Chinese sci-fi novel asks compelling questions
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/12/2014 (3098 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Over the past decade and change, Cixin Liu has written nine novels, many short stories, and won China’s Galaxy Award an incredible eight times. Critically acclaimed as well as being a bestseller, Cixin is about as famous as a science-fiction author can get in his country, and that’s very famous indeed.
He’s still an unknown in the English-speaking world — but not for long. The Three-Body Problem is the first of Cixin’s works to be translated into English, but his two followups are already scheduled for English-language publication as well, and will hopefully be just as compelling.
The tale opens in 1969. The Cultural Revolution is in full swing and scientists are being beaten in the streets on the pretext of political and social implications of scientific theories. From this violent, mindless groupthink, the nation manages to severely cripple its own scientific and technological knowledge base.
But some scientific work goes on, like the mysterious government observatory at Radar Peak. Little is known about it, but there are stories of birds falling from the sky when they enter the antenna’s path, of nearby villagers getting sick.
In the present day (or near enough to it), a nanomaterials expert named Wang Miao is pulled out of his everyday working world into a secret war decades in the making. Brought into a military working group that refuses to reveal exactly what it is they’re investigating, he’s thrown together with an obnoxious, disgraced police detective named Shi Qiang and tasked with unravelling a conspiracy related to the now-defunct Radar Peak, a rash of suicides by prominent scientists, and to a mysterious online game called Three Body, played almost exclusively by scholars and intellectuals.
This online world is the most memorable thread in Cixin’s expertly woven mystery. Players enter an anachronistic analogue of human civilization, where the metronomic movement of the heavens is apparently absent. The sun rises and sets chaotically, gets nearer and further from the planet, burning and freezing nascent civilizations.
The goal of this game is to rebuild civilization from scratch each time this happens, and try to find a way to make it endure.
In one iteration, a human computer is developed, with tens of thousands of soldiers following the simple yes or no commands analogous to the role of component circuits, with the goal of number-crunching the chaotic solar movement. But in the end, the game always ends the same way: death.
This novel is dense with ideas, and includes some of the deepest questions in philosophy and science. Is nature really what it appears to be, or is the rationality of the cosmos an illusion? Are we alone in the universe? If we do come across forces greater than humankind, will they be benevolent, or will their behaviour mirror our own mistreatment of lesser species?
These questions are always in the background as the different threads of the story come together and a little more of the mystery is revealed. The ending is satisfying and well-earned, but the book still leaves readers mulling over its ideas long after putting it down.
Translations can be tricky. But Ken Liu, a notable writer in his own right, makes a valiant effort, giving a sense of the cultural and psychological viewpoint of a Chinese writer and protagonist, while still making the plot and characters comprehensible for foreign readers.
This isn’t an American or Canadian science-fiction novel. But there’s something particularly universal about the themes of this genre: a sense of excitement and curiosity about the unknown, a certain degree of tempered optimism, of wonder. These feelings come through.
Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.
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Updated on Saturday, December 6, 2014 8:36 AM CST: Formatting.