Tor, 2014, 400 pages
With the scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence Day, Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from China's most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.
Set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
Nominated for a Hugo (after some reshuffling of the ballot — I should really do a Saturday Book Discussion post about that :P), The Three-Body Problem is the first book in a trilogy by Cixin Liu; so far, this is the only one that has been translated into English, but the others are forthcoming.
Liu is an engineer, and it shows: The Three-Body Problem is hard science fiction with a mix of cultural history, conspiracy theory, and theoretical physics.
It begins in the 60s, during Mao's Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie witnesses her father, a physics professor, being beaten to death by student revolutionaries for advocating the "reactionary" theory of General Relativity. After this, she is sent into political exile, but because of her own scientific expertise, she is brought to a top secret installation called Red Coast Base. It turns out that the Central Committee, having taken seriously the possibility that aliens might exist, is worried that a hypothetical alien civilization's first contact with humans might be with capitalist imperialist Westerners, thus giving the aliens a "one-sided" view of Earth. So they have begin a SETI program, hoping to broadcast the People's message to the stars.
This turns out to be a less than stellar idea.
Decades later, a Chinese scientist learns that other scientists are inexplicably committing suicide. Trying to find out what's going on, he is drawn into a shadowy conspiracy involving a secret scientific cabal, a secret multinational task force investigating the cabal, and an online game called "Three-Body."
The Three-Body Problem is mostly conspiracy thriller, with the secret of the "Three-Body" virtual world being the clue to the aliens who are lurking in the background. If you're expecting Independence Day in China, however, you will have to wait until the next book; the aliens may be coming, but this is hard SF so they are constrained by the speed of light.
This was a good book, and I will be quite interested to see what happens in the next one. But most of the appeal is seeing a somewhat familiar story told through a Chinese POV. The social commentary may not be quite as compelling as the science fiction, but Liu is clearly saying things about authority, orthodoxy, and the desire to "perfect" humanity, from his own perspective as someone who is obviously critical of certain aspects of his own country's recent past.
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