Friday, April 24, 2020

Book Review: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, Translated by Ken Liu

Published: November 11th, 2014
Publisher: Tor Books
Read from February 16 to 25, 2019
Synopsis from Goodreads:
The Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience the Hugo 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 a sci-fi book that I knew would be unlike anything I had read before.

The idea of a world that unites once aliens enter the picture is a common one in sci-fi, but many sci-fi stories popular in the West are also those written in the West, which means that the "united" Earth pictured is very West-centric no matter what the author's intentions were.

Not so with The Three-Body Problem. Liu Cixin is Chinese, and the Earth portions of this book take place in China. This naturally provides a different starting point for exploring what the world would do when faced with the problem of aliens, and the differences between Chinese and Western culture are apparent in what happens next.

This book also starts farther back in time than I had expected. We enter the world in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Anyone who knows about that period of China's history knows that many aspects of it are hard to wrap your mind around, and that chaos goes a long way towards establishing a sense of uncertainty about what is happening during the book.

There are many unknowns. The aliens themselves are a mystery of course, but in many ways, the governments of Earth are just as much of a mystery as Wang Miao tries to sort out what is happening from what little information he's being given.

Because this book was written in a culture different from my own, there were aspects of it that were challenging to wrap my head around. The characters don't necessarily act in a way that's easy to understand because they've had very different life experiences than me, and because the book was written by a Chinese person for (originally) a Chinese audience, the book wasn't written to explain any particular character's actions to people from other cultures. But I found that to be one of the enjoyable aspects of the book as I got to experience a different view of how the future might go.

This book is a translation, and that does present difficulties in how things are translated from Chinese into English. The writing style struck me as somewhat plain, and in parts of the book, italics were used for thoughts in a way that I found distracting. These are things that can have more to do with the translation than the original.

There were a couple of other details that I found frustrating:

We are introduced to NATO, CIA, and Chinese military officials throughout the book, and all of these officials are assumed to be men. So much so that them being men isn't noted. I noticed this because I was struggling to figure out which gender the characters were before realizing I was supposed to assume they were all men.

One woman character is called autistic by Wang, and it seems pretty clear from context that he means it as an insult. However, Wang also becomes fascinated with this woman to an extent that I found creepy.

There are also some questionable comments made about different cultures. The Aztecs are portrayed rather negatively by one person. Someone else then defends the Aztecs only for someone else to defend conquistadors by saying they helped the Americas become a democracy. (In case you need a reminder, this book has a Chinese author, and this part of the book is taking place inside a video game. The game raises questions about who's actually a human instead of a program, and on top of that, there's no way to be sure of what part of the world each person is from. I struggled with what to think of this scene a lot, and I'm sure different people will interpret it differently.)

There are large chunks of the book that just involve discussing theories, and the characters aren't afraid to deep dive into those theories. It made the book drag a bit for me at times, though I'm sure there are some who would enjoy those parts as well.

But despite that, I found the plot of the book fascinating.

In the book, there is a video game, and the main character has been tasked with solving a very important problem through playing this video game. He's not the only person playing it, and just who in the game is a real person and who's a computer program is one small part of the mysteries within the book.

Beyond the game, everyone's actions in this book feel suspect. I was never sure who was meant to be trusted, and there's an overwhelming sense of anxiety over just how much is being seen and by who. Throughout the book, you feel as if someone is aware of everything Wang does, but you're never sure if it's the aliens, the government, or someone else entirely who's watching him. Or if it's all of the above.

This is the start of a series, and this first book ends with far more questions than answers. I was left with no idea what to think about what I had just read. This book was a "thinker" through and through. It wasn't a fast-paced read; I needed to sit with it. In a similar vein, the ending wasn't one that had me wanting to rush out to get the second book. (I had too much to think about first.) But it did leave me feeling like I needed to read the second before I could even begin to have a final opinion on the first book.

The Three-Body Problem isn't a book for everyone. Many will find that it drags or that it's not fast-paced enough for them. Personally, I liked the way it made me think. The entire book was like trying to solve a puzzle, and I still haven't put all the pieces together. I'd like to read the sequel eventually to see how much more of it I can solve.

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