Nelly had long spoken of how excited she is to be getting this book, and then to be reading it – even before we decided on an overarching theme for the blog this year, The Three Body Problem was on the list to review. I hasten to say that all of Nelly’s praise for the book was fully deserved. From the very beginning of the novel I sunk into its barely sketched out, but complete world and immersed myself as a “fly on the wall” in the lives of the main characters.
The Writing Style
Liu Cixin’s writing style is brief, explanations of scenery, actions and people are scarce and quickly sketched out, and for that they are much more impactful and evocative. It is a consistent gripe of mine with many novelists how they spill out over pages what could be said in a few words, presumably to create a bigger body of work or even due to lack of mastery over the language. The Three Body Problem is not a small book, but that’s not due to rambling on the author’s part.
Here I would also like to praise the incredible skill of Stefan Rusinov, the translator of the book in Bulgarian, which is the edition we are reviewing. There were many times in the novel where I could see what was happening, as if a film was being played instead of me reading a novel, and I am hardly surprised Netflix have picked up the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, to which the Three Body Problem is the opening title. Rusinov has masterfully preserved all the striking imagery which Liu Cixin evokes from the mind of the reader through a few brief words.
The author himself offers no commentary on the events portrayed in the book – he is distant and removed, almost objective. Judgement is left to the reader, and it is hard not to empathise with the characters, who all felt realistic and well-developed, even if portrayed subjectively through the viewpoint of the main protagonist, Wang Miao, a professor in nanotechnology.
The Before, the After
The beginning part of the book has nothing of the fantastical or unbelievable to it, this realisation made the events portrayed in the starting chapters hit that much harder for me. The story begins during the turbulent period when the communist party comes into power and the initial years it took for it to establish its control fully. Similarly to the events depicted in the book The Stricken, which we reviewed last year, and which dealt with the terror and persecution of those seen as the bourgeois by the communist party as it came into power in Bulgaria, The Three Body Problem begins with the shaming and brutal murder of a physics professor who refuses to surrender his critical thinking, or to accept any twisting of the facts and truths of natural laws. This is witnessed by his daughter, Ye Wenjie, herself a physics graduate and researcher, who becomes one of the main protagonists of the story. I remember thinking as I was about the tragedies which hit her one after the other that we don’t need dystopian works of fiction, when writing about events which have happened in reality can be much more disturbing and thought provoking.
Once I moved onto the next part of the story and the main protagonist shifted to Wang Miao I continued to wonder what happened to Ye Wenjie, and if she had found any solace, forgiveness or a happy ending. Later in the book, she makes a return, as an older woman, now retired, and quickly becomes a pivotal figure in the story once more. The book also ends with her, perhaps regretting some of the choices which have lead an extraterrestrial life form to take keen interest in planet Earth, as she comes to realise that all traits she despises in humanity may be even more prevalent in the aliens now bound for Earth, as opposed to them being the personification of perfected ethics and morality.
The book deals with topics close to my heart, for example the deliberate destruction of natural resources and the habitat we call home for ourselves and other species, the greed and selfishness of mankind, as well as the self hatred some people have for themselves and their own species, known as misanthropy. The author takes the disillusionment and despair of younger generations and gives them an outlet – an alien race, more technologically advanced than us, which may offer our salvation, or our end as a species.
Throughout the book, the author deals with potential solutions to a classical mechanics and physics problem, which has plagued scientists for centuries, with no solution to be found as of yet – the three-body problem, which Wikipedia explains as “the problem of taking the initial positions and velocities (or momenta) of three point masses and solving for their subsequent motion according to Newton’s laws of motion and Newton’s law of universal gravitation”. Sounds quite opaque and hard to imagine from this definition, but I cannot stress enough how approachable Liu Cixin makes this problem in his book. He uses a game, titled the same as the problem, and consequently the book, which explores the attempts of an alien race to figure out a calendar or a system of predicting when the three suns around which their planet is orbiting round will provide stable conditions for their development. Yes, this is the same extraterrestrial life form now travelling to Earth mentioned previously.
The dialogues discussing physics were almost as intriguing to me, and I know just as little of physics as the next regular person, as those which unveiled the main storyline, or those which dealt with the variety of ideologies informing each character’s decisions. I found it hard to put the book down as I was both gripped by the story, but also felt like I was learning and experiencing something new to me. Unlike most books which I’ve read and include an alien race, The Three-Body Problem’s setting is logical, plausible and easily believable.
It is rare I have nothing to criticize a book over, but now is one of those times. If you are looking for something a bit different, where the author makes sense of existing laws of physics, rather than ones they speculate and invent, I would readily recommend The Three Body Problem. The Bulgarian translation is superb, and based on the awards the book has won in the West, I can assume the English translation is on par with the original as well. Nelly has already assured me she will be picking up the other books in the series as soon as they are translated, and that she will happily share them with me. In the meantime, I will busy myself with other titles from our post-apocalyptic list, but I will also look up other works by Liu Cixin and translations by Stefan Rusinov.
