The three-body problem, by Liu Cixin

The three-body problem Book Cover The three-body problem
Three body trilogy
Liu Cixin (Translator: Ken Liu)
Science fiction
Tor Books
October 14th 2014

My happiest moment in the recent week was not the usual "returning to my own bed" or "having a big mug of chai" or "oh, I actually already paid that bill!".  Instead, it was the discovery that The three-body problem is actually the first part of a trilogy. There's more of it! And it's going to be translated! I may actually have done a little dance.

Because this was a fantastic read.  So much so that it helped me to see some clear rules for exactly what makes a book rise on the awesome-scale, to this reader. A couple of examples include:

A coherent story in which I don't feel lost or confused, and yet have NOT guessed exactly where everything is going before I'm even halfway through the book.  (It's actually very rare.  I don't mean I always guess everything early on, but in most cases an experienced genre peruser will have a good idea of the end of the road after just a few steps on it, you know? I wouldn't be an SF reader if I didn't adore the tropes, but being kept guessing is, uh, also very cool.)

Density.  I love the kind of novel where every paragraph is so sodden with information, references to other phenomena/sources/knowledge, concepts, the immediate visualisation is something like a monster book with pages like sponges, all swelled up so the cover doesn't have a chance to close over it all.   This is partly why I'm a Neal Stephenson reader, it's why this year's biggest new author crush has been Peter Watts, and it's a big part of  why I loved this book,. The three-body problem, to bits.

Some readers will dislike the parts with all the, what's the word, tech babble.   Some because they're bored by tech babble in general, and some, undoubtedly, because they already know enough of the science involved to find it boringly basic - or even full of flaws, I don't know.  With my half-a-completed-astronomy-101-class I fit neatly into the middle group,  free to just go "ooh" and "aah" and "whoah".

Being a European reader, though, the most alien thing encountered in this novel was probably the flashes of the Chinese cultural revolution.   I've never been fed much information about it or been exposed to a trigger that led me to look it up on my own, but now I want to know more, and that's just one more reason why translating fiction like this is neat stuff. (How much of your general knowledge of history and culture comes from the fiction you read? I've been terribly aware of this ever since I was a tiny and my school teacher got to the curriculum bit with Marco Polo and I was all "I know this! I've read this Donald Duck story!"...  It was, in fact, a very accurate Duckburg story, at least as accurate as the school texts, for what that's worth.)

The book opens with a little chart of the three generations of characters populating the story.  For me, that page was the scariest one, because I sort of panicked about remembering all the names.  That's how I always react to that kind of thing at the start of a book, though.  Back when I started reading Dead Russian Guys I often kept pen and paper nearby to make notes about characters until I felt confident about all the long names.  Happily, that's completely unneccesary here.  Just turn the page.

A highly educated young woman is employed in manual labor, cutting down trees, somewhere in middle-of-nowhere, or possibly Mongolia.  She keeps to herself, until she befriends a man who will ruin her political status in order to save himself,  but not before he's provided her with a forbidden book that helps to confirm the woman's dismal view of human civilization. Not a surprising view, given her personal history - and not, as it turns out, a lonely view.  There will come to be many like her.

Scientific buzzwords, miracles, haptic video games, a classic charming-bastard police officer and a handful of other memorable characters, make up a novel I didn't anticipate and was completely swept away by.  I don't want to discuss the plot in more detail than that, because I never really get a good feel for where the "spoiler!"-border is, just have faith in all this geeky excitement I'm displaying.   I'll add that Ken Liu's translation work is smooth and painless, the resulting prose is clear and beautiful, and his foot notes and afterword display what I consider to be sound choices and guesses about what kind of thing a reader like me might need to know more about in order to make sense of it all.

I can only hope the next part of the story will be available in a language I can read very soon.

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