The Three-Body Problem was first published in Chinese several years ago, and this is the first time it’s been available in English. Translated by Ken Liu (author of The Grace of Kings), it’s highly readable and I honestly hope that this is only the beginning of a huge influx of Chinese SF if this is the sort of wonderful stuff we are missing. Lack of translated works is a problem in general, but it’s especially notable with genre fiction, which is too bad, because literally every culture has its own traditions of speculative fiction and, goodness knows, we could use as many perspectives as we can get.
This book begins during the Cultural Revolution, of which I was sadly ignorant before I read this book. White middle class Mid-Western girls weren’t taught much Asian history to speak of back in the 1990s. Fortunately, there is enough explanation in the book, between the text itself and some very useful footnotes, to help historically illiterate Americans muddle through, although I would suggest reading at least a few Wikipedia articles if you’re as clueless as I was about this part of history. I actually expected to spend a lot more time Googling historical and cultural references than I did, and I probably would have spent a lot less time on it if I didn’t have a tendency to get sucked into Wikipedia for hours at a time. So if the intention of the author and translator was to make the book easily accessible to US readers, I think the footnotes, which were smartly chosen and concisely written, were well done and didn’t distract too much from the story.
The story itself takes some time to unfold, and it’s only towards the end of the book that I felt a real sense of urgency and momentum in the plot–only to find myself waiting for the next book in the trilogy. This would annoy me a lot more if the second book wasn’t coming out so soon (The Dark Forest – July 7, 2015), but as it is I’m just eaten up with anticipation for it.
The characters in The Three-Body Problem were interesting, and I loved Ye Wenjie in particular. Wang Miao was much less fascinating, but was a perfectly serviceable protagonist. The supporting characters were excellent, and I would go learn Chinese immediately if I learned there were any books about the adventures of Shi Qiang.
Something that is maybe not that big a deal in China but that I really appreciated was the overall gender parity. Women are present throughout the book and fill a variety of roles without being reduced to any recognizable stereotypes or boring sci-fi tropes. They felt real, and didn’t seem to be marginalized on account of their gender at all. My only quibble with the treatment of women in the book is that I would have liked to learn a little more about Wang Miao’s wife, who seemed to be completely forgotten about when she wasn’t literally in the room with Wang.
Most SF is as much, or more, about ideas than it is about just telling stories, and The Three-Body Problem is definitely heavy on ideas, but it never feels preachy. It examines a rather ugly part of Chinese history, it talks about environmentalism, and it considers the role of scientific thought in culture.
Ultimately, though, it’s a book about what would happen if we really did make contact with extraterrestrial life, but there’s no happy Star Trek vision of the future here. Humanity can be nasty, and there’s no guarantee that aliens would be any better than we are. I can’t wait to find out how humanity comes to terms with this knowledge in the rest of this series.