4.5 stars. Liu Cixin’s first contact novel The Three-Body Problem is the tale of a secret Chinese military project to contact extraterrestrial intelligence, and the answering message that may spell the end of humanity. Beginning with the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, Liu combines the tale of Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao. Ye progresses from respected professor to political outcast to engineer at the facility that first made contact with the Trisolarans to leader of a philosophical movement. Wang becomes part of an investigation into the suicide of prominent researchers, then explores an MMORPG called Three Body, which becomes allegory for the history of the aliens and their doomed planet.
The Three-Body Problem is heavy on the hard science: quantum mechanics, multidimensional existence, electromagnetic spectrum, and nanomaterials are integral parts of the story. A basic knowledge of these subjects is helpful (nothing more than one could glean from Wikipedia in a cursory overview), though not essential. To the best of my understanding, the science is accurately portrayed, though of course the alien technology is the result of imaginative application of the science.
Much of the narrative tension of the book is the result of the thin line indeed between enemy and ally. The life and outlook of each character believably aligns them with the factions of humanity, some expecting to be saved by the Trisolarans, some expecting humanity’s sins to be expurgated by the impending invasion, and some readying themselves to fight for our very existence. Liu applies the tone of dark paranoia of the Cultural Revolution to the invasion, which added a disconcerting and eerie undercurrent to the entire book.
The weakest part of the novel for me was that some of the minor characters seemed far more fleshed out than Ye and Wang, particularly the no-nonsense police detective Shi Qiang. Occasionally Ye and Wang seem as if they are just along for the ride, simply there to move the plot along.
The translation by Ken Liu is excellent, presenting a solid narrative flow while still retaining the feel of Chinese literature. I particularly felt the Chinese style on the in-game sequences; the mythical folk feel, archetypal characters, and philosophical nuances reminded me of Journey to the West. A smattering of footnotes gives cultural insights, relevant history, and some language play that would otherwise be lost in translation. (As an aside, Kindle footnotes on iOS would be so much better if they simply popped up the relevant information the same way that definitions appear instead of transferring to another page!)
Alternately scientific work, political thriller, psychological horror, and hardcore alien invasion story, The Three-Body Problem is a work of incredible scope and imagination. I am hooked for sure, and ready to dive into the next volume of the trilogy, The Dark Forest.