Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem is a highly imaginative modern science fiction story that spans multiple generations (or civilizations, once you start to get into it). The story starts rather graphically during the Cultural Revolution, the violent youth revolutionary movement that swept through China during the waning years of Mao Zedong. There, the callous actions of a group of overzealous youths of the Red Guard planted a seed in the heart of Ye Wenjie that would eventually grow into a lifelong resentment of the barbaric nature of humanity.
After witnessing the death of his scientist father and the betrayal of her mother, she was casted away as a counter-revolutionist who did not befit the title of “comrade”. Through a series of events, she is eventually recruited into a top-secret military project called Red Coast where she discovers that it is actually a broadcasting and listening post for China’s version of SETI.
Fast forward to present day, Wang Miao, a nanotechnology experimental professor is recruited by a mysterious multi-government body to infiltrate a nefarious group that is believed to be behind the deaths of prominent theoretical scientists around the world. Shortly after the meeting, Wang Miao begins to experience events that could only classified as “miracles”- that is, physical manifestations that break the commonly held laws of reality. Soon, he is entrapped into an virtual reality online game called “Three Body Problem”.
Through the game, he is transported into a virtual world where the laws of physics doesn’t seem to apply. The game world puts players in a world where the sun doesn’t rise or set on a predictable rhythm and seemingly unchangeable constant like stars move around haphazardly. The objective of the game, which spans generations and civilizations is not clear at first and Wang Miao, like everyone else, has to use his wit and intelligence just to survive. What he doesn’t realize then is that this virtual world will collide with his real world and Ye Wenjie’s past in an exciting and highly imaginative manner that will leave readers enthralled once the story progresses.
On a narrative front, Three Body Problem brilliantly translated from Mandarin by Ken Liu, another prolific science fiction writer. One must be prepared for the difference between eastern narrative cadence and western prose style. Ken Liu’s approach is not to rewrite the story in a format that western readers are accustomed to but to leave a lot of the style in place. Dialogues tend to be abstract and staccato like- highlighting a key feature of the Chinese language in compressing big complex ideas into the economy of a few characters. Some dialogues seemed awkward but that is just a feature of the language. Growing up Chinese but not being able to read or write Mandarin, it didn’t feel too weird for me but it is definitely not what one would describe as flowing prose in the traditional Western style.
Like the title, the story is also told in three time periods: the past, present and virtual. Like the real gravitational physics problem that the book took it’s name from, these periods push and pull each other along the story and the truth is slowly teased for the readers out from its interaction.
I personally got a feeling that this book has deep social commentary undertones. It is like the author is daring the reader to think about the nature of our societies and its trajectory towards its end goal, which could be good or evil, depending on who is leading the charge. As the story takes part in three different periods, we are given three different perspective of society.
One takes place in the past during the cultural revolution where collective societal group think destroyed the creative individualists and set society back years in its pursuit of knowledge, happiness and prosperity. The second takes place in the present where the ascent of China as a super power created a society consisting of elites who choose to operate behind the scenes to shape society to their will. While the third unfolds in the virtual world where extreme collectivism, the kind that strips all forms of beauty, expression, happiness is the only solution to global catastrophes.
While all of the societal models are all polarizing and not ideal, Liu Cixin’s greatest accomplishment in the novel is to give readers a peak into the inner voice of the individuals who are living through these different societies. While you may (or may not) agree with their actions, you can empathize on why someone, when put into those situations, would act the way that they have acted.
Overall, a highly thrilling read that is unputdownable.