ARTICLE: The Fascinating Problem with “The Three-Body Problem”

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is the Hugo-winning SF novel about Chinese communists telling aliens to come conquer the Earth.  That basic plot is dressed up in a lot of intrigue and compelling backstory, and flavored with a lot of interesting scientific concepts.  The novel was translated into English by Ken Liu, which I’ll get into later.

I found this novel interesting overall, but the story itself seemed surprisingly basic.  The most compelling portions of the book were the beginning, which takes us back to China’s Cultural Revolution and the devastating politics at play then, and the weird-but-intriguing sessions of a mysterious virtual reality game called Three Body.  When those portions aren’t pulling the story forward, scientific quandaries do some work as well.

When you get to the bones of what’s actually happening in the story, however, things seem awfully straightforward, to a point that it’s almost unbelievable.  Much of the plot is concerned with an organization that’s preparing the way for these aliens to arrive on Earth, and the organization’s goals and the motivations of its members are rather simplistic and strain credulity, particularly when we’re told to believe that large numbers of influential people are all making these decisions en masse for exactly similar reasons.  It seems very convenient for the plot and pacing of the novel that this is so.

In fact, several aspects of the plot — the virtual reality game, the politics at play — seem too simplistic for reality, and contrast greatly with the incredible care that Liu gives to the scientific concepts in the book.  At the points where the plot didn’t titillate, the science did.

Three-Body is a translation, which introduces another level to the experience.  Ken Liu, the translator, actually uses footnotes to explain various aspects of Chinese history that American readers won’t immediately understand, particularly those relating to the Cultural Revolution.  The result is that the story can sometimes feel framed and instructional, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The book also has some interestingly different pacing and literary choices.  As Ken Liu explains: “The Chinese literary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques… In other cases, I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavor of the original.”

I can only guess what differences that made in the text, but I can say that some of the dialogue and exposition seemed very different.  Some particulars were explained in the narration that I would’ve expected to be expressed through dialogue, and vice versa.  Some things which American readers would take for granted were spelled out (the particulars of arranging a meetup between characters, and so on), and some characters seemed overtly expressive about their emotions in ways that I think would be considered unrealistic in American fiction.

The three-body problem itself is a scientific concept that concerns the impossibility of predicting the gravitational relationship between three separate bodies.  Reading Three-Body is much like that quandary itself, with the three bodies being the original story, the translation, and then the cultural and literary expectations that the reader brings.  Those three different perspectives rotate and pull on each other, leading to a fascinating and layered experience.

It’s certainly a different experience.  But that’s what science fiction is for, and Three-Body delivers on that.

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