Book review: The Three-Body Problem - A trippy ride through Chinese sci-fi

I’ve never found the scenes of a novel as easy to visualise as I did with this book

Until very recently, China has been a massive dark spot on the map of science fiction — at least, for people who don’t read Chinese. A new wave of translations is changing that. Over the last couple of years, Ken Liu and John Chu, both award-winning science fiction authors themselves, have translated an exciting selection of Chinese science fiction short stories for magazines like Clarkesworld and Pathlight. Now, at last, we have a longer work to sink our teeth into: Ken Liu’s translation of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (or Liu Cixin, to use the surname-first Chinese convention). First published in Chinese in 2008, it’s the first of a trilogy, and one of the best-selling Chinese science fiction novels of all time.

Overall, it’s an excellent read. Opening in 1967, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, the book centers around Ye Wenjie, the daughter of a physicist murdered by ideological zealots. Ye, a formidable scientist herself, eventually ends up at a top-secret research base in the Greater Khingan Mountains in north-eastern China, where she becomes the first human being to make contact with an alien civilisation — the Trisolarans. Most of the action takes place in the near future, where a much older Ye has become the spiritual head of a shadowy organisation of radical environmentalists so disgusted by human society that they have pledged to help the Trisolarans invade and conquer earth.

The book features frequent digressions into scientific and mathematical detail. From time to time, Liu drops the voice of a narrator and assumes the voice of an engaging lecturer, offering four-to-five page explanations of topics such as cosmic background radiation, logic gates, and the titular three-body problem in physics.

Somehow, these science lessons never weigh the book down. Liu leavens his story with a variety of spectacular side acts. One of these is a virtual reality sword-and-planet game called “Three Body”, through which humans are initiated into the Trisolaran cult. It’s set in a surreal landscape on a world where suns of different sizes seem to rise and set randomly, and where the player encounters Zhou dynasty astrologers, medieval European knights, brutal kings, and Isaac Newton. One highlight of the game is the terrifying ritual of Dehydration, where the residents are flattened into “man-shaped pieces of leather”, rolled up and stacked in huge storehouses for the long winters when the suns are all far away. There is a riddle to solve about the structure of this gameworld, and in some ways these chapters are reminiscent of classic works of “Hard SF” — novels that put scientific accuracy in the foreground, like Larry Niven’s Ringworld or Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama — only quite a bit more fun.

Liu Cixin writes with an incredible cinematic flair. I don’t think I’ve ever found the scenes of a novel as easy to visualise as I did with The Three-Body Problem (and some credit for this must go to the translator). The chapters set in the remote Northeast evoke the lush, colourful, wide-open landscapes of Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (It’s clear from repeated references to classical Chinese painting that Liu is a keen student of visual composition, and he does a remarkable job of rendering those ideas in prose.)

But the cinematic effects are not limited to a single classical style. There’s a character named Shi Qiang, a fat, rude, cigar-puffing police detective with a sharp eye and a Holmesian understanding of human behaviour, who immediately brings to mind a middle-aged Sammo Hung. The scenes set within the VR (virtual reality) game had me picturing a version of World of Warcraft redesigned by Tsui Hark. And the climax, where the militaries of the united world powers stage an attack on the Trisolaran cult, is like a scene from one of those Roland Emmerich disaster movies made on a zillion-dollar budget. I won’t give it away, but it involves a Chinese zither made out of nanofibres, a 60,000-ton oil tanker, and the Panama canal.

After a wild ride through 350 pages of pyrotechnics, the book hits an unfortunate rough patch right before the end. Here the action shifts to planet Trisolaris, where we finally meet the aliens… and they’re terribly disappointing. After putting so much thought into the details of the astrophysics and interstellar communication that underpin the book, Liu is surprisingly lazy with his extraterrestrials. He declines to describe them physically, but they’re apparently humanoid — they walk, they have hands with fingers that point, they have eyes with retinas. They work in underground control centres with blue computer screens showing “large font text”.

They discuss their plans for the invasion of Earth in exactly the same tones as the human characters discuss science. To imagine that a civilisation so nearly identical to our own could have evolved entirely by chance, just a few light years away, is frankly a goofy idea, better suited to a 1950s Twilight Zone episode than a thoughtful work of Hard SF. Liu wants his readers to concentrate on his description of Trisolaran science — a trippy investigation into the possibility of encoding information in a single proton, through a process of dimensional unfolding. But when the alien characters begin making references to earthly things such as camera film, embroidery, and walnuts in order to elucidate these concepts, it gets a bit ridiculous.

This has me a bit worried about the yet-to-be-translated sequels, in which I’m guessing the aliens play a bigger role. Still, The Three-Body Problem is good enough that I’ll give them a try. As I read the book, I kept thinking about how little Hard SF gets written in India, especially in Indian languages. I hope this changes. The Three-Body Problem is the kind of science fiction novel that fires young imaginations, inspires visionary inventors, and gets people to reflect on the direction society is headed — and it was written in a language that a billion Chinese people can read. Would it be too much to hope that it gets translated into Hindi, too?

Rakesh Khanna is a founding editor of Blaft Publications, an independent publishing house based in Chennai

( Source : dc )
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