I was a few pages into Liu Cixin’s (刘慈欣) The Three-Body Problem when the piercing shriek of a high-street chain coffee machine whirring up a cappuccino tore me away from 1960s turmoil in China and back to England’s chilly August (yes) environment. Such is the immediate immersion of Liu’s gripping sci-fi novel, known as 《三体》 (Three Body) in its original Mandarin, and translated by sci-fi author Ken Liu for the English-reading audience.
A firm favourite in China, The Three-Body Problem revolves around a unprecedented crisis in the modern scientific community linked to a mysterious and challenging online game similarly named ‘Three Body‘. The book and its author Liu Cixin have swept award ceremonies such as the Nebula (星云) for science fiction writing. A film adaptation of《三体》is also scheduled for release in China in the summer of 2016, with the film’s official Weibo page garnering nearly 90,000 followers. Reading a book so widely acclaimed in its home country, I had wondered how tangible the differences (if any) in story-telling would be, and whether I’d be able to keep up with my first meaty sci-fi novel. After all, with the popularity of science fiction in China (the magazine《科幻世界》(Science Fiction World) has over 127,000 Weibo followers), reading an acclaimed novel such as The Three-Body Problem was serious business.
My compulsion to read The Three-Body Problem also had other motives. As a Chinese Studies student, I had recently become disillusioned with recent British media portrayals of China that to me have at times felt overgeneralising and ‘othering’. Instead of truly engaging with China in all its facets, the same old-fashioned labels are stamped on from Xishuangbanna to Changchun: ‘Young people in China study a lot’, ‘People in China work very hard’ ‘Communism’ etc etc. I wanted to put more effort into really immersing myself in what China has to offer rather than drawing conclusions from afar. That being said, I also wanted to read a really good book.
Three pages in, I was already plunged into jarring scene of inter-factional Red Guard sieges. The Three-Body Problem arcs over various historical backdrops, interspersed with the observations of Wang Miao (汪淼), a top nanotechnology engineer in modern-day Beijing. I emphasise on the word ‘observations’ here. Often, I felt that Wang was an extension of the reader. The story doesn’t delve too deeply into his history, avoiding a common trope of sci-fi and adventure books to centre around an impossible, unreadable action man or woman. Instead, we are able to mould ourselves behind Wang’s eyes. His reactions, thoughts and fears are highly relatable, human, and in a unique way, appeared as a vehicle to transplant the reader into the story.
I fully admit I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect from the style of writing. In his notes, translator Ken Liu states that he has strived to remain as true as possible to the original perceptions and pace of the Mandarin version, without losing the attention of the English audience. However, instead of twisting the story beyond recognition, Ken Liu employs several footnotes to quickly put the reader in the loop on Chinese cultural or linguistic references. I personally felt that this method was fantastic in maintaining the original style of the book, avoiding watering down the story and missing key cultural nuances. It really felt that I was getting as close to the original as possible without having to slowly plod through the Mandarin version with Pleco by my side (it’s a goal for the future, though!).
Wang Miao’s transition from nanotechnology to the fascinating world of the ever-mysterious ‘Three Body‘ online game runs at a gripping pace and employs incredible levels of creativity. I am compelled to agree with Liu Cixin’s analysis within his author’s notes that science and mathematics are not stripped of any imagination or story-telling. The Three-Body Problem never pauses on overly-embellished descriptions or prose, but still made my eyebrows raise and my heart pound with suspense. The narrative projects the brutality and political uncertainty of China’s Cultural Revolution, and manages to build in a sci-fi world that doesn’t stretch your imagination to breaking point. Several times, I would read a plot point and think ‘Surely that can’t be pulled off in just a few pages?’, but several paragraphs later, I was always proved wrong. Having not sat in a physics lesson since I was about 16 years old, some of the heavier scientific explanations took a little bit of re-reading, but never to the point of defeat. By the end, The Three-Body Problem had not only raised questions for the reader, but for humanity as a whole, a unifying theme which (as Liu Cixin states in his author’s notes) is often present in sci-fi.
This perception of humanity as a whole links back to one of my original motivations for reading The Three-Body Problem – to cease the labelling of China through Western binoculars and to actually delve into the action itself and enjoy the piece as the author intended. I am glad that a trend for translating Chinese literature may be on the rise. The opportunity to appreciate the works of another country and culture without diluting it beyond recognition can become an opportunity to expand our perceptions, put away our pre-conceived categories and actually participate. The joint effort of Liu Cixin and Ken Liu have almost certainly encouraged me to look into other sci-fi writers. Not to mention, I’ll also be first in the queue for my ticket to see 《三体》when it hits cinemas. My future goals? To read the original 《三体》, although considering my speed of Mandarin reading, I’ll have to get back to you in several light-years.