“A marvellous mélange of awe-inspiring scientific concepts, clever plotting and quirky yet plausible characters, all conveyed in a plain style capable of signalling hidden depths.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Liu Cixin is an engineer – the plant in which he works has been temporarily shut down to lessen air pollution – which gives him time to concentrate on his first love, science fiction. Chinese science fiction did not gain state recognition till 2012, remaining controlled by the whims and fancies of the ruling powers. However Liu Cixin has risen to become China’s bestselling science fiction writer and the first to be translated into English and published abroad. Invading sci fi space with the story of a covert operation that is one of the most desperate fights in all humanity.
The Three-Body Problem is a trilogy and this is the first of the books, a tale of an alien invasion which, in classic Asimov fashion, has bearings on the political climate. The alien invasion divides people into two camps – those who are happy at the invasion and those who are not. The aliens are being threatened with extinction in the solar system to which they belong and their solution is to invade earth.
China has just recovered from the Cultural Revolution and the girl who comes to help the aliens is a victim of its excesses – seen in the grim opening of the novel where a scientist is beaten to death. According to Liu he needed someone who had lost faith in humanity and the Cultural Revolution was the only period he could think of apart from the Holocaust and latter was not relevant. During the Cultural Revolution political implications were given to everything – sunspots, translated as ‘solar black spots’ could not be described because black was the colour of the counter revolutionaries whereas Mao was the red sun who was invincible. Explaining why the scientist was killed and his daughter found new hope in an alien invasion.
A three body problem is a physics term involving three objects rotating around each other due to the pull of gravity and dates from the time of Isaac Newton. The rotation pattern cannot be mathematically predicted and has disastrous implications when errors occur.
Liu Cixin does not go into too much detail where his aliens are concerned, but the two things he does describe make the reader realise how difficult life has been for the aliens on their own planet and how they have evolved to survive. He also creates the fantasy weapons and touches which makes science fiction science fiction – Moebius strips filling the sky, super weapons like the Flying Blade which is made of nano filaments and virtual reality suits.
Many of the characters are stock – like the chain smoking cop who is borrowed from Sherlock Holmes – and Liu’s conspirators, a group of well-known politicians, scientists and Page Three people do a remarkably poor job of staying under cover. So much so that you wonder how they got away with conspiring for so long. Also the aliens and humans connect with each other remarkably easily – communication is not lost in translation.
For science fiction fans, the book will be a new experience. Sci fi from a Chinese perspective with all the imagination and fantasy the form requires. No wonder Liu Cixin has a fan following in his own country and has started building one in the US.
Added 6th January 2017