Fiction Reviews

The Three-Body Problem

(2006/2014/2015) Cixin Liu, Head of Zeus, £16.99, hrdbk, 399pp, ISBN 978-1-784-97155-7


This is arguably China's modern SF best-selling classic. It was first published, serialised in the Chinese magazine Science Fiction World in 2006. It took eight years for this to come to print in English in the USA in 2014 and it has only just (2015) been published over here in the British Isles. Already, in the west it has been short-listed for, and won, a number of major SF awards including winning the 2015 Hugo Award for 'Best Novel' (albeit in the shadow of the puppies that saw nomination withdrawals so allowing The Three-Body Problem to get on the Hugo ballot) and short-listing for the 2015 Locus and the 2015 Campbell Memorial Award and the US Nebula: all worthy award nominations. This brings us to the plot…

In 1967 Ye Wenjie sees her physicist father beaten to death by the Red Guards during the 'Cultural Revolution' for failing to recant his belief in a science theory. This experience shapes Ye's own convictions and she pursues a career in astrophysics.

Decades later a nano-material scientist is recruited by the Beijing police to investigate a series of apparent suicides. In the process if infiltrates a secret cabal that seems fixated on the mathematical 'Three-Body Body' problem and particularly a computer role-playing game that centres on a world in a system with three suns. The chaotic motion of the planet gives it periodical climate extremes but just as this fictional world's civilization is advancing to a point where they can understand the problem it is destroyed by and aspect of this orbit: it can either bring extreme cold, heat or even the equivalent of zero gravity.

Meanwhile, Ye Wenjie though considered having dissident tendencies is recognised for her science abilities and is given a choice between a life of lowly rehabilitation or the chance to pursue science albeit locked away in a secure research facility. She chooses the life of science and so joins the Red Shore ('Red Coast' in this translation) project. Eventually she learns that it is a SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) facility and, after many years, she picks up a message: a warning not to broadcast a reply and give away Earth's position...

This novel is brim full of concepts and ideas to the point where it is a decidedly heady mix that gives much with which the reader can come to grips and if sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) is your bag then there is plenty to mine here.

The Chinese setting (and here the translator has given a few very useful footnotes) also lends the work a freshness of perspective that will make for a decided change for many (western) regular SF readers.

The bad news and, I suspect, for quite a few readers this will be a substantive barrier, this novel is not exactly an easy one with which to engage and it makes few concessions to draw the reader in. Its style is decidedly fragmentary and we jump between three or four quite different perspectives. Its characters are two-dimensional cut-outs and it is hard to generate much sympathy or interest in them as at virtually any point in the book a page or two further on once again we change perspective or many years pass.

Now, make no mistake, with this last I am not being derogatory. Such is the richness of ideas, that the author simply has not the space with which to develop a more linear and detailed unravelling of the plot. As such The Three-Body problem reads a bit like Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930): here is a planet/idea, what do you think of this development, and this one, and this one…?  I also found the novel more than a little depressing. One of the main protagonists, Ye Wenjie, clearly has her problems with officialdom and the 'official' view, and so do more than a few others. (Interestingly, it did make me wonder how come such dissent was allowed by China's current, notoriously controlling, authorities and why the same authorities, in real life, have praised the author and this work allowing its sales within China to grow to a magnitude that all but a few of western authors can only dream.) Here this dissent and dissatisfaction in the greatest among some characters who would be happy if us warring, over-populating, polluting, resource-depleting humans were invaded and controlled/ruled by more advanced (hence presumably more civilised) aliens: some are more than happy – positively eager – to betray our own species.

OK, so that is the down side. But there is an upside.

While the first three-quarters of the novel is decidedly fragmentary in both perspectives, jumping time, and so forth, and while its ideas seem disjointed, it does in the end all come together. Yes, many of the ideas – such as the 'Three-Body' problem of the title itself – are firmly rooted in science, others seem firmly fantasy. True, some clearly are clearly science fantasy (such as unfolding a proton to embed what effectively are printed circuits on it), others seem pure fantasy (such as some Earth scientists having text miraculously appear before their eyes). Yet many of these fantasy ideas it transpires, in the novels closing chapters, do have a firm rationale (within the fictional logical constraints of the plot set-up). Indeed the final quarter of the book – for those who make it that far – are a joy as all the pieces begin to fit together into a more coherent whole.

As for the ideas themselves; they are legion and too many to completely list. However in the mix are: monofilament wires used to cheese slice a ship into multiple slivers; a world with Helliconia extremes; a computer made up of a human army with soldiers holding up black or white flags depending on whether or not their neighbours are; extra-terrestrial communication and invasion; artificial intelligence; dystopic societal control (a common theme applied to more than one society); cyberspace virtual reality, Kardashev civilisations, and many more.

This novel will either hugely delight – and so attract a sound following – or leave some readers cold wondering what all the fuss is about. Either way, this is worth your attention, not just to see which camp you are in, but also because this is a major Chinese SF novel and one of the very few translated into English. If you do like it then there are two more in the trilogy to get. And if you don't, well you can leave the others alone but at least you will have sampled something different from a different culture, and as a reader of a genre that explores new worlds that can be no bad thing.

Jonathan Cowie

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