Cixin Liu’s ”The Three-Body Problem” was not an easy book to get through. Set in China, partly during the Cultural Revolution and partly in modern times, it tells the tale of a couple of scientists that have to deal with a mysterious scientific and societal problem. At the center of it lies a VR game that takes place on another planet. In a not-particularly-twisty twist, all is not what it seems…
I try to read books in the language they were written in (as much as possible, seeing as I only speak three), because I feel that a lot of translations leave a lot to be desired. Ideally, for me, you shouldn’t notice that the text is a translation. But sometimes the translators do a terrible job, and either you’re put off by how bad the translation is (either linguistically or because they fail to catch the tone of the original) or you’re left not knowing if the mess you’re reading is the author’s fault or the translator’s.
This book was originally written in Chinese, and the first book I ever read by a Chinese author, which is why I was willing to keep reading and give it the benefit of a doubt despite the wooden language. But about halfway through the book I cheated and read the translator’s postscript. In it, he explains how he tried to be as faithful as possible to the original version and to not ”Americanise” the language. It seemed to me as if he was trying to explain why the language was as wooden as it was. So this was apparently not a question of bad translation but of a bad original.
Tο call the characters in this book caricatures would be giving them substance that they didn’t have. There was too little context to understand their actions, too little plot to explain the gravity of their decisions. I didn’t care about any of them, and I don’t think the author did, either. Perhaps there were a few things that were ”lost in translation” after all – without knowing much about China’s Cultural Revolution and the impact it had on individuals, families and the country as a whole, it is impossible to use it as a historical and cultural reference frame when trying to understand the main characters. Things that are implied for a person with knowledge of Chinese history, things that go without saying need to be said for someone without such knowledge. On the other hand, you can’t expect a foreign author to spell out everything for you. You are presumably not their target audience to begin with.
The book is heavy on the science. HEAVY. As in, you probably need a degree to understand the themes the author touches upon. I usually enjoy popular science. It blows me away. But in this case, it was unnecessarily cumbersome and to the expense of the plot. I have no idea of knowing how accurate it was, but I wouldn’t have minded if the author had gone a bit easier on the scientific explanations for everything and relied more on suspension of disbelief. The plot felt more like a vehicle for talking about science than storytelling.
With that said, there were still times while reading this book when I found myself mesmerised. The chapters that took place in the VR game were convincingly terrifying. While at times I wondered just what on earth I was reading, because of what seemed like fanboy silliness, at other times I was certain that this was the work of a genius. Unfortunately, on the whole, this book suffers from a common problem among geniuses: the ability to make themselves relatable and understood. As much as I’d like to find out what happens next (in the two sequels that have been translated into English), I think that my pain threshold for wooden language and unrelatable characters is too low to make drudging through a course in Advanced Quantum Mechanics worth it.