A Perfect Chinese Puzzle Ball of a Novel – A Review of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, trans. Ken Liu

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Most of the time, when I pick up a book I know, more or less, what to expect from it. That’s the beauty of genre fiction: if one reads in a genre long enough, one becomes familiar with its conventions and tropes and can anticipate where a particular novel will go, or what it will do given the material and premise at hand. In some genres (like in romance), I find the expected comforting, instead taking pleasure in things like world building and characterisation to make a novel different from all the others in the genre. For science fiction and fantasy, however, I cherish the unexpected, enjoying works that take the familiar and then twist it into something else completely, or that use the familiar to challenge established beliefs and concepts in the everyday world.

Of course, if there is something completely new and fresh, then that’s fantastic as well, though such things tend to be hard to come by. But when I do find them, they tend to be from writers who might not be considered part of the mainstream Western sc-fi/fantasy scene: not just writers who are part of a diaspora, but also writers who write in a language other than English. Unfortunately, those writers who don’t write in English are hard to come by, since the sci-fi/fantasy scene doesn’t exactly have a well-established translation system for works from other languages into English (though there is one for works in English being translated into other languages). This means that many readers aren’t very familiar with what sci-fi/fantasy looks like from the non-Western perspective—and this is truly sad, because such writers could, and often do, provide a different way of looking at the tropes and conventions that many genre readers have come to know, or perhaps create new ones entirely.

However, it became clear that change was in the air when, in 2013, Tor announced that they were publishing a translation of Chinese novelist Cixin Liu’s sci-fi trilogy, titled The Three Body Trilogy, and that the first book, The Three-Body Problem, would be released in November 2014. Liu’s trilogy was wildly popular and highly acclaimed in China, which likely make it the obvious choice for Tor to bring over into the English-reading market.

Since its release, it’s become clear that Tor made the right decision: The Three-Body Problem is an incredible novel, and will hopefully pave the way for more translations of other genre works from non-English writers, not just by Tor, but by other publishers, as well.

The Three-Body Problem begins during the Cultural Revolution, with a young woman, no more than a teenager, being shot down while waving a flag on top of a building. It continues to spiral down from there, shifting from the young woman—her fate held up as an almost archetypal example of the fate that befell so many young people during that especially tumultuous period in China’s history—to the exercise field of Tsinghua University, where a man named Ye Zhetai, one of China’s foremost physicists, is killed in front of his daughter, Ye Wenjie, during a struggle session. This moment is the defining moment for Ye Wenjie, and her future actions—and indeed, the fate of all humanity—are rooted in the moment when Ye Zhetai is murdered by Red Guards.

The first thing the reader needs to understand about The Three-Body Problem is that, yes, it is indeed science fiction, but it follows some conventions that aren’t quite typical to Western literature of any sort. Specifically, Liu is following some of the stylistic conventions of Chinese literature. Now, I won’t say that I have a very vast experience of Chinese literature, but what I have read (specifically the novels Water Margin/Outlaws of the Marsh, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, as well as Lu Xun’s short stories) does point to Liu filtering his science fiction through a very specifically Chinese literary perspective.

Take, for example, the constant digressions from the main storyline, whether it is to explore some tidbit of history; to explain some scientific fact; or to tackle a philosophical point, overtly or otherwise. Quite a few readers have complained that the novel reads slow, and this is true: the novel is rather slow to start, and does slow down from time to time at other points throughout the novel. But those digressions are, in fact, essential to understanding the world in which the novel is set, as well as offering vital clues regarding character motivations and ideologies. One could, perhaps, get away with skimming some parts, but there is always the chance that one might miss something important, and pay for that lack of understanding further down the line. I know I certainly did, when I found myself having to flip back several pages (sometimes several chapters, in some cases) because I found myself scratching my head at something late in the novel that was actually explained in a previous chapter.

Another aspect of this novel that some readers have complained about is the constant hopping back and forth between past and present, and the rather jarring transitions between character perspectives. As with the digressions, these are important, offering an understanding of the characters and/or the situation they are in that would otherwise have to be outright stated, or inferred elsewhere. They offer as three-dimensional an understanding of the events in the novel and of the characters, as best as is possible without actually inhabiting the characters’ minds.

Another interesting thing about this novel is that, while it is indeed sci-fi, it’s very difficult to peg down just what kind of sci-fi it is, at least at first. For the greater part of the novel I thought it was going to be a techno-thriller of some kind: something set during the Cold War, a la John le Carré’s novels, but set in China with more computer programming. But then certain events happened that made it quite clear that this was not going to be just a techno-thriller. It’s rather difficult to talk about precisely what happens without giving the game away entirely, and so much of this novel relies on the reader not being able to anticipate anything to make it such an enjoyable read. Suffice to say that this novel goes places the reader expects, to a degree, especially if they are fans of sci-fi, but how they get there, and what happens when they do, are completely unexpected.

If there is any one thing that I can use to describe the plot without giving too much away, it is that it’s like a Chinese puzzle ball: an intricately carved toy consisting of three to seven balls nestled within each other, and containing a small trinket—a precious stone, usually—in its heart. The only way to reach the jewel within is to get all the balls to align perfectly, which, depending on the complexity of the ball, can be as tricky, or trickier than, trying to solve a Rubik’s cube. It is also the perfect image to describe the plot of this novel: intricate, layered, and requiring mountains of patience and a delicate (mental) touch to figure out what’s going on. And since a great deal of the pleasure of solving a puzzle is letting the solver figure out the solution on their own, I shall not speak overmuch of the plot of this novel beyond what I have already mentioned.

The characters, fortunately, are somewhat easier to talk about without giving too much away. Ye Wenjie is easy to get attached to, not only because she is the first character the reader encounters and because of that rather traumatic start to her story, but because she’s very well-written, and rather well-developed, considering the things she does and why she does them. At any rate, one cannot accuse her of being uninteresting, because she very much is. I wouldn’t say that she’s quite perfectly developed, but then again, this is just the first book of a trilogy, and there is certainly going to be more to come in the next two books. Another interesting character is Shi Qiang. He acts primarily as a foil for the other main character (Wang Miao), but I liked him because of the role he comes to play in the story. He’s not easy to like, at least not at first, but he does grow on one. I’m also very much looking forward to finding out how he develops and what happens to him further down the line in the next two books.

I must also say that I’m very happy with Ken Liu’s translation. While I cannot say with absolute certainty if he did a good job with his translation, I will say that the way the novel reads echoes the translations done of the Chinese novels I mentioned earlier—translations which were recommended to me by my professors in grad school, and whose word I trust regarding such matters. The very fact that the novel does not read like a Western novel is a clear indicator that Ken Liu has taken great care to echo the spirit of Cixin Liu’s original text—something which any proper translator must do, as a way of respecting, not just the author of the original text, but also the reader of the translated work, by showing faith in their ability to enjoy the text as is (or as close to “as is” as a translator can get). I hope that Joel Martinsen, who will be translating the second book in the trilogy, titled The Dark Forest, puts out a translation that works seamlessly with Ken Liu’s.

Overall, The Three-Body Problem is not what most readers would expect—and that’s the beauty of it. It takes some getting used to, to be sure, but that’s only because most sci-fi readers will likely be unaccustomed to the conventions of Chinese literature that Liu is applying to his work. Once one becomes accustomed to the non-Western conventions of the novel (and it does to take very long), the reader can appreciate the intricacy of the story, and the direction Liu appears to be taking the story. It’s early days yet to know where this story is going, given that this is the first book of a trilogy, but whatever the case may be, I am sure that it’s going to be fun, and deadly, and heartbreaking, and all things a good story, regardless of genre, needs to be.


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