I love science fiction, but unfortunately the genre tends to be extremely white and largely based on western canon. As I’ve gotten back into the swing of reading genre fiction, I’ve made a concerted effort to seek out more diverse authors, and authors from outside the US for this exact reason. I want to see a variety of voices from a variety of experiences in ALL fiction I consume – which is thankfully becoming a bit easier with the rise of the own voices movement.
Its with this goal I came across Liu Cixin and the first book of his Remembrance of Earth’s Past, The Three-Body Problem.
I knew the basic premise of the book, I knew the translator, Ken Liu, had a couple books on my to be read list, and I knew the book was one of, if not the most famous Chinese science fiction novel (It won a Hugo Award!). Sounded like an interesting enough read.
But after finishing the novel and having… weeks at this point to sit on it, I really had NO idea what I was getting into.
Usually I would write a synopsis here but I absolutely believe that you’ll want to go into this book as blind as possible. Since I knew a lot of the basic premise, as wild as this book gets I knew at the end where we may end up. I think if your just hopping into this, just go into it knowing the bare basics. All you really need to know is that it takes place in China during both the cultural revolution and modern day, and involves aliens and some hi-fi concepts. If that doesn’t interest you, I don’t know if this will be the book for you anyways. We’ll cover more of that down below.
To start off, this book will NOT be for everyone. It is about as Hard Sci-fi as Hard Sci-fi gets – I’d like to think I’m pretty scientifically minded but some of these concepts just flew over my head. I’ll admit I’m more of a space opera gal myself, but the concepts weren’t a turn off – more of just a hurdle.
While The Three Body Problem starts of incredibly strong with a good chunk taking place in the past, I found for the first part of book, the times we jumped into the future felt clunky and aimless at times. The story construction left a little bit to be desired in focus. (This I’m not sure if this is due to the differences in western and chinese narrative telling.) It was really difficult to figure out how much of what went on it that portion of the book really mattered in the grand scheme of overall story and message, and a couple plot threads seemed to just… hang instead of resolve in anyway. It can also read as dry at times – I would prefer a little bit more , but I do not think that’s the fault of the translator reading some of the author’s profiles.
A lot of the characters we follow honestly are not super interesting. Which granted, I think is a minor detriment to this novel instead of the huge flaw it would be in others. They fill their role of discussing and figuring out the central themes of the novel and for the most part nothing more. It’s portions in the past are by far the best parts of this book for this part – they contain the most compelling characters and the best execution of the central themes and ideas. I’d go so far as to argue the main character from the past, who appears in the future portions as well, is by far one of the biggest reasons this book succeeds the way it does.
Even when the narrative and characters struggles, the concepts and ideas in The Three Body Problem really shine through. I am still thinking about what this book as to say about humanity, about aliens, and about our future WEEKS after completing it. The Three Body problem does not have a lot of answers for the questions they ask, most likely because they are in its sequels. Instead, these questions are allowed to hang heavily in the air for its readers to slowly digest. This book is a philosopher turning familiar questions on its head, something I really can’t say I’ve experience from a book in a long long while.
I think , most of all, this book is bleak, it is terrifying, and it is downright depressing, but it is never hopeless. And that is something worthwhile.
I also have to make a quick aside about the translator, Ken Liu. While I’m a bit more familiar with Chinese History and cultural reference, I appreciated the brief explanations where they were brought up. And while I will probably NEVER be fluent enough in Chinese to ever attempt to read the original text, from further reading, it seems like he’s captured the essence and meaning of the novel very well. I doubt the problems I have with the narrative and the characters are translation only constructs.
Rating – 4/5
I pulled an Austin Walker with Nier Automata on myself with this one. I have plenty of problems with this book, but the ideas really carry this book through to become something much greater. I think I’ll need a bit of time to recover from the read before I dive into its sequels, but dive into them I will.
- What Happens If China Makes First Contact? from The Atlantic
- This article contains spoilers, so I would proceed with caution, but I think it helps contextualize The Remembrance of Earth’s Past Series popularity in China, and into the politics that make up the foundations of this novel to begin with.
- One of two great profiles on the author himself. The way he’s described and how others describe him is good reflection on why the novel works.
- China’s Arthur C. Clarke from The New Yorker
- Another great author profile. Though I can’t say I care for the title of it.
- Q&A With Ken Liu, Translator Of “The Three-Body Problem” from USC US-China Institute
- A good interview with the translator! Brought some good insight into his translation process and his own works as an author.
- Goodreads page
- If you really do want to take a gander at the synopsis of the book. Percy Jackson Author Rick Riordan has a review here that I find myself agreeing with a lot of.