The difficulty in getting English-language readers to pay attention to fiction not written in English is underlined every time the Nobel Prize goes to another author you’ve never heard of, and the problem is no different with SF – which seems to be a good reason to look at some translated books this month. For every Lem or Murakami, there are dozens of writers who never make it onto our radar, no matter how substantial their reputations may be elsewhere. This is one reason to read Ken Liu’s excellent translation of The Three-Body Problem, the first volume of Cixin Liu’s trilogy of SF novels collectively known in China as Three Body (although the official title, apparently, is Remembrance of Earth’s Past). It doesn’t really matter whether Tor is accurate in claiming that this is the first Chinese SF novel translated into English – it doesn’t take much digging to find a translation of a Chan Koonchung novel a couple of years ago, and a translation of Lao She’s Cat Country goes all the way back to 1970 – but it might be reasonable to argue that The Three-Body Problem is the first case of a hard SF novel in the modern sense – informed by genuinely speculative physics and by a shrewd engagement with some of the major tropes of the genre, and not mounted in an overfamiliar dystopian or allegorical frame. Cixin Liu knows his way around Western SF, apparently, but this isn’t quite a Western-style SF novel, and it’s no imitation.
The main reason The Three-Body Problem is noteworthy is that it’s for the most part a compelling piece of work, brilliantly translated by Ken Liu, whose astonishing control of tone lets us experience the novel as a speculative thriller without losing the sense of Chinese language and culture that makes it uniquely different from the familiar rhythms of Western SF. Although Tor is being a bit coy about letting us know that this is the first volume of a trilogy (it’s mentioned nowhere in the promotional letter or on the advance copy), and even though the novel completes a reasonable narrative arc on its own, it seems pretty likely that anyone reading this will be anxiously awaiting the next two volumes, especially given some rather strong clues toward the end that promise to vault the narrative into far more adventurous territory.
The novel begins as a political horror story, set during the more shocking excesses of the Cultural Revolution in 1967. Ye Wenjie, a young astrophysicist, witnesses her father beaten to death by youthful Red Guards, simply for insisting on a standard model of quantum mechanics, which they view as ‘‘reactionary idealism.’’ Though this brutal opening chapter is short, it sets up not only an important aspect of Wenjie’s character for the rest of the novel – including an action she takes which may imperil the world – but also much of the novel’s ideational structure, which returns again and again to the question of science as a reliable model of reality. For US readers, the anti-intellectualism of the Red Guards may come as something of a shock – but it’s not as though we haven’t seen impassioned denials of science for political and ideological reasons here at home. Wenjie herself survives, but is exiled to a remote logging camp, where she is betrayed by a colleague and given a choice between prison and participating in a secret research project located near the camp, which we soon realize has something to do with a SETI effort on the part of the Chinese government.
Decades later, an aging and reclusive Wenjie is sought out by a young nanotech researcher seeking clues to a series of suicides among physicists, the most recent of whom is Wenjie’s daughter Yang Dong, who left behind a cryptic message that ‘‘Physics has never existed, and will never exist.’’ A line like that is catnip for just about any hard SF reader, and The Three-Body Problem delivers on the promise in ways that are at times stunningly inventive and at times contrived. Physics experiments, even under the most controlled conditions, are beginning to yield apparently random results, and the researcher, Wang Miao, begins to wonder if there might be a connection between these events, Wenjie’s earlier activities at that SETI installation, and even an addictive online game called ‘‘Three Body,’’ set in a world that alternates between random periods of chaos and limited times of stability – caused by the three suns that give the novel its title, and that reflect the three-body problem of classical physics and the difficulty in predicting the orbital mechanics of such a system.
Suddenly the novel begins to open up from its violent beginnings and more ruminative middle sections. We learn that those ancient SETI signals had been intercepted by an imperiled alien civilization in just such a three-body system, the Trisolarans, who now see the colonization of Earth as their best chance at survival. (If this sounds like a dreaded spoiler, it’s already there in the book’s jacket copy.) We find ourselves in the middle of an alien invasion narrative, albeit an invasion that may not arrive for centuries, given the distance. This pretty clearly sets up a problem for the second novel in Liu’s trilogy, while a dramatic point-of-view shift late in the novel seems to set us up for a third, which promises to be radically more science fictional than this one. In fact, Liu has been prepping us for this slingshot as far back as the opening chapters, where he says of Wenjie’s betrayal by her colleague that ‘‘historians would all agree that this event in 1969 was a turning point in humankind’s history.’’ That’s the sort of pulpish narrative hook that makes you want to dare the author to deliver, but Cixin Liu does, causing us to not only to wonder whether physics might actually be ‘‘destroyed,’’ but what those Trisolarans are actually up to. If Tor (or someone) doesn’t follow up with the next two volumes in this series, it will be a crime against trilogies (a line I never thought I would write).