Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem
Cixin Liu (author), Ken Liu (translator)
Science fiction

[UPDATE: The Three-Body Problem is a Hugo Award winner. Its sequel, The Dark Forest, is next on my reading queue.]

This is a classic big-idea novel. (In fact, I first read about it in John Scalzi's "Big Idea" feature.) It's an outstanding piece of work—it's a Nebula award nominee—but it won't be to everyone's taste. If your idea of science fiction includes a lot of action and not too much talk, this isn't the book for you. It's not a difficult read, particularly, but it's meant to be thought-provoking rather than simply escapist.


Do not read the cover blurb before reading this book. Do not read the Amazon capsule description before reading this book. They contain significant and totally unnecessary spoilers. 

One of the ways it's especially interesting to an American reader is its depiction of an alien society, namely China during the Cultural Revolution. Most American SF is profoundly American-centric, even today; characters from non-Western cultures are there, but they're seldom given a distinctive voice or viewpoint. In The Three-Body Problem, almost everybody is Chinese, and it's us who are peripheral. 

In furtherance of this, translator Ken Liu choose to preserve the original's tone and pacing:
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture's patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another languages rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people's gestures and movements.
I liked the effect very much, but if you're expecting it to read like Volume 47 of some typical American author's mediocre series, you're going to find it slow, stilted, and confusing.

As to the Big Idea itself, it's not without precedent in science fiction—what is, nowadays?—but it's well-handled, well-presented, and interestingly worked out. The Three-Body Problem isn't hard SF in the sense of Larry Niven or Hal Clement, but it's certainly hard-ish, and it introduces some really intriguing riffs off of current cutting-edge physics. It reminds me a bit of Greg Egan, a bit of Arthur C. Clarke, and a bit of David Brin. If you like those authors, and you don't find the idea of the tone-sensitive translation off-putting, definitely give this one a whirl.


  1. I have been holding off on this book mostly because I have read some Chinese science fiction and found the concepts not new. Of course this was back in the 80's and 90's. A lot had happened since then, and the country has changed so much. I'm glad to hear that you can recommend it. If you hadn't then I would probably not have given it a chance.

    I have also done some translating, as you may know, but not fiction. I've had the same debate that the translator mentioned. I don't really agree. I find the most interesting translations are the ones that capture the culture while still making for good prose.

    1. I think you'd like it. The concept is well-enough handled, with enough new elements, to seem fresh to me.

      I went back and forth on the prose before finally deciding that I liked it. I'd be curious to see your reaction.

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