The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin (2014, Tor books)
The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin was originally published as a serial in 2006 in China. It was later released as a stand-alone novel in 2008. This year promises the film version, which is something to look forward to in the summer. It is part of a trilogy entitled Remembrance of Earth’s Past. The novel received the Hugo award in 2015.
The origin of the title is from a classic attempt to describe the movement of the earth, moon and sun in orbit. This became a complicated series of equations, which quantum mechanics helped to describe.
I don’t think I have ever read a science fiction novel, which begins with a shoot-out between two different Red Guard factions. The book begins with the brutal death of a young woman whose defending her faction’s defense of a building. She’s gunned down by the rival faction and her body is mutilated. It turns out she’s the daughter of Ye Zhetai, a Chinese physicist who is hauled out in an iron hat before a student mob during the Cultural revolution. He’s beat to death in public by four high school girls because he refuses to back down and say that physics is beyond their petty little politics. His wife, forced to denounce him in public, goes insane. All of this is witnessed by his physicist daughter, Ye Wenjie. Sent to the north of China as part of a work detachment, Wenjie is watches the deforestation of entire regions in the name of communism. She is nearly sent to prison because she tries to get a political commissar to take the book Silent Spring seriously. In order to escape a prison camp, she volunteers to work on a top-secret radar station known as Red Coast Base.
Soon after her work begins, in 1971, Wenjie discovers there the base is secretly used to find out if extraterrestrial civilizations are trying to send messages to Earth. The government of China knows about western attempts to listen for alien signals and wishes to get into the game. She eventually sends out a signal to the stars when Wenjie discovers there is a way she can do it by taking advantage of the sun. Eight years later, she receives the response from outer space. However, the signal warns Earth not to respond as the civilization, which has received her original signal, it is intent on conquering Earth. To reveal more about the plot would give it away and I encourage everyone to read this excellent hard science fiction novel.
The novel jumps time events repeatedly. Part of it takes place in 2007 when a nanomaterial expert begins to see time stamps on the photographs he develops. He notices there is always a time stamp on each photograph. The next one he takes has another time stamp on it too. Suddenly it hits him the time signature is always a bit lower. To his horror, he realized there is a countdown in process and it only appears on photographs that he takes.
My favorite character so far is the tough police detective Shi Quaing. He’s a no-nonsense guy who comes up with a way to get some valuable information from a pro-alien faction on earth.
Here he is in a heated conference with an American military officer:
“‘Then let me tell you who I am. More than thirty years ago, my reconnaissance squad managed to sneak dozens of kilometers behind Vietnamese lines and capture a hydroelectric station under heavy guard. We prevented the Vietnamese plan to demolish the dam with explosives, which would have flooded the attack route for our army. That’s who I am. I defeated an enemy who once defeated you.’”
One of the problems in any novel translated from Chinese to English is the use of Chinese personal names. In China, last name come first, but it doesn’t end there. People have all kinds of ways to alter their names for circumstances, and the written language is based on characters, which a reader must learn to recognize because it’s not a phonetic writing system. Thus, just about any character can be a personal name, although few people have more than one character in their personal name and most Chinese use the same pool of names (much like this country) However, it can get confusing when the name of a major character seems to change from time to time. For instance, the police detective I just mentioned is known by his nickname Da Shi (Big Shi) throughout the book.
The Three Body Problem is, above all, an alien invasion novel. I don’t want to give away a lot of the plot, but, due to the vast distances between stars, there is plenty of time for earth to get ready for the alien invasion. The novel shows the viewpoint from the aliens too, so we come to understand why earth might be the land of milk and honey for their harsh civilization.
This is the first book in a three-part series and I can’ wait to read the next one or see the movie version that is coming out soon. Once again, China shows the US how to do a good hard science fiction tale.