The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: Science Fiction at Its Forte

These days, science fiction is more popular than ever and it’s easy to find good science fiction. What I’ve noticed is that a lot of the SF we’re reading now utilizes fantastical elements to create a futuristic or science fictional world. The science is brushed over for the more interesting, unusual aspects of the world. AND I THINK THAT’S GREAT. So much of the SF written this way is fantastic. And yes, hard sci fi does exist, but no one has been doing it in quite the same way as the old masters did it, as Wells, Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke did it. A large reason for this is likely that those writers were in some capacity scientists as well as writers, whereas nowadays, many of us are writers first and scientists only as a hobby or interest. I thought the days of beautiful, creative science fiction created by writer-scientists was over. Then I found Cixin Liu and The Three-Body Problem (thanks to translator Ken Liu and publisher Tor Books for this great discovery) and I realized how wrong and myopic I had been.

The Three-Body Problem has only just been translated into English from the original Chinese in the last year. I pulled the trigger and bought this book after seeing Cixin Liu called the “Chinese answer to Arthur C. Clarke.” I had to verify this ludicrous claim. I verified it.

Liu grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution and his reading inspirations were the American SF greats, as he tells in the book’s afterword. Before becoming a writer, he was an engineer. Mixing simple prose (with an eye for the beautiful) and the meticulousness of a career scientist, Liu hasn’t imitated or recreated the old greats, he has become one of them. In fact, the way Ken Liu has portrayed the prose is reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke, as other have stated. Beyond that, the vibrant, original plot is brimming with wonder, science, and philosophy, just like we used to see in the days of Clarke. The novel also presents a solid cast of characters, mostly scientists from different backgrounds. My favorite, though, is the police officer and detective Shi Qiang. Da Shi, as he is also known, is a rough-around-the-edges cop who isn’t afraid to open up the rules in higher dimensions and manipulate them. This is the kind of quirky, aloof, and ultimately lovable character I’ve come to expect from Haruki Murakami’s works, but he fits right in in this world of intrigue, subterfuge, and betrayal.

Ken Liu has done a fantastic job with this translation, sparingly adding footnotes for a number of cultural references that most English readers wouldn’t have otherwise understood and offering small additional explanations within the prose for smaller integral details. I’m sad he isn’t translating the second novel in the trilogy, but I’ll reserve any judgement until the book is actually released.

No SF bookshelf is complete without a copy of The Three-Body Problem. Who am I to proclaim that? Nobody, actually, but trust me. It’s the truth.

Has anyone read this novel yet? If so, leave me a comment about your opinion of the future of Chinese science fiction in English-speaking readerships. Between this and Clarkesworld’s recent translations, I think we’re about to see an influx of great literature.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: Science Fiction at Its Forte