Exoticism never goes out of style. Most Americans won’t visit China in person. We rarely even consider it; it’s just too much of a hassle, and too far away. Furthermore, the Communist government oppresses its people, a fact that becomes depressingly hard to ignore when you’re on a sightseeing tour in Beijing, passing dozens—perhaps hundreds—of murals depicting nothing but Mao’s enormous, disembodied head. It’s vast as a moon, floating like a buoy, on a sea of patriotic red.
That’s why we’re crazy for Chinese literature, which we read in a feverish state of cultural speculation, delighted to be on a virtual tour of the planet’s youngest superpower. The only problem with Chinese literature, and the sophisticated escapes it offers, is entirely on the supply-side. Barely any Chinese literature ever comes our way. There are several reasons for this. First, the Chinese government censors most Chinese art. Some publishers have installed industrial “book cookers” in the very same facilities where new books are made. Whenever a new, politically sensitive novel appears, skilled workers gather them up and start burning them immediately. The author’s usually arrested, imprisoned, sometimes even executed, and put on trial after that. The publisher gets a quiet commendation through the appropriate back channels. Perhaps—that very same morning—some other, still-unknown young dissident is signing a new book deal. The deal will make his book notorious and, once that happens, his book will be the ruin of his life. It’s a cycle that continues without end. It’s efficient and can be enjoyable to watch.
But it does put a damper on literary exports. Until 2014—when The Three-Body Problem burst onto the scene—pretty much the only way to put an effective “hold” on a recent Chinese novel was to give its author a Nobel Prize. The Swedish committee reached the point of just giving their Literature prize out on spec, as a show of good faith, even if nobody in Sweden had read one paragraph by the author in question. This is how Mo Yan, the renowned Chinese author of Big Breasts and Wide Hips, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In China, Mo Yan is barely remembered, and well on his way to being out of print. In other countries, meanwhile, his remaindered paperbacks are piled six-deep, each one trying too hard to be ribald, earthy, and tenderly universal.
Gao Xingjian won a more considered Nobel; it was kind of him to write a big novel about a special, spiritual mountain. Xingjian gets it. He knows holy mountains are perfect subjects for Chinese novels. We don’t have them in the West (I’m setting aside, of course, all indigenous opinions) and we really admire the way they sprout up in Asia. A novel like Soul Mountain contains, as the title says outright, a feast of delights, some of them authentically religious, all of them Eastern. The sad truth is that Asian wisdom like this, in such a concentrated form, would be virtually unknown in the United States were it not for the dizzying heights we reached by climbing Xingjian’s mountain.
The other reason, aside from censorship, why China can go for years at a time without putting a single dent in your summer reading list is that a lot of the most popular books in China, even if they’re bestsellers, never get selected for translation into English. Translating Mandarin characters into alphabetic, Western idioms is a long, thankless nightmare; the two languages peer at each other, with mutual skepticism, across what we might imagine as a deep chasm. A character, in Mandarin, is somewhat like a musical chord. It’s a complex amalgam of ideas beguiled into harmony. Moreover, the resonant complexity of a single Chinese word soon brings other characters, other clusters, irresistibly to mind. This is why translating Confucius is an exercise in futility. There will never be a normal, linear English sentence that contains, all at once, Confucius’ steely judgments and his humble, gracious sense of humor. There isn’t a good way to capture, simultaneously, the farmer at work and the court of a king in session, even though Confucius, thanks to his nation’s capacious ideograms, has more than enough room for radical analogies like those. The Analects, which collect Confucius’ sayings and lessons, is a vast storehouse of imagistic wisdom. It’s a special kind of seeing; so dense with meaning that each compressed aphorism expands, in the mind of the reader, the way light untangles in a prism.
One of the consequences of the remarkable (and sometimes overwhelming) depth of meaning in Chinese writing is that there’s no unifying, culturally specific attitude present in all Chinese fiction. Chinese writers don’t sound alike at all; Mo Yan’s unctuous humanism isn’t especially comparable, even in terms of its diction and rhythm, to Gao Xingjian. (Soul Mountain is full of placid, aimless sentences that move the plot forward in sullen, languid motions, like a sloth you’ve somehow annoyed.) Nor does either novelist sound like Confucius, like a quote from The Little Red Book, or like a Chinese pop singer trying to make his audience cry.
