Next up on my reading list this year is the first book in the Remembrance of Earth Chinese science fiction series by Cixin Liu, which was translated into English as Three Body Problem (刘慈欣的”地球往事:三体”). In fact, the book title in Chinese is just Three Bodies with no measure word between them (as opposed to the Chinglish-sounding Three-Body which is printed on the back of the Chinese edition of the novel). Three Body Problem, however, is the title of one of the volume’s chapters, which is a perfectly valid translation choice for the novel. Perhaps we’ll see why that was selected as the translation of the title later when we get that far. Since this series of novels is available in English, I won’t get as detailed in reading it but will only present the broad outlines, though there will be spoilers. Readers can get either the English-language translation or the Chinese-language original here:
You have to pull down the menu to select which version to buy. Of course, the English translations are also available at Amazon. Glancing over the cover art at that site, I see volume 3 even has a quote from Barack Obama – politicians are not your typical blurb writers for most sci fi books, I would bet. The different volumes have won multiple prestigious American science fiction awards, including the Hugo and the Nebula awards. You can listen to an interesting interview with the translator of the first and third volume of this series, Ken Liu, here:
I will also add to their commentary that I have read UFO phenomenon is taken much more seriously in China than in the West, and I wonder if that might also be why this series really took off there. This topic came up when I was researching the Chinese space program, which I’ve been speaking about around town for a number of years now. They have a very different attitude than what we’re used to in the US.
Turning to the book itself, I’m going to read the series in the original Chinese. This volume was published in 2007 and runs about 300 pages. I really like the cover art on volume 1 of the Chinese edition.
The inside of the novel also has some special features, with small sketches of the cover near the page numbers all throughout the books, and there are full-page black and white illustrations here and there. One thing I like about the book from the start is that it’s in more accessible Chinese than many of the more literary works I’ve looked at, so it should be more manageable for low advanced students of Chinese language to tackle. The presentation of the book reminds me more of the books marketed to young adult readers that I’ve read from the region, which are also better for language students.
Since many of the characters have two syllable names, I’m not going to switch them around Western style. The order switch usually sounds better with three character names than two, and it’s just my personal preference. As the story opens, Wang Miao, a professor associated with a scholarly group referred to as “The Scientific Boundary,” is approached by two policemen and two military men who ask him about his contacts with this group. One of the officers, Shi Qiang, questions him about the purpose of the group, and Wang Miao explains it’s an international circle of researchers who are all famous scholars, then objects that it’s all legal and that he’s allowed to contact the group’s members. Shi Qiang tries to calm him down, explaining that wasn’t the reason for their visit. They invite him to a meeting at a newly created center of war that will be held that afternoon. The war center is trying to get scholars and experts to participate, and it extended the invitation to Wang Miao. Wang Miao, however, says he’s too busy to attend, though he wonders to himself what this war center might be.
The next scene shows Wang Miao driving to the meeting. The room where it’s supposed to take place is rather chaotic, with lots of computer equipment set up everywhere and documents lying around. Many of the participants look exhausted, as if they were up all night. Participants include army generals, police bureau members, and specialist academics. Four foreigners are also involved: two colonels, one British Army officer and one American from the Air Force, and two US information center bureau officials. Shi Qiang gives Wang Miao some documents to peruse and a list of names to look over. Wang Miao knows three of them to be famous physicists.
The story then flashes back to the year before when Wang Miao was working on some machinery at a construction site. This part gets into superconductors, and it mentions he meets a female engineer or physicist there named Yang Dong, who later committed suicide though no one knows why. Dr. Ding Yi was her boyfriend, and Wang Miao arranges to get her notes from him.
On the way out of the meeting, Wang Miao asks Shi Qiang what all of this has to do with the military and wonders where a war is taking place that this is necessary. Shi Qiang responds that situations are unpredictable and unforeseen wars can erupt. Later, Wang Miao stops by Ding Yi’s place, where the PhD used to live with Yang Dong. The men spend some time doing physics experiments with black and white billiard balls and talk about the theories behind what they observed. When it’s time for Wang Miao to leave, Ding Yi gives him the address of Yang Dong’s mother to stop by when he has time to try to understand the late scientist better.
Two days later, Wang Miao takes his bicycle out early in the morning on a weekend to take photos, which is his hobby. After a brief meditation on more scientific hypotheses, he returns home after lunch and eventually develops the rolls of film he took. When he gets a look at the negatives, however, he sees each negative has a set of white or black numbers over the images, which is descending like some kind of timer. Curious, he tries another roll of film, and it picks up the countdown where the first roll left off. When his wife and six year old son return home, he even enlists them to take more rolls of random photos to develop, but the ghost clock never disappears, no matter who takes the photos or how many rolls they use. Wondering who he should consult with about the issue, he turns to “scientific boundary” member, Shen Yufei.
Yufei lives in a high end villa in an area of town that has the ambiance of a village. He meets her husband, Wei Cheng, who takes him up to a room upstairs where she is playing a video game. She tells Wang Miao to discontinue his research, but he tells her that he cannot. He doesn’t stay long, doesn’t seem to talk about the ghost clock like he intended unless it was couched in some scientific theory that I missed it, then goes home. Later that night, he dreams of the ghost clock and springs out of bed to observe the city lights from his window.
After breakfast, he goes to Tongren Hospital to talk with an ophthalmology specialist about his eyes to rule out an eye disease as the reason he was seeing those strange numbers. The doctor tells him he likely has floaters, but he also suggests psychological factors could be at work. Wang Miao leaves and goes to a nanometer center to run some experiments. Shen Yufei appears there by the end of the chapter and says they are his friends who will help him if he has a problem, that he should not walk down Yang Dong’s path, which gives him a chill. She seems a little sinister here, and there’s a passing reference to her speaking for something non-human. Finally, she warns him to expect something to happen in three days in the early hours of the morning between 1 and 5AM.
This is a good, dramatic place to stop. We’ll pick up with chapter 4 next time.
Here’s one of the interior drawings from a later chapter.
Part 1 of 3.