Okay, let me preface this review with a small disclaimer: I requested Vel read the Bulgarian translation of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem because I’ve read many people are disappointed in Ken Liu’s translation. In addition, I really like Stefan Rusinov’s translations in general. Our first review on the blog is actually a Chinese book – Ma Jian’s Stick Out Your Tongue – translated by Rusinov.
As you can also presume, I’m already a fan of The Three-Body Problem, and I think the translation played a major part in this. That’s why I wanted to give Vel the opportunity to read the book the way I read it.
So, with this out of the way, what makes Liu Cixin’s masterpiece stand out and how come it won so many prestigious sci-fi awards?
What is the Three-Body Problem?
Natural sciences were never my forte, so I’ve never heard of the three-body problem prior to reading Liu Cixin’s novel. It is, as Wikipedia states, a classical mathematics and physics problem, which poses the question of taking the initial position and velocity of three masses and determining their subsequent motions, while being subject to Newton’s universal laws of gravitation and motion. Simply stated: how can you “predict” the future movements of three bodies of mass, each with its own initial position, gravity and velocity, according to the long-established laws of Newton.
Usually, it takes a lot of graphics for me to understand some abstract concepts because I’m a very visual person. So, if you are anything like me, here is a nice gif for clarity:
On one hand, it sounds like a very simple problem with a simple premise. On the other – many scientists have tackled it with various degrees of success with no single solution being accepted as the solution. And if you think about it in terms of small pebbles, it doesn’t sound very significant. However, if you scale the problem to have the bodies of masses as three suns, which dictate the future of your very existence. Now this is terrifying!
If your head is spinning from all the theory and the idea of the end of humanity as we know it. Don’t worry! Liu Cixin, being a science man himself, masterfully explains even the most complex concepts fairly simply. What you end up with is an interesting mix of equal parts sci-fi, suspense, and physics, which grab you right from the start.
Thoughts of a Sci-Fi Non-Fan and General Criticism
As you may remember from our post on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I’m not an avid sci-fi fan. As a result, it takes a lot for a sci-fi title to make me curious enough to read it. Generally, the book must have an intriguing plot and captivating storytelling.
I first found out about Liu Cixin’s novel when I was searching for books in Chinese to try and maintain my knowledge of the language. (Although, this now seems a long-lost battle.) The premise of the story seemed exciting enough, but I figured my language skills would not be enough to read it in Chinese. So, I moved onto other titles, silently hoping I would one day see its Bulgarian translation. In the meantime, I was following relevant news and reading other people’s reviews.
One of the few criticisms I noticed is that many Western readers, who are not familiar with either Chinese history or its consequences, found the characters dry and one-dimensional. In addition, some expected more interpersonal drama or found the complete lack of loving emotions between spouses or parents and children completely baffling. And I can see how that can be confusing for a lot of people today.
However, you must keep in mind the historical background of the events. The story begins in the midst of the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976), which means it was a time of extraordinary political activism on a massive scale. Several different groups of citizens were labeled as dangerous elements posing a threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As such, they were violently persecuted, thrown in prison, publicly lynched, beaten or murdered in the name of the CCP.
Many Chinese people had become desensitised to the realities surrounding them and those, who had to be re-educated in the Marxist ideology, often had to marry someone in the CCP’s favour. It is no wonder, then, a lot of couples got together in search of survival rather than because love was the driving factor in their relationship. Children were also brought into existence not because of love, but in order to contribute to the state. Thus, the decade was marked with a prevailing fear of being reported as a “anti-party element” to the CCP by your spouse or your child.
The main reason why I can relate to such a gruesome time in Chinese history is because this was a reality for many Bulgarians during the rule of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Very often you would hear of someone being reported and then suddenly deported to a labour re-education camp. Sometimes it was because of a “bad” joke, sometimes it was because one refused to pay their monthly party membership. But almost none of those who disappeared, were reported missing, because everything was a public secret.
That’s why I take some reviews with a grain of salt. One needs to research whether certain things hold true because of other unknown factors, before forming a final opinion.
A Final Word
I did not get much into the particulars of The Three-Body Problem, I’m leaving that to Vel. It’s safe to say that I loved the book and I can’t wait for the translation of the other two installments of the trilogy. I have big expectations as someone mentioned the first book, Remembrance of Earth’s Past, only sets the mood for the real action afterwards.
Despite being originally published 2006, much of the technology and science discussed has been developed only a few years ago. I definitely recommend it to anyone who loves science-based sci-fi and intriguing plots.
Edition Published: 8 May 2020, First Published: May 2006
Language book read in: Bulgarian