Delighting in "The Three-Body Problem"

6:06 PM

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg.

As an undergraduate, I studied in the Program of Liberal Studies, a "Great Books" curriculum that led my classmates and I to encounter the finest works of Western Civilization. Only a portion of one semester included a brief traipse through Eastern writers, specifically Confucius’s Analects, The Way of Lao Tzu, and the Bhagavad Gita. As well, I have read little by way of science fiction in recent years. So, it was an interesting offering to read Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem as the latest selection by Mark Zuckerberg.

Reading any work, especially in translation, from another culture poses special challenges. A work of Chinese science fiction, then, has particular cultural references that are obscure to a U.S. reader. Further, any such work illustrates something of the different way that stories are told in different languages and cultures. Careful attention to cross-cultural works of literature yields insight into the culture from which it was born. Hence, Cixin Liu's work is a window to better understand Chinese culture.

Even the author's name, Cixin Liu, reveals, for the uninitiated, the difficulties of translation. I have opted to render his name, following the book's cover, with what we, in the West, understand as "first name" first and "last name" last, but Chinese culture places the family name prior to the first name, then rendered as "Liu Cixin."
Cixin Liu (courtesy of Anne Peterson)
I'd rather not spoil the content. I'll simply say that it was a great read. This novel is the first of a trilogy titled Remembrance of Earth’s Past, but Chinese readers generally refer to the series by the title of the first novel. The title refers to the three-body problem in orbital mechanics. Ken Liu's English translation won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel, a first for an Asian writer.

I also really enjoyed the author's thoughtful and thought-provoking postscript.

Simply put, this is an important book, worth a reader's time. If you do not want to read it, I imagine that a film version is not too far off.

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