Speculative Fiction in Translation: The Three-Body Trilogy

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu

series: Remembrance of Earth’s Past (Book 1)

Tor Books

November 11, 2014

400 pages

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

translated from the Chinese by Joel Martinsen

series: Remembrance of Earth’s Past (Book 2)

Tor Books

August 11, 2015

512 pages

Death’s End by Cixin Liu

translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu

series: Remembrance of Earth’s Past (Book 3)

Tor Books

September 20, 2016

608 pages

The Three-Body Problem takes as its starting point the Cultural Revolution, which swept across China in the 1960s and 1970s. Its program of repression, “re-education,” and violence, in a bid to purge capitalist sympathizers and those not truly devoted to the Communist party, paralyzed the country culturally and scientifically. Out of this chaotic period comes Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist whose physicist father was killed for not teaching his subject along strictly Communist lines. She winds up at Red Coast Base, a secret military project that sends radio signals into space in an attempt to discover alien life-forms.

Liu jumps back and forth in time, between the end of the Cultural Revolution and contemporary times, inviting us to think about how decades may seem long to humans, but in the cosmic scheme of things, they’re but tiny blips. When Ye realizes one night that her amplified signal has been captured and then responded to by aliens in Alpha Centauri, she chooses to place her hopes on these unknown intelligences to bring order and peace to Earth, whatever the consequences. She encourages them to come to Earth.

These aliens live on a planet called “Trisolaris,” so-called because the three suns that orbit that world are responsible for destroying its civilizations again and again. Their orbits are chaotic, and the result is short “Stable Eras” and frequent “Chaotic Eras,” in which the aliens “dehydrate” and hibernate until a Stable Era returns. Ultimately, the three suns’ gravitational pull damages the planet itself, convincing the Trisolaran leaders that their world is doomed and they must seek a new one.

As the Trisolaran fleet makes its way to Earth, the aliens, in contact with human sympathizers develop a virtual-reality game that introduces people to the problems of Trisolaris, inviting them to solve the “three-body problem” that has plagued Earth-physics for centuries and perhaps save the alien world. As expected, the growing organization of people seeking to meet the Trisolarans splinters into numerous factions, eerily reminiscent of the bloody factional fighting between various Red Guard units during the Cultural Revolution. At the heart of these arguments is the ultimate question: what will the aliens want when they arrive?

The Dark Forest, translated by Joel Martinsen, continues the story of Earth vs. the alien civilization of Trisolaris introduced in The Three-Body Problem. In this second book, Earth has determined that the Trisolarans are indeed on the way- to exterminate humanity and take over the Earth? To negotiate with Earth and live in harmony? No one knows, of course, and so humanity has decided to take advantage of the 400 years that it’ll take for the fleet to reach them to come up with some sort of defensive/offensive strategy.

One big problem, though: the Trisolarans have already deployed sophons- subatomic particles that allow the aliens to gain access to all human information- all over the Earth, and have managed to halt technological and scientific innovation. Basically, the Trisolarans have tried to freeze human ingenuity so that when the aliens do arrive, the Earth will be powerless to defend itself.

Earth’s only hope, then, lies in the human mind. Sophons can’t access thoughts, and so in a grand plan designed to encourage radical innovation, the Planetary Defense Council announces the “Wallfacer Project.” Four powerful, brilliant men from around the world are chosen to be “Wallfacers” and given nearly unlimited access to resources and information worldwide in order to come up with a plan to confront, if not defeat, the Trisolaran fleet.

A large part of the novel, then, is given to describing how these men develop their plans while trying to throw the Trisolarans off their tracks. The plans are grand and brilliant and ultimately destructive to both sides. One involves a suicide strike on the Trisolaran fleet by an Earth fleet; another uses the solar system itself as a trap for the aliens (it involves all of the planets falling into the sun, but that’s all I’ll say). And then there’s astronomer and sociologist Luo Ji’s plan, involving a “spell” cast out into the far reaches of the universe…

Framing the narrative is Luo Ji’s understanding of what astrophysicist Ye Wenjie had discussed with him years before: “cosmic sociology.” Its two axioms: “survival is the primary need of civilization” and “civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.” What Luo Ji ultimately realizes, amidst all of the panic and planning and human-hibernation and strategic developments, is that humanity must find a way out of the Fermi Paradox (“where are all of the aliens? Are there aliens?”) and figure out how to threaten the alien fleet by using the axioms of cosmic civilization against it.

Death’s End, the third and final installment, is not just one book but two: the frame, which is interspersed throughout the book and called “A Past Outside of Time;” and the story proper, in which we follow the remarkable journey of Cheng Xin toward the limits of the universe. The frame story, supposedly written by Cheng herself, is formal in tone, suggesting an academic paper akin to something that Cheng might have written as a student. This intermingling of stories (one by Cheng, the other about her), invites the reader to view the entire tale from a doubled perspective, in which we are always aware of perspectives outside of our own. In the world of this trilogy, humanity lives with the knowledge that it isn’t alone in the universe for centuries before actually encountering a representative of Trisolaris (Sophon).

Recalling Arthur C. Clarke’s sweeping timeline for humanity in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Death’s End takes us from the “Common Era” (to 201 CE) through the “Crisis Era” (201-2208) and far beyond, ultimately to a “Timeline for Universe 647: 18906416-….” In between, we witness humanity’s struggle to stay one step ahead of the Trisolarans and other potential threats- launching a human brain toward the Trisolaran fleet in the hopes that it can serve as a spy for humanity; constructing massive space-cities that can hide behind Jupiter, Neptune, and Saturn in case aliens decide to destroy the Sun, etc. Cheng Xin is both a witness and a driving force behind the events of the novel, filling the role Luo Ji played in The Dark Forest.

Death’s End never lets the reader’s mind rest, constantly urging us to think outside of our comfort zone. One of the most brain-twisty elements of the story is its focus on shifting dimensions and the fabric of the universe. We’re shown what a four-dimensional universe might look like, and then what happens when it collapses into three dimensions, and then into two dimensions. If you’re not used to thinking in these terms, you might need to reread some sections to understand them, but it’s worth the time.

Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen’s skillful translations allow us Anglophone readers to enjoy this brilliant trilogy about humanity’s contact with alien life. Trust me, it’s worth reading these 1,500+ pages, even if it’s just for the mind-expanding imagery and fascinating ideas about cosmic history.

You can buy a copy of the book here.

Cixin Liu

CIXIN LIU is the most prolific and popular science fiction writer in the People’s Republic of China. Liu is an eight-time winner of the Galaxy Award (the Chinese Hugo) and a winner of the Chinese Nebula Award. Prior to becoming a writer, he worked as an engineer in a power plant. His novels include The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End.

Rachel Cordasco has a PhD in literary studies and currently works as a developmental editor. She founded the website SFinTranslation.com in 2016, writes reviews for World Literature Today and Strange Horizons, and translates Italian speculative fiction, some of which has been published in magazines like Clarkesworld Magazine and Future Science Fiction Digest. Her translation (with Jennifer Delare) of Clelia Farris’s collection Creative Surgery came out in September 2020 from Rosarium Publishing. Rachel’s book Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation From the Cold War to the New Millennium is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press.

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