The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

There has been a lot of buzz about Cixin Liu’s novel The Three-Body Problem.  It’s one of the first, and most significant, works of Chinese SF to be translated into English, and Ken Liu’s translation has been done with a masterful lightness of touch..

The Three-Body Problem is mind-expanding in all the right ways. One of the things I love about reading fiction in translation is the way that it exposes you not just to more diverse fictional voices, but different ideas and cultural concepts.

The novel has a powerful opening, exploring the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution in China.  Fervent revolutionary zeal turns family members against one another.   Zealous Orwellian professions of adherence to acceptable political beliefs are essential for survival.  But the new politics remains a contested space, with bloody civil wars between rival factions remaining common.

Although Cixin Liu disavows the idea of SF being a commentary on contemporary society in his author’s afterword to the English language tradition, it’s clear how recent Chinese history has shaped the novel.  Ye Wenjie has been brutalised by her experience of the Cultural Revolution and branded as a counter-revolutionary outcast.  Her actions in inviting an alien civilisation to come and conquer Earth are wholly a response to that life.  She sees alien invasion as the only way of dealing with the problems and flaws of Chinese society.  Inevitably, there are divisions within the movement that she founds and the divisions within the Earth Trisolarist Organisation (ETO) reflect the schisms within Cultural Revolution-era China.

The Trisolarist civilisation is introduced to us in the novel through the Three Body online game.  It illustrates a civilisation living on a planet that is part of a trinary star system.  The titular three-body problem is the mathematical problem of being able to reliably predict the interactions of three solar bodies.  The society created is doomed to destruction by the erratic behaviour of its trinary star system.

In the game,. the Trisolarist civilisation is illustrated by reference to Imperial China, and the authoritarian nature of Trisolarist society is clear.  One could very easily read it – and the ETO – as an allegory of the Communist Party establishment in China.  There are also clear parallels here with the long tradition of 1960s American pulp SF about alien invasion and body snatchers, which reflects contemporary Cold War anxiety about Russia.

The Three-Body Problem is the first novel in a trilogy, which makes it difficult to review as a stand-alone piece.  But it sets up an interesting take on alien invasion literature and provides fascinating insights into Chinese culture.  I will certainly be seeking out the sequels.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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