If you only read one Chinese language Science Fiction book this year, The Three Body Problem will probably be it. If you’ve only read two, the other one was The Dark Forest.
The Three Body Problem is one of several different things which is getting the Sad Puppies movement all up in a wad about life, since it got the 2015 Hugo despite not having been written by a right wing libertarian middle aged American white guy, and as we know, middle aged American white guys are going through a period of suffering and neglect unparalleled in human history since shortly after amphibious life forms crawled out of the primordial ooze.
Like many people, the first thing I had to get my head round was that China had SF at all. It’s only a vibrant thousands-years-old culture of a billion people, so the thought that it might have indigenous fiction in its own language had naturally never crossed my mind. One of the minor victories of capitalism was persuading me that Mao’s cultural revolution had outlawed popular culture. The alternative notion that capitalism might have just decided to ignore any evidence that Chinese people were people ...
OK, I missed something. I don’t think I was the only person. The Three Body Problem was published in Chinese in 2008, and wasn’t published in an English language translation till last year. The Dark Forest was the sequel, which came out in Chinese pretty soon after The Three Body Problem and was translated by a different translator soon after Three Body Problem.
I never know how much has been lost in translation, even when the translation is littered with footnotes which hint at the subtext which a foreign reader will miss in direct historical allusions. The only novel I’ve ever read in translation which struck me as a beautiful piece of writing was Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow which is wonderful reading even in translation into English. The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest are not translations which anyone will read for the pleasure of the language, and I found it impossible to know whether they were just good old fashioned terrible writing about interesting ideas, or whether the flat, didactic style was an artifact of a larger cultural tradition which only a Chinese reader would understand as the art it was intended to be. Much as with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I found the most interesting thing about the book was not the plot, but the insight into a society I don’t know much about. These are books in which the USA is an afterthought and Europe barely a footnote. The perspectives are unfamiliar and thought-provoking; for me at least, more so than the SF elements.
The Three Body Problem is a more readable book; that’s partly because I suspect that the translator was more on the wavelength of the original writer and partly because it’s more bedded into the present day, so that all I needed to struggle to understand was a different angle on the world that I think I already know. The SF ideas fall neatly into two groups; one great big one, and a bunch of well-cool stuff around the edges. The great big idea is that life on other planets sucks; the Three Body Problem is a matter of life and death for the population of Alpha Centauri. The chaotic interaction of three suns has destroyed all but one of the planets in the system and made life on the remaining planet a living hell of constantly changing weather. The little ideas around the edges are all about how Earth finds Trisolaris, and what Trisolaris does in response. Invade. But since this is hard SF, they invade within known physics, which means that the first book ends on the cliffhanger than the invasion fleet is on the way, and it’s going to take four hundred years to get to Earth.
The second book struggles to deal with the narrative problem of an invasion which takes longer than the history of modern thought. Sneaky Trisolaran tactics have crippled Earthly scientific progress, so Cixin Liu isn’t stuck with trying to imagine 400 years of the kind of technical progress you get in a war economy; he’s stuck instead with trying to frame a narrative with human characters who simply can’t outlive the problem the book’s built around. The big idea here is resolution of the Fermi Paradox, which is a big bold notion in its own right; it’s so big, in fact, that warping the narrative to bring a narratively surprising pay-off kind of ruins everything else. There’s a wonderful ballsup of Earth’s defensive fleet and their efforts to preserve humanity which feels like a sketch of the midgame of Seveneves, written long before Stephenson got to it (much as there’s a bit of nano materials science in the first book which feels like it fell of Stephenson’s own desk). As Stephenson demonstrated, you could get a whole book out of an idea like that, and here it’s a sideshow, part of the mounting despair and defeatism which underpins the final climax.
Which itself is kind of anti-climactic. Not least because for some reason, the jacket copy for the English translation gives away the whole conceit of the book.
The Fermi Paradox is that there are so many stars in the universe that no matter what the odds are against interstellar travel, we should have had visitors by now; Cixin Liu’s resolution of this paradox is simple and horrifying, a Malthusian analysis which argues that the only safe move for any civilisation which spots another one is to destroy it without further ado. The whole book is leading up to that reveal, and the way in which Earth can use it to defend against certain defeat; but it’s right there on the back cover.
All that said, Cixin Liu is chucking ideas round like they aren’t even a thing. There may not be much re-read value to the translations (or perhaps even to the Chinese originals), but they’re worth one read, and the third book in the sequence comes out some time this year.