Jan 17, 2017

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu (Translated by Ken Liu)

At the forefront of the burgeoning translated Chinese science fiction scene is this Hugo Award-winning novel about Earth's first extraterrestrial contact. Long story short: it doesn't go so well. Rooted firmly in the incredibly difficult years of the Cultural Revolution, Liu's characters take a particularly dim view of human nature. Our main character, Ye, is forced to watch her mother denounce her father then her father murdered simply for the crime of being an academic; even carefully hiding her own intelligence isn't enough to keep from being noticed by a certain group of people, and political pressures see her giving up any hope of future freedom to work at a research base with a heavily-cloaked purpose. These scenes are interspersed with the present time and our second protagonist, a scientist working with nanotechnology named Wang, and his journey through an immersive video game called Three Body.

That's the most I'll give away about the plot, which is best left for the reader to unfold herself. While I am supremely impressed with Liu's story - the physics, the fully realized alien culture, the philosophical implications of humanity's long-noted self-destructive tendencies - the writing itself left me a little cold. As with all translated works, it's impossible to know whether this is an accurate reflection of Liu's writing or the translator's own interpretation, a frustration I often encounter when reading in translation. Though Ye's struggles are horrific, the story is told so plainly that I found it difficult to connect with her. The only character with any real life to him is Shi Qiang, a veteran police officer with a serious attitude problem, and apparently the only person in all of China (and perhaps the world) with a sense of humor. My disappointment with the writing doesn't diminish, however, the importance of this novel, both for its overarching, epic sensibility, characteristic of the most interesting science fiction, and for the role it has played in bringing Chinese science fiction into the mainstream. Ken Liu is an author in his own right, and I have his short story collection sitting on my shelf. I look forward to dipping into it.

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