'Three-Body Problem' Asks A Classic Sci-Fi Question, In Chinese Chinese sci-fi author Cixin Liu bridges the gap between East and West in his new novel, a tale of alien first contact influenced by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Chinese history and mythology.
NPR logo 'Three-Body Problem' Asks A Classic Sci-Fi Question, In Chinese

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Book Reviews

'Three-Body Problem' Asks A Classic Sci-Fi Question, In Chinese

English translations of foreign-language science fiction are becoming more common, still, they face an uphill battle. The American market is already crowded with books written by native English speakers, and it takes a conscientious reader to seek out treasures that originate from other parts of the world — that is, if they're even translated in the first place.

When the other part of the world is, say, China, the effort becomes even more complicated. But China has a thriving science fiction scene, and Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem is stunning, elegant proof. Published in China in 2006 and newly translated by award-winning Chinese-American author Ken Liu, the novel is the first installment of a trilogy that asks one of the oldest questions in SF: What would it mean for the human race to come in contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence? From there, though, it transcends expectation — not to mention borders.

The Three-Body Problem spans multiple decades and characters, but it zooms in on Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, two scientists in the very near future. Wenjie is an astrophysicist with a haunted past; she's the daughter of a physicist who was executed during the Cultural Revolution for daring to teach the "reactionary" idea of general relativity. Miao is a nanotech engineer, and he's been swept up in a virtual-reality, online video game called Three Body that's so deeply metaphysical, it's begun to resemble a cult.

Either of these premises alone would be make for a rich SF novel, but Cixin Liu is only getting warmed up. By the time the book hits its peak, it's unveiled a conspiracy that spans solar systems — one that not only threatens to alter the human race, but the very building blocks of physics that we've evolved to understand.

Cixin Liu clearly loves golden-age SF authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke; accordingly, The Three-Body Problem turns a boilerplate, first-contact concept into something absolutely mind-unfolding. While in the virtual world of Three Body, Miao confronts philosophical conundrums that border on the psychedelic, all while remaining scientifically rigorous. The way the book's alien race seeks to assert its presence on Earth is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

This is hard SF, full of lovingly lengthy passages of technical exposition about everything from quantum mechanics to artificial intelligence. But Cixin Liu supports all of that braintwisting theory with empathetic characters and a strong action-thriller backbone. That's a lot to set up, and The Three-Body Problem flounders somewhat until it finds its footing. The story begins slowly despite its many chronological leaps forward, and it takes a while to untangle exactly who or what the focal points of the plot are supposed to be. Once it's up and running, though, it's gripping.

For all its universal appeal, The Three-Body Problem is set against a specific backdrop, one that most English-language readers only know from a distance. Many of its major points hinge on the knowledge of Chinese history and culture — and while Ken Liu's translation is clear, tasteful, and lyrical, there's a lot of exposition to chew on. It's worth every ounce of effort. The book's well-earned suspense hinges on moral dilemmas that resonate far beyond its nationality or even its heady, abstract physics. At what point does science become dogma, and what point does that same dogma become religion?

Cixin Liu doesn't pose that question so much as let it play out in a sweeping drama that risks the highest stakes imaginable — and some that can barely be imagined at all. If The Three-Body Problem (and the next two books in the series, whose translations are in the works) helps bridge the gap between Eastern and Western SF, it will have performed a great duty for the literary world. But as a science-fiction epic of the most profound kind, it's already won.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club.

NPR's Book Concierge: Our Guide To 2014's Great Reads

Introducing NPR's Book Concierge, your personal guide to the great books published in 2014. NPR staff and critics selected some 250 of their favorite titles. You can find a list of all our recommended titles below or ...

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2014 Book Concierge: The Complete List Of Recommended Titles

10:04: A Novel
by Ben Lerner

2 A.M. At The Cat's Pajamas
by Marie-Helene Bertino

A Bollywood Affair
by Sonali Dev

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
by Eimear McBride

A Long Way Home: A Memoir
by Saroo Brierley

A Painter's Progress: A Portrait Of Lucian Freud
by David Dawson

A Snicker Of Magic
by Natalie Lloyd

Afterparty
by Daryl Gregory

Ah-Ha To Zig-Zag: 31 Objects From Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
by Maira Kalman

All Our Names
by Dinaw Mengestu

All The Light We Cannot See: A Novel
by Anthony Doerr

All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid
by Matt Bai

An Unnecessary Woman
by Rabih Alameddine

An Untamed State
by Roxane Gay

Ancient Oceans Of Central Kentucky
by David Connerley Nahm

Ancillary Sword
by Anne Leckie

Another Man's War: The Story Of A Burma Boy In Britain's Forgotten Army
by Barnaby Phillips

