Title: The Three-Body Problem
Series: Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1
Author: Cixin Liu
Translator: Ken Liu
Published in 2014 by Tor Books
Rating: ★★★★.₅ – loved it
In 1967, physics professor Ye Zhetai is killed after he refuses to denounce the theory of relativity. His daughter, Ye Wenjie, witnesses his gruesome death.
Shortly after, she’s falsely charged with sedition for promoting the works of environmentalist Rachel Carson, and told she can avoid punishment by working at a defense research facility involved with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. More than 40 years later, Ye’s work becomes linked to a string of physicist suicides and a complex role-playing game involving the classic physics problem of the title.
The Three-Body Problem had been on my to-read list for ages. When it comes to translated works, especially in science fiction and fantasy, it is one of the most well known and loved ones. I sent in an acquisition request for this book at my local library, because a) adult SFF is incredibly expensive, and b) I didn’t know how well I’d fare with hard sci fi.
I’m happy to say I really liked this book, and I hope someone else will discover this book at my local library as well. That’s why I love acquisition requests. It helps broaden the horizons of other people in my local area.
Here comes the difficult part. I’m not quite sure how to explain the storyline of The Three-Body Problem. There’s a lot going on in this novel, and most of it is not easy to convey to others who haven’t read it. I’ll try my best.
This book follows three main storylines.
First, we have Ye Wenjie, who witnesses her father’s death by his ex-students during the cultural revolution. As physicists, Wenjie and her father were targets of the Red Guards. After his death and being accused of sedition, she starts working at a remote defense research facility that is heavily guarded and shrouded in secrets.
Second, in modern day times there have been an inordinate amount of physicist suicides. They have been dying at an alarming rate, choosing to commit suicide. While the strings of death do not appear to be related to one another, it can’t be a coincidence either.
Third, Wang Miao is a nanoscientist who has been called in to work with the police and investigate the mysterious deaths. He stumbles upon a game called Three Body, and becomes obsessed with it.
It takes quite a while to understand how these storylines tie together while reading the book. The first half of the novel left me somewhat confused, because we seemed to jump from plotpoint to plotpoint without them being truly connected. As Liu gets more time to develop the world and story, we see the three different stories come together. The second half of the book was far easier to get through for me. It was more captivating, and the stakes were higher.
I found the deaths of the scientists and the Three Body game to be the most fascinating aspects of the story, though I was intrigued by the secrecy surrounding the defense base as well.
I have to admit that a lot of the explanations and details on astrophysics and the Three-Body Problem went way over my head. Well, not just a lot of it. Absolutely all of it. I did feel kind of dumb and lost at times because I simply couldn’t comprehend what they were talking about. In the end, I just adopted the principle of accepting what the main characters stated as correct and not thinking about it further.
What I find absolutely fascinating about reading books translated from other languages is the difference in writing style. In the few Japanese books I have read, for example, I have noticed that there’s more of a distance between the reader and characters. In North America and Europe, we usually try to connect with the characters and their development is often pushed forward in the reading experience. In Japanese novels, it’s usually far more subtle which can lead to a more distant feeling.
I’m not sure whether this goes for Chinese novels as well as I can’t recall having read many, but it is certainly the case for The Three-Body Problem. It’s a style I had to get used to at first, but can now appreciate. It allows you to get to know the characters on a different level, as you are actively searching for the slightest change in demeanor or posture described. It’s a subtle way of writing, and I do enjoy it.
I think this is an incredibly fascinating book. As I do not speak and cannot read Chinese, I can’t speak for the accuracy of the translation. However, as a reader, I think Ken Liu did a phenomenal job at bringing this story to an entirely new audience. I’m glad I finally took the plunge and read it, and have since sent in an acquisition request for the sequel at my library.
Will some of the scientific explanations on physics go over your head? Most likely, yes. However, it remains a captivating and intriguing book, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.