The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

Three Body

 

OK, so I am not sure where I cam across this book, but it was near the top of my list in the back of my diary, so when I was in Waterstones, I picked it up. I am not sure what I was expecting, or what I anticipated, but what I did know was, it was a translated book, which, most of time, means it is excellent. I had taken part in a survey about translated science fiction books a few weeks ago, and it came up. Plus, it won a Hugo Award, so I was pretty sure I was going to like it. And for the most part, I did. So, let’s get into it.

The blurb states:

“1967: Ye Wenjie witnesses Red Guards beat her father to death during China’s Cultural Revolution. This singular event will shape not only the rest of her life but also the future of mankind.

Four decades later, Beijing police ask nanotech engineer Wang Miao to infiltrate a secretive cabal of scientists after a spate of inexplicable suicides. Wang’s investigation will lead him to a mysterious online game and immerse him in a virtual world ruled by the intractable and unpredictable interaction of its three suns.

This is the Three-Body Problem and it is the key to everything: the key to the scientists deaths, the key to a conspiracy that spans light-years and the key to the extinction-level threat humanity now faces.”

That is a really fair summary of the book, and I don’t want to go into too much more detail as it would ruin a pretty massive plot twist moment, which was a bit mental, but also entirely in keeping with the novel. Apparently, I did not read the blurb before purchasing the book though, so the ‘Three-Body Problem’, as a physics problem, was only introduced to me within this novel, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The book opens with a list of names, and as you know from previous blog entries, this immediately panics me. Especially as the names are Chinese names, and therefore, not as familiar to me as Western names. This is entirely a fault on my part, but as I can have difficulties following names anyway, this was concerning. However, in order to mitigate this risk (that is total work chat, need to stop talking like an auditor), I ensured that I read the names closely, and ensured that as I came across them in the text, I memorised their name, and the actions they were attached to. Which I know sounds obvious, but I also knew that if I did not make a conscious effort to do this, I would come across a name later and be like ‘Who? What did they do?”, before realising I had a read a whole chapter about them and failed to associate the actions to their name and could only recognise them in a particular context. This approach totally worked, and will be a system I will use in all books in future, as it isn’t uncommon for me to be describing a book to someone at a later date, and be entirely unable to recall the characters names, but to be able to talk quite happily about what they did, their character traits, and what their plot points were and so on. tl;dr, the names were not an issue.

It also interweaves the history of the Cultural Revolution in China throughout the narrative, which was fascinating, if grim, and made me realise just how little I knew about this. I have picked up bits and pieces from movies I have watched, other books I have read and various Wikipedia trawls in my call centre days, but my knowledge is really patchy and I am hoping to find the time to read a book on this in future. One of my favourite aspects of this book was that you learn pieces of Chinese history throughout, not just the Cultural Revolution, but older history also, key figures and characters that are part of Chinese shared culture.

The translator did a wonderful job of explaining small snippets that would otherwise have gone unnoticed by myself, or I would have skimmed over thinking that my not understanding or knowing something was down to my own ignorance. The translator’s note at the end was also enlightening, as he explained what the difficulties were in translating the text, and what he had tried to achieve in his translation, but his efforts in bringing forward the context for various parts of the book really added to the novel for me.

Another focus of the book, which I am sure was obvious to everyone else upon immediately picking it up is Physics. I am terrible at Physics, and I think I have mentioned this before. For example, in High School, in my Second year I think, we did a pretty basic Physics test. Now, I won’t reveal my score, just know it was below 50%, and I probably could have scored higher, but I made next to no effort in this class. That is the limit of my Physics knowledge, and had I known the importance of this to the book I probably would not have picked it up. However, most of the text around this was pitched at exactly the right level for me, it was explained clearly and simply and was easily followed. Despite that, there were parts I did not understand, and I suspect that there was much that I completely missed or did not realise I had misunderstood, but the fact that I, with almost complete ignorance in this area still managed to read and enjoy the book, is a testament to the author (and translator’s) abilities to appeal to the mass market.

Physics and Philosophy are also merged together, and while I don’t have a clue about Physics, from a philosophical standpoint the ideas expressed in the book are fascinating. The way the author has merged these ideas together is beautiful and invited me to consider these ideas and questions myself. Especially questions around the nature of the universe, the laws that govern it, and the  impermanent nature of Earth itself. I had tried to read the Stephen Hawking book, ‘A Brief History of Time’, and while it was fascinating, it escalated the physics and ideas a bit too much for when I read it, but I may give it a go again, as inspired by this.

Having said that, towards the latter half of the novel, I found the science became more complex and I found myself skimming certain parts that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to follow, but were integral to the plot itself. This allowed me to get a grasp of what was being discussed, without me being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the information. The novel is also a bit mental.

Some of the imagery described was just so fantastical, I wondered how the author had come up with it. It really is a work of great imagination, and the way all the ideas flow through it was just incredible. Still, it wasn’t really my kind of book, and then I discovered that it is part of a trilogy. And I am fed up of reading trilogies. Can someone please just write an excellent standalone novel? There are so many books I want to read, and I have read so many book series, and I am getting a bit frustrated at the dedication to reading these take. Also, quite often I find with trilogies, is that the first book is the best one, and anything after that is a bit lacklustre. I am not saying it is true in all cases – indeed, some of my favourite books are parts of series, but I was a bit disheartened when I found out this book was part of it.

It is an enjoyable book, and certain readers will adore it, and I would recommend reading it, but I will not be reading the additional books in the series. Well. I say that. I am planning on having a look at reviews and seeing what they say, so I may come back to it in the future. Or, at the very least, skim over the plot on Wikipedia. I also had a lot of fun lying in the bath pronouncing the Chinese words probably horrible inaccurately. Still, what else is there to do while lying in a glitter filled, Lush bath-bomb paradise? This book is definitely a 4 out 5, and for those science fiction, Physics knowing readers, you will love it.

That is it for this week, and next week we have ‘Speak’, by Louisa Hall. I am finding it really hard to put down.

Amy

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