Science-fiction novels have been a dime a dozen for a few decades now, and to be brutally frank, many of the stories now feel cliched, rehashed and desperate to try and bring some new life into the genre. There number of authors truly capable of pushing the limits and taking us to unseen plains is quite small, and for the non-Chinese speakers amongst us, it’s a terrible shame that one of the century’s most revered science-fiction writers, Cixin Liu, hasn’t had any of his works translated into English, until very recently that is.
The nine-time recipient of China’s Galaxy Award (for science-fiction literature) has written many noteworthy novels, and it’s the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy that he chose to bring to the Western audiences. In a time when originality is drowned by thousands and thousands of publications, Liu’s works are the shining light of creativity we’ve all been praying for.
Book 1: “The Three-Body Problem” – We Make First Contact
This is the book that starts it all out, and we are taken right away to the Chinese Cultural Revolution that took place during the 1960s and the 1970s. The translator of this book, Ken Liu, went the extra mile and added various footnotes throughout the book to give the reader some background on those times, providing us with some interesting tidbits of knowledge that help us better understand the story as well as the country’s history. The author himself, who was but a child back in those times, adds his own personal experiences to the mix as a Chinese citizen, lending a true air of authenticity to the novel.
The plot is very scientifically and politically-geared, taking us back and forth between Ye Wenjie, the daughter of a famous physicist murdered by a group of young students, and Wang Maio, an applied physicist working on nanomaterial technology. While the former is pushed further and further into isolation due to her father’s controversial past, the latter is drawn deeper and deeper into an investigation revolving around the suicide of many famous scientists.
There are plenty of technical moments where we are exposed to mathematical and physics concepts, but rest assured that Ken Liu also took the time to add some notes to give us background knowledge on these topics so that we aren’t completely lost. It’s not for nothing that Cixin Liu’s novels are considered hardcore science-fiction: much of it is based on real-world science and he tries to keep it as plausible as possible, especially when describing technology that is above ours.
Now, at this point most people have a complaint about the novel, and it’s that the first half goes by rather slowly… and I have to agree with that. The Three-Body Problem begins at a very moderate pace and it picks up rather slowly as the author takes a very meticulous and precise approach in building the setting. He makes sure that we are completely engrossed in the world and understand its dynamics before he really kicks off the action. It can be a bit frustrating in certain parts, but believe me, it’s definitely worth your effort for once things pick up they never look back.
There comes the point where a secret military project sends out a signal into outer space to try and establish contact with aliens. Unfortunately for us, we make contact with an alien civilization that is on the brink of extinction, and they decide the best course of action is to invade Earth and perhaps start anew. Back on our planet, two groups of people form: those who want to welcome the aliens as a master race, and those who are preparing humanity’s defences. This is where the novel really picks up strength in terms of both plot and philosophy; while Cixin Liu sets the stage for an epic confrontation, he also begs the wide question as to how humanity would react to this kind of alien contact and how it would affect our inner workings.
To give away any more about the plot would be a crime as it holds many unforeseen turns that defy the conventional plot structures we’ve come to roll our eyes at these days. It’s refreshingly original and takes place in wonderfully-detailed setting we pretty much never get to visit. If you like your science-fiction and alien invasions to be on the more realistic side, then you’ll find The Three Body-Problem to be an unforgettable beginning to one of the most epic voyages you’ll ever have; I strongly recommend it to all you sci-fi buffs out there.
Book 2: “The Dark Forest” – Our Crucial Preparations
Before talking about this second book, I’d just like to add this little disclaimer that there will be some spoilers here if you haven’t read the previous book. I will try and keep them to a minimum for those of you who want to get a feel for the whole trilogy before deciding to buy it, but I can only do so much… you have been warned.
In any case The Dark Forest pretty much takes off after the last book’s ending, and now humanity needs to accept a very grim reality: they are going to be invaded in merely four centuries’ time. It might sound like a long enough time, but considering we’ve just discovered the secret of flight some decades ago (within the story’s context) and these aliens have already mastered intergalactic travel, one can say we’ve fallen a bit behind schedule.
Then, there is also the matter of pesky sophons, which are subatomic particles that allow Trisolaris access to all human information, explained through complicated mathematics and physics. I’ll stop right there as I think that’s enough to give you an idea of what the second novel is dedicated to: learning how to deal with these sophons and generally making four centuries worth of alien invasion preparations.
The translator for this novel is Joel Martinsen, and while he does add a nice amount of footnotes to explain various aspects of the Chinese terminology we encounter, he isn’t exactly as thorough, detailed or generous as Ken Liu was. It also feels like he tried to make the novel sound more naturally English, in the sense it feels like you’re actually reading a novel that was originally written in it, rather than a translation. While some things may indeed get lost in translation, I have to commend him for the result of his approach, especially seeing as how there are far fewer cultural and historical details that need explanation in this one.
