三体 The Three-Body Trilogy
Video Length 1:40
Who Should Read It
Anyone who enjoys science, fiction, or both (science fiction)!
Why Should We Read It
This story melds together the chaos of the Cultural Revolution with an alien invasion of Earth!
What Will We Learn
We will experience science fiction from China's preeminent science fiction writer.
Trilogy Reflections (SPOILER FREE!)
"...featured stories by Cixin Liu 刘慈欣, China's most celebrated modern-day science fiction writer."
Several months ago, I stumbled upon a curious book entitled Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu. I nearly passed over it because I have always preferred the single cohesive narrative of a novel; an anthology is (un-)necessarily punctuated with an irregular staccato rhythm across multiple chapters. Moreover, I was apathetic to "Chinese" science fiction, whatever that meant. When I showed my wife my fortuitous purchase, she excitedly pointed out that this collection featured stories by Cixin Liu 刘慈欣, China's most celebrated modern-day science fiction writer. My wife just happened to be reading his most famous trilogy, Remembrance of Earth's Past 地球往事, in its original Mandarin language (note bene: Chinese readers generally refer to 地球往事 as simply 三体 ). An internet search revealed that an official English translation was available, and she bought me a copy.
"The story begins during China's tumultuous Cultural Revolution, a historical event without modern peer."
The first book in Cixin Liu 刘慈欣's trilogy, The Three Body Problem 三体, was exactly what I assumed "Chinese" science fiction to be. The story begins during China's tumultuous Cultural Revolution, a historical event without modern peer. Under these circumstances, a fictitious family of academics is brutally torn apart and subjugated to hard labor. China's military, however, needs the physics knowledge of the family's daughter Ye Wenjie 叶文洁, and her placement in a top-secret radio station sets in motion the initial contact with aliens from nearby Alpha Centauri. A non-Chinese writer could conceivably write a similar story under the same premise; that same writer would find it difficult to reproduce the nuanced motivations and personalities of 三体's predominantly Chinese characters. This is particularly true of "Big" Shi Qiang 大史强, a memorable minor character with major impact on the story.
"...an ordinary person whom destiny has thrust upon him the fate of two civilizations..."
Cixin Liu 刘慈欣's second act, The Dark Forest 黑暗森林, has a more balanced cast of international characters because the story demands it- Earth is faced with an alien invasion, and a global response requires global actors and actresses. This book's protagonist Luo Ji 罗辑 is Chinese, but in fact there is no particular need for this character to have Chinese heritage to drive the plot forward. If anything, his distinguishing quality, like Ye Wenjie 叶文洁, is that he was an ordinary person whom destiny has thrust upon him the fate of two civilizations. In fact, the plot of 黑暗森林 is arguably not about Earth's response to alien invasion, but about how an individual human's psyche interacts with human society when both experience the extreme duress of impending annihilation. How Luo Ji 罗辑 comes to understand human nature and its place in the cosmos is what makes 黑暗森林 critically unforgettable.
"...the trilogy concludes in a completely unexpected yet satisfying manner."
The final book in the trilogy, Death's End 死神永生, is by Cixin Liu 刘慈欣's own admission a book meant for "pure" science fiction fans instead of "Chinese" science fiction fans, who apparently tend to enjoy the "fiction" more than the "science". In contrast to the first two acts, 三体 and 黑暗森林, the third act 死神永生 dives exponentially more deeply into topics like astrophysics, particle science, and string theory. I do agree that this third book feels the least "Chinese" to me, probably because Cixin Liu 刘慈欣 emphasizes the science as much as I expect any other English-language writer to emphasize in science fiction. I do not have enough theoretical knowledge to know if the science Cixin Liu 刘慈欣 describes is speculative or not; it's certainly entertaining. In fact, 死神永生 remains as exciting and urgently paced as the first two novels, and it concludes the trilogy in a completely unexpected yet satisfying manner.
"...stories that everyone in all languages can relate."
I did eventually read Ken Liu's Invisible Planets after completing Remembrance of Earth's Past 地球往事. The sampling of contemporary Chinese science fiction writing has left me indelibly impressed with the scope and imagination of this niche sub-genre. I still can't describe what makes Chinese science fiction "Chinese". Ken Liu argues that "attempts to provide neat answers [to this question] will only result in broad generalizations that are of little value, or stereotypes that reaffirm existing prejudices." Xia Jia 夏笳, one of the authors featured in Invisible Planets, simply explains, "Our stories are written primarily for a Chinese audience." And yet, these stories remain thought-provoking and relevant to me. It speaks to the universality of science fiction- hopes, fears, and anxiety about technology and the future are stories that everyone in all languages can relate.