What on earth can I say? If I said “Liu Cixin is like a Chinese Greg Egan” that gives some idea of the complexity of the science… and I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Ken Liu to translate those sections.
The focus of the novel is split over a few characters and periods:
Some of it is set in the Cultural Revolution of the 60s, and explores some of the consequences of this for academics in particular, via one woman and her family. I have taught this era (only once, but that’s better than naught), so I have no idea what the average reader would bring to this – and especially not what an average American reader would think. Ken Liu has done a good job of providing some footnotes with explanations, without (I thought) interrupting the flow of the narrative too much. A young woman, Ye, whose family was targeted ends up working at a mysterious scientific/military outpost…
Some is set in a ‘present’ that I don’t remember being identified, but is not one of William Gibson’s ‘tomorrows’ – it felt perfectly normal. Here, a scientist starts encountering weird things and gets drawn into an investigation that turns out to be even weirder than expected, and involves the whole world (there are scenes involving the Chinese military brass and NATO officers which had me shaking my head at the possible ramifications).
Some it is set in-game: the scientist, Wang, starts playing a game called Three-Body Problem – which it took me ages to realise is the conundrum of how to figure out the physics of three bodies interacting with each other gravitationally (it’s been a while since I thought physics, ok?). The game is connected to the investigation and also allows Liu to write THE most hilarious description of people physically being a computer ever, and this from someone whose knowledge of computational logic is non-existant (NAND and NOR gates? I admit my eyes glazed over somewhat…).
Some of it is set… elsewhere… not telling where.
I liked Ye a lot; the complexities of being first condemned, and then being considered useful but still politically unreliable, then rehabilitated into society – it’s done very nicely. I didn’t like Wang as much, which I think was mostly to do with his attitude towards his wife and son: basically he ignored them, and I found this quite unpleasant. Da Shi, a policeman involved in the investigation, is magnificent and is the character I would most like to see in a mini-series version of the book.
I had heard that some people thought there was a lot of emphasis on the Cultural Revolution, so I was surprised to find that for me, at least, it’s not actually a very big part of the story – page-wise anyway. It’s certainly of fundamental importance in Ye’s development, don’t get me wrong, but there’s definitely far more time spent in the present (and probably more time spent in-game by one of the characters, although I haven’t checked the page numbers to confirm that).
I am beyond impressed that this made it on to the Hugo ballot (yes yes after one of the Rabid nominees pulled out). I’m really glad it did, since it made me read it sooner than I otherwise would have. I really enjoyed it. There are some parts where, as with a Greg Egan novel, I skimmed over some science because I just can’t come at the physics anymore. But that wasn’t a problem with understanding the plot or the characters, and actually – especially considering this is a translation – much of the science-speak was quite accessible. (Ken Liu has an interesting discussion of the issues of translation at the end of the version I read, which was in the Hugo packet; it’s a very thoughtful essay about staying true to the vibe of the thing as well as/instead of staying true to the actual words and phrases used.) I discovered only when I got to the end that this is the first in a trilogy… I believe I may well be reading the rest.
But who am I going to put first on my Hugo ballot?!?