Cixin Liu keeps up the pace from the first novel and moves things along more quickly and consistently than he did the first time around. Since there is less world-building to do, he could focus more on the progressing the story, which in turn yields us a lot more excitement. He really makes an effort to create unusual scenarios to force his characters to make decisions that will often surprise you, especially when you start running through your head the implications of their choices. What’s truly remarkable though, is that all of these actions, whether taken by small or main characters, all follow their own logical threads that seamlessly connect together to form a flawless structure where nothing is out of place, almost like the world’s most epic jigsaw puzzle.
While the second book in most trilogies ends up being the overlooked middle child with not much to offer, in this case The Dark Forest does justice to Cixin Liu’s reputation, only building and improving upon everything that’s been built in the first novel. The story only becomes more and more exciting as the stakes get higher and higher, and its gargantuan scope is extremely well-managed, fuelling your imagination like few others out there can. If you enjoyed the first book in the series, then I guarantee your eyes will rip through this one like a hot knife through butter.
Part 3: “Death’s End” – What Fate Awaits Us Sinners?
We sure have come a very long way from the story’s humble beginnings, when a physicist was beaten to death and his little girl lost faith in humanity. Her determination to seek help from the great beyond took humanity on a very unexpected journey, one filled with as much hope and love as it was with doom and hatred. Countless people have lost their lives in battles and conflicts that raged as a result of the aliens coming to Earth, but a few heroes emerged from the smouldering wreckage anyhow. One of them, Luo Ji, concocted a rather subversive way of stopping the Trisolarian invasion and perhaps live in peace with them. The second, Zhang Beihai, saved a human seed and planted it far away from Earth. But did either of these plans work, and what fate will ultimately befall humanity as the journey is reaching its conclusion? That’s precisely what Death’s End seeks to answer.
In this third and final chapter we are following a certain Ms. Cheng Xin, an intelligent, capable and yet physically-weak woman whose choices will ultimately decide the course humanity’s story will take… although some could debate that our fate was sealed long ago. She makes for quite an interesting protagonist and it’s endearing to see her use her wits to solve the improbable tasks that keep on accumulating in front of her; it’s the underdog effect, as Cixin Liu successfully manages to make us root for the one the world least expects to make a difference.
While the plot of the alien invasion and humanity’s survival always takes the front seat, the author has peppered his story with a number of curious problems, such as sending a communication device across the galaxy, as well as an actual mystery revolving around a fairy tale, complete with an evil prince and such, and countless experts dedicate themselves to deciphering its true meaning. These additional subplots are very welcome as they add some more excitement and variety to a trilogy where they are already found in spades. There isn’t as much mathematical jargon or physics lessons as there was in the first book, but rest assured they are still alive and called upon when things start to get complicated.
This third book is translated once again by Ken Liu, the same man who worked on the first novel. A tad reluctantly, I will admit that the quality of the translation feels like it has gone down a bit, in the sense that there are passages where it becomes apparent you’re reading something that wasn’t originally written in English. With that being said, it probably helped to better conserve the meaning of the original text, and despite a few awkward occurrences, for the vast majority of it the novel reads perfectly fine…and besides, with all the excitement that accumulates as you reach the end, you simply won’t have the time or the inexplicable desire to look for inaccuracies in the language.
Speaking of that climax, it feels like Cixin Liu poured every ounce of creativity out of himself on those last few pages, because there is simply nothing out there that can compare with the conclusion to this unbelievably-long and legendary journey. There are just so many things happening so fast, and if you thought the first book started out slowly, the ending to this one will feel like it flies at supersonic speeds. It’s the grand and far-reaching finale that this kind of trilogy deserves, full of stunning surprises and jaw-dropping revelations that will make your head spin. It’s an insane amalgamation of everything that happened until that point, and I guarantee it will become the new standard by which you measure your science-fiction books.
If you’ve already read the second book, then I believe it’s safe to say you’re already hooked on this trilogy, and you know as well as I do that you owe it to yourself to see it through to one of the most memorable endings in literature of all time.
A Brief Recap
To give you a brief recap of what we’ve seen, I believe that the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy is one of the best things to happen to the science-fiction genre in a very long time. Not only is it masterfully-written and oozing with creativity, uniqueness and originality, it also allows us English speakers to finally enjoy the works of Cixin Liu, arguably one of the best sci-fi writers of all time. If you feel ready to undertake one of the most extraordinary, awe-inspiring and monumental science-fiction journeys of all time, then you simply must give this trilogy the chance it deserves.
Cixin Liu is a Chinese science-fiction writer who, so far, was awarded the Galaxy Award (China’s most coveted science-fiction award) a grand total of nine times, with the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy being an international bestseller.