Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

The Three-Body Problem
Cixin Liu
Translated by Ken Liu (Chinese)
Originally 2006, I read 2014 translation
415 pages, hard science fiction
Found: Barnes and Noble, West Chester, Ohio, USA

Caught up in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie finds herself working for a secret government project after her father is brutally murdered for being an "intellectual." What should she do when she discovers the first sign of intelligent alien life?

In the present, Wang Miao is a researcher working on nanomaterials who is pulled into a secret government investigation of an international organization called the Frontiers of Science. Strange things begin happening - things that seemingly break the laws of physics. His one major lead is the online virtual reality game called Three Body, which seems to hold some of the answers he is searching for.

The scientific problem and the virtual world

Probably the most unique part of this book is the integration of virtual reality with the main storyline. While Wang Miao initially plays as part of the investigation, he soon becomes fascinated by the game for its own sake: it poses a complicated physics puzzle that appeals to his scientific mind.

Three Body is a world in which the climate is inconsistent: sometimes, during Stable Eras, it supports human (or alien) life; at other times, during Chaotic Eras, it is either too hot and dry or too frozen for life to exist. Stable and Chaotic Eras happen at unpredictable intervals: a Stable Era could last for millennia, or for just a few hours. During Chaotic Eras, the beings on this planet dehydrate - they become dry, inanimate matter that can survive the incredibly inhospitable climate – and then they rehydrate when a Stable Era comes again. The player’s task is to determine the reason for these major climatic shifts and how, if possible, they can be predicted.

Wang Miao is fascinated by this game, and I soon became fascinated as well. I am afraid I did not see the solution before Wang Miao explained it, but I did enjoy reading about (and vicariously playing) this video. Perhaps someone would like to make a real version? (Not that it would be as intriguing, since anyone has read the book would already know the answer.)


Despite the effusive praise that this book has received, I did not like it as much as I expected. There is one major reason for this: the writing seemed very masculine, by which I mean it resembled the attitude of early science fiction writers (such as Isaac Asimov) toward women. And while I can sometimes give Asimov and Bradbury a pass since they wrote in the 1950s, I expect more from a book written in 2006. Unless there's something about the Chinese attitude toward women that I don't know about?

Although one of the major characters, Ye Wenjie, is a woman, she is not depicted as someone who can reason logically – despite her advanced skills in physics and mathematics. When she makes the most important decision of her life, (highlight to reveal spoilers) to ask  aliens to take over the earth,  she does not think through the possible implications of her actions. In fact, she requires someone else (a presumably male interrogator) to point out that her logic is flawed and unscientific. And when this happens she becomes speechless. The most complex and interesting female character in this novel is silenced by her stupidity, which must be demonstrated to her by a man.

The other female characters are either a) not treated as if they are important or b) are removed from the story as soon as possible. Wang Miao’s wife, for example, is a typical housewife and appears in only one scene. She is not even included in the List of Characters. Two more female characters (Yang Dong and Shen Yufei) are killed off; Yang Dong dies before the reader can even meet her. These deaths seem to be for the sole purpose of encouraging Wang Miao in his investigation. Yet again, the women are only there for the benefit of the character development of a man.

Translation and the Hugo

I am glad that translated speculative fiction has become mainstream enough that this novel was both published by the major SFF publisher Tor and also won the Hugo Award. However, the treatment of female characters in this novel left a lot to be desired, and I can only hope that more inclusive writers will also be translated soon.  It would be particularly wonderful if some women writers of speculative fiction were translated as well. (EDIT: Ken Liu has translated a whole collection of short Chinese SF, which will be released by Tor in November 2016. Read about it here.)

Overall, I thought this novel was a decent read if you enjoy Asimov and other examples of old-style Hard Science Fiction. Will I read the rest of this trilogy? I have not yet decided. However, I do hope that the success of this book will lead to more translations of speculative fiction.

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