What would you do if the laws of physics, of the universe, turned out not to be laws at all? Imagine you’re a scientist confronted with this realization. This is one of the more disturbing realities that characters must contend with in The Three-Body Problem, the first of a trilogy by Chinese author Liu Cixin.
The book does an excellent job of making the scale of the universe, from its immensity to its sub-atomic particularities, conceivable and real. One of the scientist characters has a gift that allows him to visualize numbers, and in a note the author reveals that he has a similar gift. The book is very intelligent and detailed in its explanation of science; I can’t say I could follow it all, but I understood the larger picture and was fascinated by the minutiae.
The book begins in China’s cultural revolution and fast forwards to the present, shifting perspectives from the scientist daughter of a persecuted university professor to a man working in nanotechnology. Most of the significant characters are scientists, with the exception of Da Shi, a corrupt, wily policeman who became my favorite character. The protagonist, Wang, learns of the deaths of prominent scientists and starts seeing strange things, such as a countdown that appears visible only to him. He is tasked with helping to investigate a shady scientific organization, which involves his playing a strange video game called Three-Body. Nothing is what it seems, and Wang falls down a rabbit hole (more like a black hole) that leads to knowledge of extra-terrestrial life.
This Chinese SF novel was something unique; I found its different style of storytelling often engaging, though sometimes odd. The translator explains in a note that there may be narrative techniques unfamiliar to Western readers, and I could sense them. For example, much is explained through pages of dialogue, and the narrative can feel interrupted by the video game chapters, as much as I enjoyed them. I struggled with the fact that, after a brief appearance earlier in the book, Wang’s wife and child do not re-enter the narrative, not even Wang’s thoughts. His thoughts themselves are often unknown–for a time I wasn’t sure where he stood in the quiet war going on.
Nevertheless, I do look forward to reading the next book in the trilogy (after a break) and to seeing the movie adaptation.