but his book, the first of a trilogy, reads like the work of a veteran novelist. I’m given to understand that Liu has written numerous short stories in his career, and wrote the Three Body trilogy back in 2006, earning him popular success in China. The American author Ken Liu (no relation to Cixin Liu, as far as I know) has now translated Cixin’s work to introduce him to Western audiences. With great success, because Cixin’s work earned him the Hugo award for best novel in 2015. The translation reads very fluently and Ken Liu added footnotes to explain things about the Cultural Revolution.
You’ll notice that the novel is a product of a slightly different culture. The Three-Body Problem involves Chinese history, both of the 20th century and some of the older Confucian and Taoist concepts, and simply the way characters interact with each other speaks to different sensibilities. Greater respect for elders and saving face and so on. If you’re only used to American or British SF, this one is refreshingly different because of its moods, locations and cultural embedding.
In the middle, things slow down a bit, again, because we deal with stories told by one character to another, and with a computer game. I’m not often a fan of characters playing a computer game in a novel. It halts the story in its tracks because it is “not real” and not bound by the world-building that the novel established. I remember Ender’s Game (1985) had the same strange mixture of a science fiction world and a fantasy computer game that Ender was playing. Usually, the game does connect to the plot, and The Three-Body Problem’s deal with a computer game is vaguely reminiscent of Ender’s Game in this way.
What’s strange is that the bulk of the story consists of characters relating memories to other characters. Even though the plot is rich, it feels like it doesn’t really move quick enough, because it is all expressed through memories, messages or interrogations. And, to be honest, I had trouble keeping the characters apart, but that’s because of my unfamiliarity with Chinese names. In fact, Cixin Liu is quite good with his characterizations and presents us with some odd, quirky and interesting people. It is just that the names blend together.
So, there are some obstacles to fully enjoy this book. However, the content of scientific ideas and the cultural context are interesting enough to keep reading, but the way the story is related made me struggle a bit. Still, I will be reading part two, because this book is more like a prologue to the real story.