The Three-Body Problem - Liu Cixin, Ken Liu

So, apparently there's a massive market for science fiction in China and The Three-Body Problem, which is the first book of a trilogy, is one of that country's best-sellers - now it's in translation and has been nominated for this year's Best Novel at the Hugo Awards, which is how I came to have a copy of it.

 

First off, I should probably say that The Three-Body Problem is real old-school science fiction, with an emphasis on the science part. I'm not a scientist by training so at times the parts where the relevant science (and it is extremely relevant to the overall plot) were being explained meant that partway through the book seemed to really drag. There's a delicate balance between giving the reader enough information to go along with things and info-dumping, and the more abstruse the information concerned, the more difficult it is to manage.

 

Our story starts in China's Cultural Revolution, where Ye Wenjie sees her father (also a scientist) murdered and is sent to work in a radio telemetry station in the middle of nowhere, told that she will spend the rest of her life there. Subsequently, she undertakes an experiment to send messages into the universe and eventually receives a message back, warning her not to respond.

 

Years later, we meet Ye Wenjie again when scientists begin to commit suicide in significant numbers and a fellow scientist (Wang Miao) is asked to help the police investigate whether something sinister is going on. There seems to be a link between what is going on and a shadowy organisation called Frontiers of Science, as well as a virtual computer game called Three-Body, with which Wang soon becomes obsessed.

 

As I said at the beginning, this is old-school science fiction, asking all sorts of questions about what humanity would do if extra-terrestrial life made contact. Would we assume that this contact would be benign? Try to bargain our way into a better outcome for ourselves and those we love? Or think that we've done such a bad job with the planet that we deserve to get wiped out?

 

The Three-Body Problem is certainly thought-provoking and Ye is the most interesting character we meet, other than Wang's foul-mouthed police liaison - we can understand why she makes the decision she does, even if ultimately she doesn't seem to really grasp the implications of it until far too late. The trilogy continues in The Dark Forest and that's apparently felt by many to be a more accessible book, as humanity tries to pull together in order to oppose the (slowly) impending arrival of unwanted visitors.

 

I gave this book 3 because of the clunky/heavy part midway through, which almost made me give up. I can see why some people loved it, but I wasn't one of them - it may well still end up winning this year's Hugo but I don't think it's better than my vote (The Goblin Emperor, in case anyone is interested!). I prefer my science fiction a bit more people-oriented, to be perfectly honest, and the characterisation of many folks in this novel left something to be desired, even as the background of the Cultural Revolution and modern-day China added to its interest.