Apples Of Uncommon Character: Heirlooms, Modern Classics, And Little-Known Wonders
by Rowan Jacobsen

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance
by Jeff VanderMeer

Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog And Instruction Manual
by Kate Samworth

Bad Feminist: Essays
by Roxane Gay

Baking Chez Moi: Recipes From My Paris Home To Your Home Anywhere
by Dorie Greenspan

Bark: Stories
by Lorrie Moore

Beethoven: Anguish And Triumph
by Jan Swafford

Being Mortal: Medicine And What Matters In The End
by Atul Gawande

Belzhar
by Meg Wolitzer

Bitter Eden: A Novel
by Tatamkhulu Afrika

Blood Will Out: The True Story Of A Murder, A Mystery, And A Masquerade
by Walter Kirn

Bolaño, A Biography In Conversations
by Monica Maristain

Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel
by Helen Oyeyemi

Bright Shards of Someplace Else
by Monica McFawn

Broken Monsters
by Lauren Beukes

Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You?: A Memoir
by George Clinton

Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson

California: A Novel
by Edan Lepucki

Can't And Won't: Stories
by Lydia Davis

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir
by Roz Chast

Caribbean Potluck: Modern Recipes From Our Family Kitchen
by Suzanne Rousseau and Michelle Rousseau

Check The Technique: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies
by Brian Coleman

Citizen: An American Lyric
by Claudia Rankine

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, And The Battle That Defined A Generation
by Blake J. Harris

Cooking Light Global Kitchen: The World's Most Delicious Food Made Easy
by David Joachim

Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)
by Christian Rudder

Dear Committee Members: A Novel
by Julie Schumacher

Debbie Doesn't Do It Anymore: A Novel
by Walter Mosley

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories Of 33 Men Buried In A Chilean Mine, And The Miracle That Set Them Free
by Héctor Tobar

Definitely Maybe
by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage
by Molly Wizenberg

Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt For The World's Rarest 78rpm Records
by Amanda Petrusich

Do Or Die: A Reluctant Heroes Novel
by Suzanne Brockman

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism And Wrecked The Middle Class
by Ian Haney López

Draw!
by Raul Colón

Duty: Memoirs Of A Secretary At War
by Robert M. Gates

El Deafo
by Cece Bell

Electric City: A Novel
by Elizabeth Rosner

Emeralds Included: A Jana Bibi Adventure
by Betsy Woodman

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
by Jung Chang

Euphoria
by Lily King

Every Day Is For The Thief: Fiction
by Teju Cole

Everything I Never Told You: A Novel
by Celeste Ng

F: A Novel
by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Janeway

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014
by Alice Munro

Famous Writers I Have Known: A Novel
by James Magnuson

Fatale Deluxe Edition, Vol. 1
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips

Firebird
by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

Flashlight
by Lizi Boyd

Florence Gordon
by Brian Morton

Foreign Gods, Inc.
by Okey Ndibe

Found
by Salina Yoon

Fourth Of July Creek: A Novel
by Smith Henderson

Fresh From The Farm: A Year Of Recipes And Stories
by Susie Middleton

Friendswood: A Novel
by René Steinke

Gaston
by Kelly DiPucchio and Christian Robinson

Geek Sublime: The Beauty Of Code, The Code Of Beauty
by Vikram Chandra

Girl In Reverse
by Barbara Stuber

Gottland: Mostly True Stories From Half Of Czechoslovakia
by Mariusz Szczygiel, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Gray Mountain: A Novel
by John Grisham

Half a World Away
by Cynthia Kadohata

Heap House: The Iremonger Trilogy: Book One
by Edward Carey

Here
by Richard McGuire

Heroes Are My Weakness: A Novel
by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Hijacking The Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing The Spotlight From Fashion Designers
by Teri Agins

Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, And The Battlefield Of AIDS
by Martin Duberman

Hooray For Hat!
by Brian Won

Horrorstör: A Novel
by Grady Hendrix

How I Discovered Poetry
by Marilyn Nelson

How The World Was: A California Childhood
by Emmanuel Guibert

How To Be A Victorian: A Dawn-To-Dusk Guide To Victorian Life
by Ruth Goodman

How To Be Both: A Novel
by Ali Smith

How To Be Happy
by Eleanor Davis

How To Build A Girl: A Novel
by Caitlin Moran

I Am China: A Novel
by Xiaolu Guo

I Don't Know Do You
by Roberto Montes

I'll Give You The Sun
by Jandy Nelson

Icon
by Amy Scholder (editor)

