A New Universe of Sci-Fi: Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem (and sequels)

A mostly blue background shows a pyramid, mysterious objects floating in the sky and in front of the pyramid. A lone human figures appears small in the foreground.

by Khaleel G.

When one picks up a science fiction titles from our shelves, there’s a good chance that author will hail from the US or UK. Their stories, however wild and imaginative they might be, will still have roots in English-speaking literature, with all its tropes and customs, characterizations and particularities. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but one must wonder – how do writers from abroad imagine the future, or space travel, or alien life? If England can produce an author of such wide-ranging influence as Arthur C. Clarke, what speculative fiction might be borne out of Russian experiences? Or Nigerian? What possible futures have international authors imagined?

Cixin Liu is a Chinese author who has received massive acclaim in his own country. Yet only recently, several of his novels have been translated into English, including his most popular series, Remembrance of Earth’s Past. Consisting of three hefty tomes, its story pushed my mind as far as science fiction allows, in a way few other books have done.

While the story bounds about the 20th century and different countries, we follow Wang in his investigation, leading him to a popular and mysterious virtual reality game. Called “Three Body,” players enter into an open plain, accompanied by digital avatars of famous scientists. In the sky above, the sun disappears or multiplies, seemingly at random, resulting in the player freezing or burning to death, then having to start all over. Wang has to puzzle out this video game amid all the political and scientific intrigue, as it may hold the key to the cause of all these events.

To say anymore would spoil the reveals Liu builds over the first book, and throughout the following two sequels. But the translation by Chinese-American author Ken Liu (a wonderful speculative fiction writer in his own right) delivers the plot in clear, steady language. If the above paragraphs made this seem unwieldy and convoluted, do not worry – for as wide as the narrative goes through the cosmos and time and space, alongside characters of various national origins, the books never feel impossible to progress through. Like other sci-fi authors I’ve written about, Cixin Liu takes the time to let the reader absorb the world, understand its rules, and thusly be prepared for the twists and turns of the plot.

That being said, if I had one criticism of the series, it’s that the characters don’t have a whole lot of progression or development. Indeed, outside of Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, I had a hard time recalling any one character, or even their name. Yet, at the same time, the books still work as fiction. See, the focus isn’t on individuals; humanity itself is the protagonist, and the laws of physics, the cosmos, the nature of sentient life serve as co-stars and antagonists. I never would have thought I could be captivated by a description of microphysics, but in one scene, an atom is “unfolded” to a gargantuan size, then shrunk back down; it sounds technical to describe here, but the reader’s experience in the moment is awesome, the true meaning of “invoking awe.”

Throughout the books, that sense of amazement is always around the corner, shocking me at with the scope and scale of events. Again, without spoiling anything, this series goes further and wilder than any other sci-fi novel or series I’ve read, to a finale beyond imagination. I have re-read the last fifty pages of the final book, Death’s End, on a few occasions since I first finished it, yet each time, it creates this vertigo-inducing wonder in me, a near-physical sensation in my gut, like falling into the wide open ocean. Like, how can this be?

The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End sit amid the titans of sci-fi literature, with a viewpoint and flavor all their own. Their popularity has inspired film and upcoming TV adaptations, and pushed Chinese sci-fi into the mainstream of American publishing. Liu has other works in our collection, as do more Chinese authors. Science fiction always seeks to expand the reader’s mind, and with more diverse authors in the mix, our minds can only get wider and wilder and weirder. And I welcome the prospect!

The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End are available in print from HCLS, and in digital eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/Overdrive. We also have Cixin Liu’s works in his native language

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