I can understand Ken Liu’s desire, when he started translating Cixin Liu, to pare our unruly tongue down to its most kinetic minimums. His sentences move fast. They talk sense. They turn up the volume on anything subtle (symbolism, for example) until you can hear it coming from a mile away. This book isn’t going to go down as one more prestigious flop, a few tattered ideograms still clinging to every sentence tied in knots by passive voice. This is the first Chinese book (in recent memory, at least) that emerged from the Customs checkpoint dressed to impress, sporting a polished, smooth, absorbing style. Let those other ambitious fools climb up holy mountains, searching for wisdom—here’s a book for you, that you can read right now. It meets you where you are.
“Where you are” is a funny phrase. Perhaps that’s vague. Let’s say you’re describing a dream sequence. Write it like this: “As Ye watched, the figure waving the flag became Bai Mulin.” Isn’t that nice? The guy in the dream transformed into somebody else. That’s precisely what you’d expect from such an imaginary fellow. All he needed was a little help from the colorless, tasteless verb “became.” Or here’s a sentence about a secret government project: “People in the highest levels of the government placed the project under their protection.” I’m sure they did! I’m convinced of it. Can’t you picture those levels of government, in ascending order, with the most powerful levels on top? High level officials, as you know, can easily place anything they want “under their protection.” Secret files can be locked in a drawer. Fruit can be placed on reserve, so nobody else can buy it first. Anything that has a little sticker of Mao’s face on it is probably under somebody’s protection—somebody “in the highest levels of government”!
Cixin Liu does, on occasion, mess around with metaphors. “When you read [Wenxue’s] reports, each line would make an explosive impact, like a string of firecrackers” Liu writes, seized by a sudden exuberance. I don’t know how many “proactive” citizens like Wenxue, when “compos[ing] numerous reports,” produce such flammable results; I assure you, nothing else on that page is susceptible like that. The chapter teems with buzzwords, all of them low-calorie, including the world’s most indispensable adjective, “proactive.” But here really get some fireworks. They’re smuggled in with glee. I applaud Liu for thinking of them. You know what he was probably searching for? Something explosive; something as explosive as Wenxue’s volatile memos. I can hear him now: “Fireworks, perhaps? Why, sure—they’re perfect for this!” Later in the novel, while encased on all sides by ice, a character begins to feel uncomfortably cold, to the point of “freezing.” Who can blame them for freezing, under the circumstances, in a cave made of ice, that’s also crammed with even more ice? Ice caves are the opposite of firecrackers, but you’ll get a taste of both when you read this novel. Whether things are hot, or really cold, every new description will be an effortless, predictable affair. Cixin Liu guarantees it.
He respects your opinion of ice—your strongly held opinion, that ice is cold—and his novel says as much. He’ll also confirm your opinion of Communist stooges, who are just awful, and might be the worst variety of stooge. He doesn’t think well of the Cultural Revolution; that’s great, since you disapprove of it also. When he mentions the Big Bang, and all the scientific evidence that supports it, he doesn’t slow down to give you any details. Why bother? You believe in the Big Bang, right? What about vague placards in science museums—do you usually take those at their word? Of course you do. So you can’t possibly object to a few sentences, sprinkled into this novel of ideas, that err on the side of bland certainty.
Listen: this world of ours practically runs on bland certainties. Billions of people know the phrase “Big Bang,” and nearly all of them aren’t astrophysicists. That means this novel is taking exactly the right approach. I’d argue that any decent writer ought to be able to tell a great story without calling into question the Big Bang, or the tragedy of Communism, that everybody knows by heart already. The stubborn, ambitious nuts who mess around with words, and live for a chance to be morally provocative? They look down on readers like us. But not Cixin Liu. That’s why even newcomers to The Three-Body Problem often praise the charming, cozy sense of the familiar that the author spreads like butter on each page.
There’s more than just style at work in this novel. It has a sprawling plot and makes you think. Where to start? Aliens are coming to invade Planet Earth. Their home planet, Trisolaris (“three suns”), is plagued by an uneasy solar system that contains three suns. As they contemplate the imminent moment when Trisolaris (“three suns,” because it has three suns) will be engulfed in endless, annihilating fires, they start to find Earth stable, attractive, and reasonably priced. Certain Chinese characters in this book have read Rachel Carson’s environmental call-to-arms, Silent Spring. I’m guessing that most of the aliens from Trisolaris have read War of the Worlds. They might be pleasantly surprised to learn that it has the same plot as The Three-Body Problem. In fact, this is the plot of at least one out of every 10 sci-fi novels. It’s the plot of that Justice League movie, most Orson Scott Card novels, and of two graphic novels that you didn’t read, despite what you said. It’s stepping on the toes of Avengers: Infinity War. It’s the plot of a science fiction movie called The Arrival, a cinematic rubbish fire with such lazy marketers that even when Arrival showed up, starring Amy Adams, erasing their little movie from human memory forever, they didn’t change the title. The Three-Body Problem has a lot of company. It has a planet named after Solaris, the Tarkovsky film where a spaceman hallucinates about his dead wife. But unlike Tatooine, a planet in Star Wars that’s warmed by two suns, this alien planet has three suns. Which does make it slightly different.