In The Light Of What We Know: A Novel
by Zia Haider Rahman

In The Wolf's Mouth: A Novel
by Adam Foulds

J Dilla's Donuts
by Jordan Ferguson

Josephine: The Dazzling Life Of Josephine Baker
by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson

Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction And Fantasy Stories
by Edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios

Kinda Like Brothers
by Coe Booth

Land Of Love And Drowning: A Novel
by Tiphanie Yanique

Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book
by Richard Ford

Life Drawing: A Novel
by Robin Black

Lightspeed: Women Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue
by Christie Yant (editor)

Lila: A Novel
by Marilynne Robinson

Lion, Lion
by Miriam Busch and Larry Day

Little Failure: A Memoir
by Gary Shteyngart

Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream
by Josh O'Neill, Andrew Carl and Chris Stevens (editors)

Loitering: New And Collected Essays
by Charles D'Ambrosio

Lost Lake
by Sarah Addison Allen

Lovers At The Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel
by Francine Prose

Malaria, Poems
by Cameron Conaway

Man Alive: A True Story Of Violence, Forgiveness And Becoming A Man
by Thomas Page McBee

Mastering My Mistakes In The Kitchen: Learning To Cook With 65 Great Chefs And Over 100 Delicious Recipes
by Dana Cowin

McSweeney's Issue 46: Thirteen Crime Stories From Latin America
by Daniel Galera

Mexico: The Cookbook
by Margarita Carrillo Arronte

My Beautiful Enemy
by Sherry Thomas

My Perfect Pantry: 150 Easy Recipes From 50 Essential Ingredients
by Geoffrey Zakarian, Amy Stevenson and Margaret Zakarian

My Pet Book
by Bob Staake

Nazis In The Metro
by Didier Daeninckx

Night Heron
by Adam Brookes

Ninja!
by Arree Chung

Nora Webster: A Novel
by Colm Tóibín

Nothing More To Lose
by Najwan Darwish, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid

On Such A Full Sea: A Novel
by Chang-rae Lee

One Kick: A Novel
by Chelsea Cain

Orfeo: A Novel
by Richard Powers

Our Secret Life In The Movies
by Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree

Ovenly: Sweet And Salty Recipes From New York's Most Creative Bakery
by Erin Patinkin and Agatha Kulaga

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time
by Brigid Schulte

Panic In A Suitcase: A Novel
by Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Perfidia: A Novel
by James Ellroy

Philip Larkin: Life, Art And Love
by James Booth

Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking From London's Ottolenghi
by Yotam Ottolenghi

Poking A Dead Frog: Conversations With Today's Top Comedy Writers
by Mike Sacks

Prelude to Bruise
by Saeed Jones

Pretty Deadly Volume 1
by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios

Quest
by Aaron Becker

Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery
by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

Red Or Dead: A Novel
by David Peace

Redeployment
by Phil Klay

Rules Of Summer
by Shaun Tan

Sex Criminals Volume 1
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Shoe Dog
by Megan McDonald and Katherine Tillotson

Showa 1944-1953: A History Of Japan
by Shigeru Mizuki

Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes From The Thai Home Kitchen
by Leela Punyaratabandhu

Sisters
by Raina Telgemeier

Soldier Girls: The Battles Of Three Women At Home And At War
by Helen Thorpe

Some Dead Genius
by Lenny Kleinfeld

Some Luck: A Novel
by Jane Smiley

Station Eleven: A Novel
by Emily St. John Mandel

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
by Margaret Atwood

Strike!: The Farm Workers' Fight For Their Rights
by Larry Dane Brimner

Thank You, Octopus
by Darren Farrell

The Adventures Of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend
by Dan Santat

The American Mission
by Matthew Palmer

The Apex Book Of World SF 3
by Lavie Tidhar (editor)

The Ballad Of A Small Player: A Novel
by Lawrence Osborne

The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes For Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches
by Andrea Nguyen

The Bees: A Novel
by Laline Paull

The Blazing World: A Novel
by Siri Hustvedt

The Bone Clocks: A Novel
by David Mitchell

The Book Of Strange New Things: A Novel
by Michel Faber

The Book Of Unknown Americans: A Novel
by Cristina Henrí­quez

The Broken Road: From The Iron Gates To Mount Athos
by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Children Act
by Ian McEwan

The Complete Zap Comix Boxed Set
by R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, Robert Williams, Victor Moscoso, Paul Mavrides and Rick Griffin

The Dead Lake
by Hamid Ismailov

The Distance: A Thriller
by Helen Giltrow

The Divide: American Injustice In The Age Of The Wealth Gap
by Matt Taibbi

The Empathy Exams: Essays
by Leslie Jamison

The Empire Of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, And Deception In The New World
by Greg Grandin

The End of the Sentence
by Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard

