In the author’s postscript to The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu writes about his special talent: “Scales and existences that far exceeded the bounds of human sensory perception – both macro and micro – and that seemed to be only abstract numbers to others, could take on concrete forms in my mind.” As an English major who struggled just to get through the entry level math and science requirements in school, I find this talent special indeed. However, I think Liu is selling himself short. What’s truly remarkable is his ability to use this talent to write a hard sci-fi novel that not only appeals to a numerically-illiterate person like me, but to get me to share the “ineffable, religious feeling of awe and shock” he experiences.
Of course, as impressive as these talents are, they would not alone be sufficient to hold my interest for 400 pages. Fortunately, Liu has a good grip on plot and character as well. In fact, the way the book begins – with the riotous, bloody “struggle session” of a physicist during China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution – you could be forgiven for thinking we had made a mistake shelving it in the sci-fi section and you were reading an historical thriller instead. It actually takes quite a while for the book to build up to its primary interstellar conflict. For those of you who are hardcore sci-fi fans, this may seem like a bummer, but rest assured, it’s worth the wait – Liu didn’t become the first Asian to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel for no reason.
And anyway, there’s plenty of value in the lengthy build-up. The book alternates between the perspectives of Ye Wenjie, daughter of the physicist killed in the opening scene and herself a renowned astrophysicist, and Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher. Ye’s scenes take part mostly in the past, and although they serve primarily as exposition and world-building, I still greatly enjoyed them. The Cultural Revolution is a fascinating period in history rife with political intrigue, and seeing how it affects Ye – in terms of both her external circumstances and her inner life – is truly compelling.
Wang’s scenes, meanwhile, take place exclusively in the present, and have a lot more of a narrative drive to them. His sections have an almost Stephen King-like quality to them, both in their unsettling strangeness as well as their power to leave me unable to put the book down. After receiving an unexpected visit from a joint military-police task force (led by Shi Qiang, a vulgar police officer whose gruff exterior belies his Sherlockian powers of observation and detection, and easily my favorite side character in the book), peculiar things begin to happen to him. Soon he’s embroiled in a plot involving numerous shadowy organizations and a truly bizarre virtual reality video game. Eventually, of course, Wang and Ye’s stories converge, leading to a final act that is truly a tour-de-force of storytelling.