Speaking of hallucinations, did you think it was weird, in the original Solaris film, that a super-intelligent sentient planet would choose to spend any amount of time longer than five seconds feeding specific delusions to one lonely astronaut? You can call it malicious, but in my opinion, that’s pretty close to an act of love. You have to really be paying attention to fuck around with a cosmonaut like that. I feel the same way about the aliens from Trisolaris. Here’s how they sabotage human civilizations: they plant very small computers, that exist in 11 dimensions, on Planet Earth. These computers are so powerful that they can disrupt particle accelerator experiments worldwide. They can also make certain Earthlings hallucinate. (They do all this at the same time, without running out of RAM, which suggests to me that the aliens are using Linux.) Granted, these are alien supercomputers. There’s not much they can’t do. But the actual sabotage is just so evil… it’s staggering.
Can you imagine how different our lives would be if the world’s largest particle accelerator, which resides in the Swiss town of Bern, started producing buggy data? Suddenly everyone would be doubting the existence of bosons. They’d start to argue about producing dark matter by detonating protons, about whether doing stuff like that was even worth it. It’s terrifying just to speculate how and when the dominoes would fall. Now add in various people having a series of very bad dreams where aliens are lying to them, spreading false news, and slandering decent, hardworking quantum theorists. This novel ventures into some dark places. It delivers edge-of-your-seat, Book of Revelations-style thrills. Imagine: thanks to advanced mathematics, some stylish (yet compact) laptops, and a mean streak, the weirdos from Trisolaris are able to simulate a mild dose of LSD! The war is over at that point… we’ve lost!
In Liu’s story, there are a lot of humans who don’t really want humanity to survive. (Sound familiar? That’s because these characters are identical to that guy from the CDC, in The Walking Dead, who ends up encouraging everyone to join him in committing suicide. Or the academic in the movie War Games who turns out to be insane. Or… well, you get the idea.) But right now, in our real lives, there are people who don’t want Cixin Liu’s book to survive. I’m one of them. I don’t want it to be censored. I don’t want it to be slandered. I just want to quietly arrange a series of computer-induced hallucinations that make various people, all over the world, think it’s a novel written by some nice old man from Belgium. A retired postal worker, maybe. Try it out. Imagine it’s exactly the same book, but now, despite all its promising critiques of the Cultural Revolution, it’s really just a glimpse into the mind of a Belgian intellectual named Wilmar, who lives with his wife and two German shepherds. Reading it is like hopping on a plane and disembarking once you reach… Antwerp. You may scoff at this; you may call it sheer delusion. But I can tell you, with confidence, that there are people in every country who want to rewrite The War of the Worlds and give nanocomputers a lousy reputation. You emerge from Cixin Liu’s work knowing nothing new or special about the state of the arts in China. (Which is, ironically, pretty much the normal state of the arts in China.)
You’ll get something else, instead: a feeling of bewildering emptiness. Every good exporter knows exactly what American customers really want when they buy imported goods. They want that same familiar teacup, parasol, or carpet. They want to say that it’s from China, though. A perfectly constructed aura surrounds Cixin Liu. He’s renowned for writing novels you’ve, in essence, already read—that’s the most authentic thing about him. Every part of his identity makes everything in his derivative lineup a little more tempting to purchase, for as long as it’s still in the store, and not already yours. Then you carry it home, resting it somewhere on your long, somehow disappointing shelf of books. From that moment on, it dwindles. It shrinks and shrinks. One day you find it reduced to a mere conversation starter, something for a cocktail party. Then, a while later, it’s become one data point out of thousands on your Goodreads profile. And finally, after some further interval, it is one more novel you highly recommend and never think about. Long ago you ceased picking it up, ceased to muse about it, thought you’d perhaps lost it (or loaned it, which is almost the same thing). The Three-Body Problem vanishes, blinking out of existence like Trisolaris, like so many other fictional planets, too, including Krypton, where Superman is from. Then there’s nothing left to do but to start bingeing the adaptation. It’s free—well, it’s on Netflix. Go ahead. Give it a try. You did read the book, after all.