Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review of "The Three-Body Problem" by Cixin Liu

I'm not sure whether this science fiction novel is the first Chinese work to be nominated for a Nebula, but it has caused a well-deserved worldwide sensation.

Cixin Liu is the most famous SF author in China, but had been little known until American author Ken Liu translated his work into English. At last month's Conference on World Affairs, eminent author David Brin recommended it highly, so I decided to give it a read.

The Three-Body Problem is a rarity in science fiction that will appeal to readers across many genres. Nestled within its thrilling plot are complex characters, an intriguing game, along with a healthy dose of cosmology. We see that understanding the fundamental nature of the universe is key to advancing humanity's progress.

The story opens during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Radioscientist Wenjie Ye's father, a famous physicist, and her Red Guard sister are both killed, and she is sent to a remote site to work on a farm. Nearby, a secret radiotelescope installation beams messages into space, the Chinese equivalent of the SETI project. The gentle Ye manages to get a job at the telescope and one night receives a communication.

At first Ye simply seems naive, wanting to be the first to communicate with an extraterrestrial civilization, but her motives are revealed to be increasingly dark. She hides the communication and replies to the message, commiting murder to keep her secret. She has lost faith in humanity and wants human civilization to end. We sympathize with her family tragedies, but we can't understand her total disaffection. After the Cultural Revolution winds down, a billionaire environmentalist joins her cause, and in the guise of an addictive game called Three Body, humans are recruited to understand an alien culture and help it survive.

Meanwhile, we see events unfold on the alien planet, Trisolaris, which is subject to the ravages of triple suns that unpredictably burn and freeze it. Trisolarans are desperate to reach earth, and they find a way to buy time until they can conquer it.

The devastating conclusion will stay with you a long time--and renew your appreciation for the preciousness of life--not just human--on our blessed blue planet.

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