One of the terrible downfalls of fiction is that if a language barrier exists between a reader and the original work, there is often little hope that it will be overcome. Translation is an extra, complex step that fiction will undergo in order to reach a broader audience, but in a lot of cases, it does not happen. When it does, it’s fantastic, as it gives readers the chance to experience worlds imagined by people outside of their own cultures, bringing in a new wave of perspectives and influences.
Such is the case with The Three Body Problem. This Chinese science fiction novel by Liu Cixin has been translated into English by Ken Liu, and it’s a book that American scifi enthusiasts will definitely want to pick up.
The Three Body Problem is not a space opera, and lacks the epic space battles a lot of scifi fans know and love. It’s a different kind of scifi more rooted in reality, but the sense of otherworldliness permeates the entire book. In short, the book is (in my opinion) best described as unnerving. The initial impact of extraterrestrial communication with Earth is restrained to the background for the beginning of the book, but seeps into the central conflict and becomes the focal point. Science is discussed at length throughout the story, but is done through the characters as it impacts their lives. The book can get a little dry at times when this happens, but the narrative is rich enough to support this. Those who aren’t at least a little familiar with particle physics and astrophysics may be left a little confused by certain concepts, though as someone who doesn’t have a degree in either, I think these are explained well enough to be understood. Your mileage may vary, however, so be forewarned that the book will go a bit more in-depth in these areas than others.
The characters of the book are all wonderful, and while some have more depth than others, there are a few powerhouses that move the story forward, and understand far more than they let on. They are complex and intriguing, and easily capture your attention from the start. Ye Wenjie is particularly captivating, as is Shi Qiang (nicknamed Da Shi). These two were easily my favorites.
It’s difficult to comment on the writing style of a translation as it’s impossible to know what is lost or gained unless you can read the book in both the original language and the translated one, but in the case of the English translation, the writing is clear and in many cases, quite beautiful. This holds true throughout the book, but especially when the main narrative character Wang Miao slips into the virtual world of the video game Three Body. A bizarre, intriguing and terrifying game, Three Body creates a haunting backdrop for the rest of the narrative, and just as the character cannot let his interest in it fade, neither can the readers. It’s so easy to be drawn into the virtual world within the novel, almost becoming as swept up and obsessed as the other characters are.
It’s difficult to say much more at this point without spoiling anything, so I’ll leave you by saying that The Three Body Problem is an excellent book. Some may find the pacing a little slow for their tastes, but in my opinion, it is well worth the read.