The Three Body Problem

The Three Body Problem
Liu Cixin

Everyone, read this book. Then tell a friend, or write an article, or take some action to make more people pick it up. Tor Books has given us a rare opportunity and it is up to us, the reading public, to show them (and other publishers) that we want more.

The cost to purchase rights and pay translators makes non-English books considerably more expensive to publish than locally crafted stuff. A market saturated with English authors and famous names means noticeably more risk for these more expensive books. These and other travails of the translated book market have been well documented, so there should be no surprise that we English speakers see so little SFF from the rest of the world. (And really, with our TBR piles teetering under their own massive weight already, who clamors for even more books? Oh wait.) It may be that Tor found some reason to believe that Liu Cixin would be a goldmine for the company, but I have to imagine that they are making a sizable financial gamble to bring not just one book, but an entire trilogy across the Pacific. I commend Tor for this, and am well aware that the gates will shut just as quickly as they opened if The Three Body Problem settles without a ripple.

For background, I recommend checking out interviews with popular author Ken Liu, who translated this and the third volume of the trilogy. He has spoken widely about the book, the author, and the process of translating from Chinese to English. (As a part-time translator myself, his insight is invaluable and fascinating.) I’ve seen several reviews of Three Body in notable venues like Locus and Tor.com, and while they are heavy on praise for the book, they are light on detail. I hope to change that if I can, though the greatest pleasure comes from watching the book unfold in unexpected directions. It is, at heart, a first contact story, but Liu takes a rather different path to get there and spoiling the details of that path would be a great disservice.

The central argument of the book is summarized by a single sentence in the afterword: the author’s recommendation that we assume the best in our fellow humans, but maintain healthy suspicion about anyone we may meet from other stars. We are often quite the opposite, giving way to cynicism about other people while maintaining utopic visions of grand, interstellar civilizations. (I am guilty as well.) This is not to say that the people in Three Body are good and the aliens are bad, but people thinking the worst of each other drives most of the conflict in the story. This can happen at a state level between governments, at a society level between classes, or a personal level between individuals, but the characters are continuously expecting others to be selfish and stupid. The shadowy group behind most of the action is convinced that humanity can’t be trusted to take care of itself and is working to remove our agency; this embodies the ultimate expression of the author’s stated fear.

Liu’s secondary theme is the necessity of science. On its own, this is no surprise in a science fiction novel, but China’s history presents a very different lens than the Western rationalism that pervades our SF dialog. The novel opens in the Cultural Revolution, with that particular orgy of anti-intellectualism setting the stage for the above mentioned desperation and hinting at what a completely anti-scientific society would be like. Two digressions: First, I don’t have my finger on the pulse of Chinese politics, but I am surprised that Liu could be so blatantly critical of the Cultural Revolution. We all know it was a catastrophe, but one has to tread carefully with criticism. I did note that he never condemned any leaders, least of all Mao, but I didn’t expect something so honest. Second, we Americans shake our heads sadly at the Cultural Revolution, but really need to be more vigilant. Of any developed nation, I think the US has the most open hostility to intellectuals. I doubt it will get out of hand, but it’s plenty bad enough already.

Anyway, back to science. One of the prominent bad guy groups specifically targets science, finding any way they can to discredit it in the eyes of the public. Their intention is to weaken humanity by driving them in more Luddite directions. The main character in the book finds himself targeted specifically because he is on the cutting edge of nanofiber development. It’s not all clear cut though. Many of the disenchanted are there precisely because they are smart enough to see what’s going on around them. Their own superior understanding of the world leads them to despair, and, eventually, betrayal. Things are very complicated.

Some highlights of Three Body: the online RPG that initially draws the protagonist into the conspiracy is mind-bending and almost worth a novel of its own. The Hard SF aspects of the novel are suitably crunchy, whether the eponymous math problem, the Three Body star system itself, or the ways the Chinese deal with SETI questions. Finally, the Chinese setting is everything that a reader could want from translated SF. The historical background and society wherein the characters operate is different enough to be exotic, but carefully explained and never bewildering. (Ken Liu’s footnotes are impeccable and never intrusive.) Three Body brings the new perspective that SF veterans look for in their books and the glimpse into another culture that international fiction can provide.

Three Body also tells a fascinating story that is clearly going places in the upcoming sequels. Even without the international appeal, this would be one of the premier Hard SF releases of 2014. I don’t know the exact rules for translations, but if eligible, this is going on my Hugo ballot and has rocketed into the top three or five books from 2014. Tor made a solid decision to publish Three Body and should be rewarded for it with all the sales and publicity we can give the book. If the community can make a big enough ruckus for Three Body to be a money maker, we may see a steady stream of translated SFF, and hopefully not just from Asia. Tor was brave enough to take the first step here, it’s up to us push things to the next level.

3 thoughts on “The Three Body Problem

  1. It’s worth it then? As you point out, it’s been picking up a fair bit of buzz, and it definitely looks like the kind of thing I should go for. Not least because if a translated work gets backing like this and doesn’t succeed that’ll put it all back to square one…

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