Reading: ‘The Three-Body Problem’ by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Hi 何甜! I’m glad to read new articles on your blog. As always, I like your extensive comments and insights into a topic. I’m also envy of your rich English expressions.:)
    I’m not going to discuss the content of “Three Body” because I haven’t read it yet. But I’m definitely looking forward to the upcoming movie as well!
    I’d like to add a bit to the labeling issue. First, using the terms of statistics, the more observations included in the sample, the more idiosyncrasies will lose. For example, I can generalize a group of students in a Chinese school as: Chinese, students, and teenagers. If I generalize all the Chinese people, the indicators of student and teenager have to be dropped. If I generalize all the people in the world, then I can only say they’re human beings. Second, there’s a brilliant explanation for labeling in statistics. That is, the characteristics of the entire sample cannot be used to explain a single observation. For example, a quality of the sample may be generalized from 70% of the observations. Then this quality is clearly not applicable to the other 30%. I think these two points are critical to avoid labeling a group.
    You also mentioned the style of translation. I forget who said that translation is an art itself, a reproduction of the original work. So it would be great to read a well translated book as you’re doing. You may notice that some of my posts are from Chinese poems. Sometimes I find it difficult to find a satisfactory translation that accurately convey the meaning in Chinese. For example, there is a poem tune called “好事近”. Due to my limited English level, I’m still weighing how to translate 好事, good things, good events, good happenings, or something good? Basically, 好事 refers to positive events such as marriages, giving birth to a baby, landing a job, winning a prize. I wonder how would you translate it into English?
    Nevertheless, I have found a book called “Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry” 《葵晔集》. I previewed some chapters online and I believe this book provides the best and most extensive translation of Chinese poems as far as I know. I’ll definitely buy a hardcover for collection. Now that you’re a Chinese studies student, I recommend this book to you too.:)

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    1. I absolutely love reading your comments, @Bamboochee! I learn so much from them every time. Thank you for the detail on labelling as well, I’m going to be writing another article soon on generalising China so it has really helped male things clear for me.
      In terms of 好事, it is a hard one to translate! I would say the easiest translation is ‘good things’ which you can extend to ‘the good things in life’. Maybe even ‘life’s happy moments’ could be used as well, if you want to make it clear it is about marriages, births, promotions, etc.
      My knowledge of Chinese poetry isn’t the greatest, but it was something I definitely wanted to learn more about. Chinese poetry has it’s own beautiful aspects and I really want to be able to appreciate them, so for this reason I will definitely be following your advice and looking at ‘Sunflower Splendour’!
      Best wishes to you!

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