“The Three-Body Problem,” the first book of a best-selling Chinese science fiction trilogy that sold more than a million of copies in China, is finally available in English translation. The book is solid classic science fiction, like the best space operas of vintage science fiction that we loved and still fondly remember as our first introduction to space and science.
For us, the starry-eyed children of the 60s who watched Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon, and used to think that we would have cities in space in the early 21st century, it’s painful to realize that the West came back from the Moon more than 40 ago, and the next persons to walk on the Moon will probably be Chinese.
The space program of the 60s – the real, visionary space program – was imagined and developed by science fiction readers turned scientists and engineers. Same for the Internet revolution of the 80s and 90s, which is now beginning to rapidly change the world. Arguably, the spectacular advances of science and technology of the last few decades are due to the ability of classic “Golden Age” science fiction to ignite the minds of young readers with science and advanced technology, sense of wonder, and radical can-do imagination.
Other radical advances and technological Golden Ages have been imagined and predicted – nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, the fusion of mind and machine – but these haven’t materialized yet. We have some disturbing sense of stagnation looming ahead, and according to Neal Stephenson we, in the West, have lost the capacity to think big. Science fiction itself seems to be giving up its core mission of stimulating people – and young future scientists – to think big.
China is starting to think big and seems poised to take the pole position in the race toward a bright technological future on Earth and in space. That’s why I was impatiently waiting to read this book and find out what science fiction is being written by leading Chinese authors. Even more than that, I wanted to know what science fiction Chinese readers enjoy. Are they reading the same kind of stories that we used to read? Do their stories put young readers’ minds on fire and prepare them for big enterprises?
After reading the book, my answer is yes. The author, Liu Cixin (I am following the Chinese convention and putting the family name first), is currently the most popular Chinese science fiction writer. One of his previous novels is the delicious “The Wandering Earth” – pure sense of wonder in the spirit of the best Golden Age science fiction – where our heroic descendants bring the whole Earth to another star to escape a solar catastrophe.
The New York Times reports that Liu grew up reading the British master Arthur C. Clarke. “Everything that I write is a clumsy imitation of Arthur C. Clarke,” Liu said. Will future inspiring, epic science fiction be manufactured in China like so many other things these days, and come with China flavor? Perhaps, and why not.
“The Three-Body Problem” has been translated by Ken Liu (Western naming convention now), who is an acclaimed science fiction writer himself. The story begins in the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, which leave young astrophysicist Ye Wenjie battered for life. She will become part of the first Chinese SETI project to contact alien intelligences out there, and find a way to use the Sun to amplify low-power signals sent from Earth. Eight years later, she will receive the first message from the stars:
In the deep silence of midnight, the universe revealed itself to its listeners as a vast desolation… On this day, however, Ye saw something odd when she glanced at the waveform display. Even experts had a hard time telling with the naked eye whether a waveform carried information. But Ye was so familiar with the noise of the universe that she could tell that the wave that now moved in front of her eyes had something extra. The thin curve, rising and falling, seemed to possess a soul. She was certain that the radio signal before her had been modulated by intelligence.”
In our days, nano-scientist Wang Miao is drafted into a secret international defense operation against unknown enemies. Something odd is happening – leading scientists commit suicide because they don’t believe in science anymore, and it seems that the laws of physics themselves have been suspended – or tampered with. The mystery may be related to “Three Body,” an addictive virtual reality game set on a planet under three suns, whose unstable orbits cause frequent civilization collapses.
Liu Cixin finds a working compromise between epic story telling and character development – Wenjie, Miao and others are developed less than in modern Western science fiction, but more than in classic vintage space operas, with just enough depth to be credible without taking the focus away from the story. My favorite character, and I am sure many reader will agree, is the no-nonsense, abrasive but incredibly sharp, chain-smoking street cop “Big Shi.”
I don’t want to say too much and spoil your reading pleasure but yes, the exchanges with the stars initiated by Ye Wenjie continued, and the aliens are coming. Their fleet will be here in 450 years, but the aliens are already messing around to make us weaker before the invasion. We get a glimpse of their world, filtered by the imagination of Wenjie as she goes over the exchanges that have taken place since the first transmission. The superscience of the aliens is very much super indeed, with extradimensional technology and all that, and they think of us as bugs. But, as Big Shi says, bugs can fight back.
You must wait for the second book in the trilogy to know what happens next (unless you read Chinese, of course). I am impatiently waiting for the next books to quench my thirst for inspiring science fiction, and I am sure that some of the young Chinese fans of Liu Cixin are beginning to think big, and will do great things.