The Farm
by Tom Rob Smith

The Farmer And The Clown
by Marla Frazee

The Fever: A Novel
by Megan Abbott

The Girl Next Door: A Novel
by Ruth Rendell

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden: A Novel
by Jonas Jonasson, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

The Girls At The Kingfisher Club: A Novel
by Genevieve Valentine

The Good Spy: The Life And Death Of Robert Ames
by Kai Bird

The Haight: Love, Rock, And Revolution
by Jim Marshall and Joel Selvin

The Hawley Book Of The Dead: A Novel
by Chrysler Szarlan

The Hilltop: A Novel
by Assaf Gavron, translated by Steven Cohen

The History Of Rock 'N' Roll In Ten Songs
by Greil Marcus

The Homesick Texan's Family Table: Lone Star Cooking From My Kitchen To Yours
by Lisa Fain

The Inheritance Trilogy
by N.K. Jemisin

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Nixon And The Rise Of Reagan
by Rick Perlstein

The King's Curse
by Philippa Gregory

The Last Illusion: A Novel
by Porochista Khakpour

The Loudest Voice In The Room: How The Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News —- And Divided A Country
by Gabriel Sherman

The Man With The Compound Eyes: A Novel
by Wu Ming-Yi

The Map Thief: The Gripping Story Of An Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps
by Michael Blanding

The Martian: A Novel
by Andy Weir

The Memory Garden
by Mary Rickert

The Misadventures Of The Family Fletcher
by Dana Alison Levy

The Moor's Account: A Novel
by Laila Lalami

The Narrow Road To The Deep North: A Novel
by Richard Flanagan

The New Greenmarket Cookbook: Recipes And Tips From Today's Finest Chefs — And The Stories Behind The Farms That Inspire Them
by Gabrielle Langholtz

The Night Gardener
by Jonathan Auxier

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, And Death
by Colson Whitehead

The Odd One Out
by Britta Teckentrup

The Paying Guests
by Sarah Waters

The People's Platform: Taking Back Power And Culture In The Digital Age
by Astra Taylor

The Peripheral: A Novel
by William Gibson

The Ploughmen: A Novel
by Kim Zupan

The Republic Of Imagination: America In Three Books
by Azar Nafisi

The Rise & Fall Of Great Powers: A Novel
by Tom Rachman

The Secret History Of Wonder Woman
by Jill Lepore

The Secret Place: A Novel
by Tana French

The Shadow Hero
by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew

The Short And Tragic Life Of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark For The Ivy League
by Jeff Hobbs

The Silkworm
by Robert Galbraith

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food
by Charles Phan

The Soda Fountain: Floats, Sundaes, Egg Creams & More — Stories And Flavors Of An American Original
by Gia Giasullo and Peter Freeman

The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait
by Blake Bailey

The Three-Body Problem
by Cixin Liu

The Tropic Of Serpents: A Memoir By Lady Trent
by Marie Brennan

The True American: Murder And Mercy In Texas
by Anand Giridharadas

The UnAmericans: Stories
by Molly Antopol

The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story To Light
by Carlos Santana

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga Volume 1
by Stan Sakai

The Witch: And Other Tales Re-Told
by Jean Thompson

The Wrenchies
by Farel Dalrymple

The Year She Left Us: A Novel
by Kathryn Ma

The Zone Of Interest: A Novel
by Martin Amis

Things I've Learned From Dying: A Book About Life
by David R. Dow

Thirteen Days In September: Carter, Begin, And Sadat At Camp David
by Lawrence Wright

Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay
by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

Three Minutes In Poland: Discovering A Lost World In A 1938 Family Film
by Glenn Kurtz

Through The Woods
by Emily Carroll

Thrown
by Kerry Howley

Tigerman: A Novel
by Nick Harkaway

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, And Madness At The Dawn of Hollywood
by William J. Mann

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour: A Novel
by Joshua Ferris

Unexpected Stories
by Octavia E. Butler

Us Conductors: A Novel
by Sean Michaels

Valour And Vanity
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Viva Frida
by Yuyi Morales and Tim O'Meara

Walt Before Skeezix
by Frank King

We Were Liars
by E. Lockhart

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
by David Shafer

With My Dog-Eyes: A Novel
by Hilda Hilst

Wolf In White Van: A Novel
by John Darnielle

Wonderland: A Novel
by Stacey D'Erasmo

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion Of Pussy Riot
by Masha Gessen

World Spice At Home: New Flavors For 75 Favorite Dishes
by Amanda Bevill and Julie Kramis Hearne

You Are (Not) Small
by Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant

Your Illustrated Guide To Becoming One With The Universe
by Yumi Sakugawa