Airplane reading #3: The Three-Body Problem

The last of the books I read on our trip was The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated from Chinese by Ken Liu (after which it won a Hugo). I enjoyed the novel for both the science-fiction plot and the view into Chinese culture and history, and the translator did an excellent job of not just translating words but making the context accessible to western readers while still feeling Chinese. This kind of translation task is as much art as science.

The story takes place over several decades (and the novel jumps around some), starting during the Cultural Revolution. One of our point-of-view characters, Ye Wenjie, sees her physics-professor father murdered by the Red Guards and is sent to the countryside (where she is branded as subversive), but her own physics research was ground-breaking and eventually attracts the attention of a military research team. She needs protection and they need her brain, so off she goes. While working for them on the search for extra-terrestrial life she eventually finds something.

Another point-of-view character, Wang Miao, is a nanotech researcher who starts having disturbing visions. During his investigation he stumbles across a VR game called "Three Body" and begins playing it (rather obsessively). The game is set on an alien world where civilization has risen and fallen many times. This is because their star system is unstable; they have periods of stable time when they can settle, grow food, and live normally, but from time to time they are interrupted by chaotic times that pose grave danger. Each time Wang plays he is dropped into a new iteration of their development and learns a little more about this world.

You know these threads are going to come together, right?

There are other threads; the story is neither simple nor completely linear. But it's not one of those books where you need to keep notes to track what's going on, either. And despite a character list at the beginning that made me think "many of these names are too similar", I didn't have trouble keeping track of who was who because the characters are presented with some depth.

While there are some fantastical elements (including the mechanism by which inhabitants of the other world survive chaotic times), the hard science in this book is, as far as I can tell, real. The translator provides footnotes for both scientific and cultural references, which I found helpful.

I picked up this book when it was the Tor free e-book of the month a few months back. (If you don't know about that, check it out.) There are two sequels, both of which have now been translated to English, which I look forward to reading.

Small disappointment: Wang finds out about the game via a URL he sees on someone else's computer. We're given the URL. But the publishers don't seem to have claimed it and done anything interesting with it. Oh well.