Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu (author), Ken Liu (translator)

Tor Books, ISBN 9780765377067, November 2014 (original publication in Chinese, January 2008)

The Best Novel category is going to be a tough decision this year.

I loved The Goblin Emperor  I'm currently enjoying the Ancillary Sword audiobook. And now I've just finished this amazing novel by Cixin Liu.

The story opens in China during the Cultural Revolution, with the brutal deaths, first, of a teenage radical in a conflict between different factions of the People's Liberation Army, and next, of "counterrevolutionary" university professor, while his older daughter watches, and his wife is forced to testify against him.

The daughter, Ye Wenjie, survives the Cultural Revolution, not unscathed, but she lands a somewhat precarious position on a secret project where her work as an astrophysicist is valuable. It's not an easy time for her, but she's doing useful work. We don't find out till later just how secret the work of the Red Coast Base is.

Another thread in this story follows Wang Miao, who avoided theoretical physics in favor of the less ideologically risky applied physics, and in the early 2000s has made major breakthroughs in nanomaterials.

The thread that has gotten the most discussion is that concerning the online game that Wang Miao and others are drawn into, Three Body, a game that involves a planet subjected to unpredictable extremes of heat, cold, and length of days due to the fact that it exists in a three-star system. The game isn't just a game or a distraction for our characters; it turns out to be a vital thread in what's going on, part of a problem created by the secret project at Red Coast Base and bad decisions made by damaged survivors of the Cultural Revolution.

I've seen comments about characterization being thin and the game taking up too much space in the story. I understand them, but don't agree. As in other hard sf novels, Liu is building an alien society for us, at least for the western reader, and I think it's well done. The reader may have to work a bit harder at getting the characters, but only because the cultural background and references--ghe world building--are also requiring some mental work. The game itself turns out to contain vital information, and I think the balance among the different elements is overall good.

I'm looking forward to the next volume of the trilogy.


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