Friday, September 26, 2014

Microreview [book]: The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu

A Slightly Uneven but Thoroughly Haunting Hypothetical!

Liu Cixin, Ken Liu trans. The Three-Body Problem. Tor Books: 2014.
Buy it here starting in October 2014.

There's been plenty of science fiction written about the terrifying—but monolithic—menace of warlike alien civilizations, as well as some trapped within the fallacy that any technologically superior civilization must also be morally superior. Liu Cixin's Three Body, ably translated by Ken Liu, is one of the few treatments of this question that goes beyond these simplistic ideas of first contact to explore the effect knowledge of the existence of extraterrestrial life might have on humans. In particular (and I can say this without giving much away in terms of spoilers, since the ultimate topic of this book is very clear right from the beginning), is it not conceivable that some, even some very intelligent and passionate people, might welcome an invasion with open arms?

The story moves chronologically, or I should say diachronically, through several eras in twentieth-century Chinese and world history, beginning during China's Cultural Revolution. At first, before the ultimate trajectory of the plot is entirely clear, the sizable portion devoted to Cultural Revolution may seem too long, or even needless and without any obvious connection to what follows, most of which is set in the contemporary twenty-first century. But all I can say with impunity is: the Cultural Revolution could (and should) make anyone despair for the human race. In any case, Three Body is a lot more convincing in this respect, say, Patrick "McDreamy" Dempsey's Faustian deal with the Decepticons in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Dempsey's better as a lover (Grey's Anatomy!) than a 'traitor to the human race', so he failed to convince...

Sometimes confusing is the author's tendency to shift protagonists, for it seems that just as we are growing used to observing the strange events of the world from the perspective of the nanotechnologist Dr. Wang, off we jump into someone else's skin. But on the whole, this sort of perspectival shift is less distracting than the narrative-freezing expository sections in which characters tend to relate, rather impersonally (that is, without any polite fiction of being in dialogue with someone, but instead long, often italicized block passages), key exposition that is vital to advance the plot but (it seems) the author could often find no more clever way to bring to the reader's attention than what amounts to a written confession. I was reminded of Natsume Sōseki's rhetorical device of the letter in Kokoro: the final third of the book is simply the text of a poignant letter, and something similar (though less appealing) is going on here, albeit in bits and pieces rather than in one giant chunk. The most jarring such section was when Ye explains the truth about the Red Coast base to Wang (but with only the barest hint that this information was delivered in conversation with Wang); more successful was the interrogation device used for Ye's later confessions.

Nonetheless, portions of the book glimmer with haunting force (now that's a strange metaphor!). In particular, the sections devoted to Wang's explorations of the video game "Three Body" are quite intriguing, piquing the reader's interest and provoking us to search, with Wang, for the truth behind this bizarre game. In fact, it was only in sections like this, where we see Wang himself actively struggling towards these key discoveries, that characters like Wang began to take on the solidity of 'real' (that is, fully fleshed out) individuals rather than archetypes. Liu (which coincidentally is also the last name of the unrelated translator!) shows considerable talent at presenting characters as rather stereotypical, only to surprise readers with their hidden depths later on in the story.

Despite it ending on something of a cliffhanger, or at least without any 'solution' to the problem facing the main characters, I felt the story to be complete, so I was astonished to find that this volume is actually just the first in a trilogy. But needless to say, Three Body was certainly interesting enough to arouse my interest in what will befall the characters—and humankind itself—in books two and three. I'll be eagerly awaiting the English translation of these volumes, since in fact book one was *almost* good enough to motivate me to try to read it in the original—and between you and me, that's powerful evidence that it was good indeed!

The Math

Objective Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for a speculative fiction approach to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle-like effect 'knowledge of being observed by an Other' might have on humankind; + 1 for the haunting treatment of the video game Three Body and the slow reveal of the mystery at its core

Penalties: -1 for trying for the Natsume Sōseki 'letter from Sensei' angle but not doing it quite as well

Nerd coefficient: 7/10 "An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"

[What does a 7 mean here at NOAF? It means that this book was really, really good!]

This review courtesy of sf/f fan and medium-time NOAF contributor Zhaoyun, Chinese in nothing but name and thus uniquely positioned to evaluate a story that may have elements specific to China (and Chinese) but also strives to ask more universal questions...