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The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (trans Ken Liu)


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.
Liu Cixin is a phenomenon in China, but somehow, hasn’t reached the Anglosphere in translation… until now. The Three-Body Problem is Tor’s attempt to change this, with the aid of the award-winning short story writer Ken Liu in the role of translator. When a multiawardwinning author’s work is transmitted through the efforts of another, what kind of novel results?

Well, the first thing to comment on, perhaps, is the translation. Inevitably, The Three-Body Problem loses a little in translation, as all works taken from their original language do; but in this case it feels almost intentional, in a very interesting way – like Ken Liu is leaving Liu Cixin’s work as much as it was in Chinese as possible, rather than replacing idioms with English ones, reworking puns to work in English, or changing cultural references. Indeed, Ken Liu provides 42 footnotes across the course of the novel to explain translation choices and cultural references rather than simplifying or eliding them, which really keeps clear that this is a translation, rather than the smoothness of some works which attempt to wholly convert their original text into English, culturally and idiomatically.

Liu Cixin’s novel is a fascinating one, culturally, though. While being centred on Chinese culture, Chinese characters, and Chinese history, there is also a very Western sensibility to it in one particular respect; The Three-Body Problem feels like something incredibly steeped in the science fiction of the so-called Golden Age. In terms of style, of characters, of plot, Golden Age SF sensibilities pervade the novel; indeed, one of the protagonists,Ye Wenjie, feels like Asimov’s Susan Calvin in her emotionless disconnection from the human race and her base rationality. Liu Cixin also shares the problem-centric narrative of an Asimovian story; Three-Body Problem is focused very heavily on the solution to a mathematical problem and on the proper response to extraterrestrial communication.

This should make the book feel dated but somehow, through more interesting characterisation than Asimov especially ever managed, Liu Cixin keeps Three-Body Problem feeling like modern-day Golden Age SF; Wang Miao especially is a rounded character, driven by the rational problem and the desire for a solution to it but also with human feelings – panic, amusement, fear, shock, and so on. He grounds the novel in a way Ye Wenjie never could; that is, he grounds the novel with a character with whom the reader can easily empathise, rather one who seems almost totally closed off from human connection. It’s an interesting contrast to see, especially as Liu Cixin then subverts that at the close of the novel by revealing another side of Ye Wenjie, a more sentimental side, that The Three-Body Problem has largely concealed. That isn’t to say charicature doesn’t enter into The Three-Body Problem; the rogue, disrespectful police officer appears to be a cultural universal, given the character of Da Shi, who would fit right in with the protagonists of Dirty Harry, Luther and Life On Mars.

As far as plot goes, this is perhaps the strongest and also the weakest area of The Three-Body Problem. In some ways, Wang Miao’s simultaneous investigation of the Frontiers of Science, implicated in a series of suicides by scientists, and his playing of the game Three Body, are rather obviously linked and formulaic, with elements of surprise managing to shift things up but being comparatively minor, and things that seem to be intended to be reveals or twists failing to surprise. The nonlinearity of the plot fails to actually keep surprises back, although it does avoid giving too much away, but still, it seems a rather straightforward novel. On the other hand, Liu Cixin’s playing with narrative, with chronology, with stories within stories and the importance of stories all make the plot more interesting, and his approach to linking the different subplots and elements in The Three-Body Problem works really very well.

The Three-Body Problem, then, feels like a combination of the best bits of the Golden Age combined with modern sensibilities; it’s a tremendous work on the part of Liu Cixin, and an amazing achievement of Ken Liu’s translation to have captured so well the *feel* of the novel (or at least, to have seemed to have done so!)

DoI: Review based on an ARC requested from the publisher, Tor Books. The Three-Body Problem is released in North America on November 11th.


  1. Paul Weimer says:

    In light of the recent conversation Ken had on the Coode Street Podcast regarding the book…I am more interested in ever in reading it

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