Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

Hmmm... where to start. This is a hard-core classic science fiction novel in the vein of Arthur C. Clarke. Or so I'm told. I never could get through Clarke's popular "2001: A Space Odyssey" as a teenager. In this book I struggled to understand the lengthy expositions on physics, math, science, nanotechnology, and astronomy to name a few, but I kept plowing through it because I did like the historical perspective from the Chinese protagonists; especially the character arc of Ye Wenjie. The book also seems to criticize the Cultural Revolution and in a culture that clamps down so much on freedom of speech, I wondered why it was published as it is written. By the end, it is clear that it doesn't celebrate Western civilization or democracy. Instead it shows China as a world power and savior to the world because it has the most advanced technology and while it seems critical of the Cultural Revolution it shows at the end the government trying to make amends for some past wrongs.While the author doesn't always put China in a positive light, he does not criticize any current administration and shows sympathy for the victims and perpetrators of the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps this is why it wasn't censored.

Astrophysicist Ye Wenjie is the daughter of Ye Zhetai, a professor tortured by the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution for refusing to denounce the theory of relativity. Wenjie watches as her father is publicly humiliated and beaten to death by Red Guards. Her witness of his death defines her future actions that draws empathy from the reader. She is a victim of historical events that show how decisions made by people define history in good and bad ways. There are no villains or heroes. She is shaped by her trauma and later betrayed by those she trusts that make her question all that makes people human. By the time good people and things happen to her, she can't see the joy in them.

This best-seller translated from Chinese to English is easy to applaud for its diversity that show Asian women as brilliant scientists as well as men, but the plot is clunky at times with large sections of information dropped on the reader that detracts from the story. I skimmed some of the pedantic info-dumps because they didn't make a whole lot of sense and made me cross-eyed. If you are a fan of science fiction or knowledgeable about physics, then it might not slow you down like it did me. Obviously, I found it compelling enough to finish it, but I thought as a whole the story fell short in character development as well as being too technical.

After the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie becomes a part of a top-secret government project that supposedly studies satellites. Her scientific expertise is needed, but not for satellites. The book jumps forward forty years and changes to nanotech engineer Wang Miao's  point-of-view who is asked by the police to infiltrate the Frontiers of Science, a club that has seen a spike in science members committing suicide. Wang Miao discovers the group uses a video game called, "Three Body." He discovers an alternate world that is run by Trisolarans who are trying to learn about celestial movement so they can survive on an unstable planet. The video game is a recruitment tool by the Frontiers of Science drawing elite and intellectual members; it is too complex for common people (that part shows a lack of understanding as to what makes up gamers - an excellent book on the topic is "Reality is Broken"). As Miao gets drawn into the complex web of deceit, he learns of a plot that will destroy the world. 

Wang Miao wasn't very interesting as the second main character. Da Shi kept upstaging him. I liked the hard-core cranky cop that didn't follow social etiquette rules. He was the Everyman character or represents the common person.  Ye's Wenjie's daughter, Yang Dong, needed more development. I kept waiting for her story to be told but it never is. Ye Wenjie is developed but the author tells her story more than shows it, especially in the last part's flashback. I didn't think that was handled as skillfully as it could have been - although I was more interested in her story than the physics. The parts in the storyline that expose propaganda and its hindrance to progress was fascinating along with the footnotes that explain the posters and their use during the Cultural Revolution. All countries have propaganda, but it isn't always easy seeing it. Translator Ken Liu's footnotes help with the cultural references.

I had an "ah-hah" moment reading this book in that I never really appreciated how unusual it was that families turned on each other during the Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie's sister turned in her father to the authorities. Teaching the theory of relativity was considered by Mao as conflicting with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel's dialectical materialism which is why the daughter renounced him. I live in Taiwan and the three Taiwanese assistants I work with are expected by their families, and they feel it is their duty, to take care of their parents. They are raised to not disagree with them and family loyalties run deep. Many children live with their parents and give them part of their incomes. My assistants take their parents to doctor appointments and explain to me that if a family puts a parent in a nursing home it is considered taboo. This is only done as a last resort when the medical intervention is necessary. This filial piety has deep roots in Confucian philosophy and is the reason Wang Miao visits Ye Wenjie for another character that says he cannot do so and would he do it for him? It also shows how radical it was for families to turn on each other during the Cultural Revolution. Wang Miao's sense of duty comes from this Eastern philosophy that gives the the book its unique flavor. I found the different cultural perspective one of the most interesting aspects of this book. It was also funny seeing the author takes jabs at the United States. Many times our pop culture does this with others cultures. Interesting to see the reverse. Many librarians lament the lack of diverse books. Well, here's one that is diverse. Add it to your high school or public library.

4 Smileys

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