Task: Read a book of genre fiction in translation.
My husband Chris and I lived in China for a couple of years (Chris was actually there two years before I arrived on the scene – it’s a long story). China is a huge, complicated, wonderful, horrifying, contradictory place that I’ll always have an odd, incomplete but entirely fascinated connection with. Two years felt like enough time to imperceptibly scratch the surface of the country.
But it was enough time to watch Spring Festival fireworks from a hotel rooftop, to drink way too much baijiu in a sleeper train car, to see pictures of my shy landlord’s brand new twins, to spend a lazy afternoon rambling around a city park full of plum blossoms, to go to weddings, to have cashiers and vendors greet me with a big smile of recognition in spite of the language barrier, to make some friends. I feel like there is a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny little scrap of China that I know, understand, and love, and it’s not enough to make me feel like I’m any kind of an authority on anything Chinese, but it is enough to make my ears perk up when I hear the word “China” and to give me some powerful nostalgia tinged with a little bit of sadness. The pace of change there is so fast that I know the place I left doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s probably better now, I know, but it’s almost definitely unrecognizable. I wouldn’t know what to do in a version of Nanjing where Castle Bar has closed.
Anyway. The Three-Body Problem has been on my radar for a while because it is such a blockbuster Chinese sci fi novel. Hard science fiction has always intimidated me, and so, embarrassing as this is, I don’t read a whole lot of it. This book convinced me to rethink that stance, though.
I mean, it’s full of pretty intense science – the tension between theoretical and applied physics, the consequences of “unfolding” multidimensional objects, and the classic orbital mechanics problem that gives the book its name are all subjects that I have no grounding in whatsoever. Or I didn’t, before reading this. It wasn’t the face-meltingly trippy physics bending in the final act that hooked me though. It was the Cultural Revolution origin story and the unusually morally oriented nature of the first contact story at the novel’s heart that got me. From there, it’s a propulsive read, giving you the same kind of desperate need to finish that a video game does (that’s a very deliberate metaphor, since a frustrating and engrossing VR game drives the early action).And of course the pairing of several incredibly satisfying thought experiments with a background of recent Chinese history and a surprisingly terrifying alien element was a ton of fun.
Not only did I get an adrenaline spike out of this, I also got my own mind turning in new directions and a bit of a confidence boost in my ability to stay with a conversation about physics, which I certainly wasn’t expecting. And while it’s not inaccessible by any means, thanks largely to the really good translation by Ken Liu, which includes judicious footnotes, this is a Chinese story, through and through.
Five out of five apocalyptic protons.