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The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem - Liu Cixin, Ken Liu One of my favorite ways of choosing a book by an unfamiliar author to read is by the buzz from sf blogs and discussion forums. Not any old buzz mind you, I don’t want to end up reading “50 Shades” or some equally unreadable blockbusters, I only take notice of the excitement among SF/F reading communities.

The Three-Body Problem was my SF Book Club’s book of the month (three months ago), it was recommended to me a friend here on GR and I have noticed numerous blogs, articles and online discussions about it so if I am to have any hope of keeping up with the Sci-fi Joneses I’d better give it a shot*. About the official synopsis, I am surprised how much spoiler is in it. I am glad I did not read the synopsis until I was half way through the book, but even then I wish I had finished the book before reading the thing. Having said that, when I tried to write my own synopsis I find myself struggling as the book’s storyline is quite complex with several plot twists and turns.

It starts in China in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie witnesses her father’s public execution at the hands of some young Red Guards women. This is beginning of her disdain for the entire human race and a later betrayal by a friend which leads to her agreeing to join a top secret Government science project which has will have a great impact on the future of humanity. About forty years later Wang Miao a nanomaterial researcher stumbles upon a VR game that seems to have surprising real world consequences.

OK, a little bit of a spoiler now. After all the surprising plot developments this book ultimately turns out to be about first contact / alien invasion!. It is not all about that though, there are many facets to this book: Hard SF / cyberpunk / conspiracy / Chinese Cultural Revolution, not to mention the human drama, the political allegory, the philosophy and the moral themes of loyalty and betrayal (of individuals and eventually the entire human race). I think even the kitchen sink is mentioned at one point!

The Three-Body Problem is a huge bestseller in China, it is the first book of a trilogy (only this first volume translated and published internationally so far) and a film adaptation is in the making (by Chinese film makers, not Hollywood – yet). The book reminds me a little bit of Neal Stephenson's [b: Snow Crash|830|Snow Crash|Neal Stephenson|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1424472532s/830.jpg|493634] though it is much grimmer in tone and also Asimov’s classic [b: The Gods Themselves|41821|The Gods Themselves|Isaac Asimov|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1351076141s/41821.jpg|1253407] (ah, I need to reread this!). Considering the hype I am surprising how divisive this book is, it has all the things most hard SF fans normally want, the plausible science, the cool tech, huge ideas etc. I suspect the dislike among some of the readers is due to the book's initial focus on the Cultural Revolution in the 60s. If you read sci-fi just for the sci-fi and you don't want to know about this part of Chinese history this substantial part of the book may bore you. I know nothing about this history and I personally found it to be very interesting. There are also some lengthy scientific expositions which are a little hard to follow. I quite like how the main characters are developed but none of them are particularly sympathetic, not even Wang Miao who is described as “a good man”. I love the cyberspace world (or metaverse) of this book, it is bizarre and fascinating; how it impacts the real world is more reminiscent of [a: Philip K. Dick|4764|Philip K. Dick|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1264613853p2/4764.jpg] than [a: William Gibson|9226|William Gibson|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1373826214p2/9226.jpg]. It also leads to the explanation of the book’s title which is a brilliant hard sci-fi concept.

The New York Times described this book as “a classic science-fiction story in the style of the British master [a: Arthur C. Clarke|7779|Arthur C. Clarke|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1357191481p2/7779.jpg]”. While the comparison makes some sense stylistically Liu Cixin is very different from Sir Arthur C. I don’t know how much of this is due to the excellent translation by [a: Ken Liu|2917920|Ken Liu|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1400610835p2/2917920.jpg] but there is much more characterization and emotion here than any Clarke books I have read. This does not make him a better author than Clarke though, Clarke was a master storyteller who told some ingenious stories with much more economy and clarity of vision.

So given the divisive opinions of this book I would recommend it with caution that you try a sample chapter first if possible, or at least read a few trusted reviews. Also, the book is not an easy breezy read, there are passages that will tax your brain and others that require your patience. Personally I would love to find out what happen in the subsequent volumes of the trilogy. Get on with it Mr. Ken Liu!