The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu (Books 2015, 9)

I feel that we should be rendering the author’s name in the Chinese way, with the family name first: Liu Cixin. That’s how he signs himself in the “Author’s Postscript”, and that’s how the translator renders all the characters’ names. But the above is how the publishers have done it, so we’ll stick with that for now.

As a work in translation, The Three-Body Problem fits well within the parameters of The Tempest Challenge, which, as I told you, I’m taking this year. It’s also this year’s Hugo winner, so I was keen to read it for that reason.

Right at the start I felt a mild sense of annoyance, because it was only then that I realised it is part of an incomplete trilogy.1 I’m not keen on starting unfinished serieses (it is so a word).

I finished it last night with a sense of surprise. According to my Kindle I was only at 85%; more importantly it didn’t exactly feel like the end, though to be fair I wasn’t quite sure where it could go from that point. I knew there were notes from the author and the translator, but they surely couldn’t be that long?

They couldn’t. But it turns out that the digital copy contains an extract from the next book in the series. I’m not sure how I feel about this trend in general. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of them. But I do think they’re getting too damn big: this one was fully 10% of the file, according to the Kindle. One tenth of a novel is not in fact that novel, but an extract from the next one? I don’t think that’s a great trend. But to the content. What did I actually think of the work? Umm… mixed. I enjoyed it overall, am glad I read it, and will probably read the sequels. But it has problems that I don’t think are just caused by my cultural expectations. Though they might be: the translator, Ken Liu, in his postscript says:

But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narration techniques. The Chinese litereary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavour of the original.

Which is fair enough, and for “American” it’s safe to read “British”, as well. But perhaps the most important literary technique — or at least, the admonition most often drummed into beginning writers — is “show, don’t tell”. As I have argued myself, it’s not a rule that can or should be set in stone; but there are times when violating it comes across as clumsy at best.

There are many such times in The Three-Body Problem. Long sections of characters’ lives are told to us as a history. Similarly with the sections that take place in the “Three Body” game.

There are some great ideas here; in particular the best use of monomolecular fibres since — was it “Johnny Mnemonic”? One of William Gibson’s shorts, anyway. It’s also worth reading for the historical parts: the terror of living through China’s Cultural Revolution is well evoked. But the aliens are hard to believe in.

And part of the initial setup: scientists are killing themselves because things seem to have gone fundmentally wrong with physics. I found that unconvincing. If as a scientist you find things not behaving as you expect — even seemingly randomly — you don’t give up on science and life; you try to find a new theory to fit the facts.

Lastly, I don’t think we ever found out what’s supposed to happen at the end of the countdown.

But I don’t mean to do a hatchet job. I did enjoy it, and as I say, I’ll probably read the sequels. Would it have won the Hugo in a less puppy-infested year? Maybe. You can never tell.


  1. Incomplete in English, at least; the third part is due to be published next year, so it may well be finished in Chinese. []
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu (Books 2015, 9)

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