Monday, 2 March 2015

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu was originally published in China and has been translated into English by Ken Liu. It's a hard science fiction novel set mostly in the approximate present in China, and partly during the cultural revolution.
Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
The Three Body Problem is probably the best hard science fiction novel I've read in a long time. Admittedly this is partly because I've been put off by a lot of the books I picked up being either too sexist etc or, well, not being hard. Although, since I've started thinking about it, if I had to compare the style and scope of ideas, Greg Egan springs to mind. But anyway, on with the review.

The book opens during the Cultural Revolution in China, with Ye, a graduate student, watching her father beaten to death. Through the course of the revolution she ends up at a remote top secret radio telescope base where all is not quite as it seems. The first few chapters were about Ye but then the story jumped forward to the approximate present and we didn't get back to her story for quite a while. It's not that I didn't enjoy where the story ended up going, but I felt a little "bait and switch" with the opening. But I was glad when later we did get to find out the rest of her story.

The other part of the story (two thirds, maybe?) followed Wang, a physicist in nano material research, set in the approximate present. The start of his story is a horrifying nightmare for a scientist. Weird and inexplicable and inconsistent physics results start occurring. Particle accelerators start producing chaos, the cosmic microwave background flickers and a glowing countdown follows Wang around, appearing every time he takes a photo, no matter what camera he uses. Wang is terrified, as would I be if I were in the same situation. I thought it was a really clever and terrifying concept that was especially suited to the science fiction genre. I don't think it would freak out non-scientists as much (when reading the book, I mean), but that's kind of the point.

The last third of the story is more unusual. In the course of events, Wang ends up playing a virtual-reality immersive video game (pictured on the cover), which has strange rules and doesn't have any clear goals at first, other than to not die. It takes a little while to work out its relevance. On the other hand, while reading it's clear from the context that the game is relevant to the strange things happening in the world, just not quite how until much later. It also provided an interesting commentary on some aspects of the history of science.

The Three Body Problem is a very idea-dense novel. There's a lot in it, especially if you're not familiar with recent(ish) Chinese history. That said, the culture is very accessible. However, I find it harder to comment on the accessibility of the science, since I'm a physicist. There are some footnotes both from the author and the translator explaining some of the references, mostly to science in the first case and culture in the second.

I would very highly recommend The Three Body Problem to fans of hard science fiction. The main overarching plot — which does take a little while to be revealed — is very science and idea driven, with the characters spending a lot of time trying to work out what's happening. I am definitely keen to read the next instalment which should be out in October this year. (Although Ken Liu is not translating the second volume, only the first and third. It will be interesting to compare.)

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2008 in Chinese, 2014 in English by Tor
Series: Three Body book 1 of 3
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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