Not every book I read comes easily to me. I don’t mean that it was hard to get a copy of this book, it wasn’t, but I mean that in order to read it, I really had to work at it. Sometimes when you have to work at a book, it’s not necessarily a good one. But, of course, this isn’t always the case and it certainly isn’t the case with the first book in Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (according to Wikipedia and some googling I’ve done, it’s usually referred to as the Three Body trilogy).
Three-Body Problem was translated from Chinese by Ken Liu (an excellent author in his own right). It’s a science fiction novel about aliens, but you don’t really meet the aliens until you get closer to the end of the novel. It’s really the story of two character from two different time periods in China. The beginning of the novel is set during the Cultural Revolution and gives us our first main character, Ye Wenjie. She watches the horrors that befall her father and his fate and black class status follows her throughout her young life. But, because this is a novel, after all, Ye’s scientific background ends up balancing out her father’s black marks on their past. She ends up entangled and then deeply entrenched in looking for alien life.
Our second thread follows that of Wang Miao and is set 40 years in the future (basically, present day China). Wang, like Ye, is a scientist, though they study different sciences. Wang is contacted by a strange group of people and ends up befriending Ye, though he doesn’t know how their stories truly intersect until later. Wang must infiltrate an organization that is bent on world destruction and when he does, what he discovers blows his mind (but that would be spoiling things for me to tell you, so I won’t).
The novel is full of Chinese history (Liu helpfully includes footnotes of his own, in addition to Cixin’s, to make sure Western authors understand what they’re reading and the historical context of the novel), science and computer games — among other things. You do not need to understand physics or Chinese history to enjoy this novel.
We follow Ye and Wang as their lives are intertwined, bringing us to the climax and conclusion of the novel. We discover what really happened to Ye once she started working on a mountain (what saved her from her black status) and we participate (though not directly) with Wang as he explores a computer game that proves to be very important to the story. And, toward the end, we also get to go inside the heads of the aliens.
Cixin Liu’s writing is excellent and I trust Ken Liu’s translation. I didn’t feel like I was reading a translated work. And now I want to return to something I mentioned at the start of this review — this novel was a lot of work to read. Not because it was hard, but because Cixin Liu packed it full. It’s a dense, enthralling read, but it also took me a long time to read it. In many ways, it reminds me of many of Kim Stanely Robinson’s works. Hard reads, but worth the effort — which is exactly how I feel about Three-Body Problem.
If you like science in your science fiction, plus a murder mystery, and mixing of time/story lines, you should read Three-Body Problem. It sets up it’s sequel very nicely, leaving me wanting more, but ends in such a way that I’m not angry there are three books in the series. Instead, I’m just ready for more of this universe that Cixin Liu’s created.