The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen
Ken Liu’s translation of Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem has had a remarkable trajectory since its 2014 release: after receiving a Nebula award nomination, a Hugo award for best novel (the first time a translation has received the honor) and a spot in Mark Zuckerberg’s monthly Facebook book club, it recently blazed into Barack Obama’s Hawaii Christmas holiday reading list. The Dark Forest—Joel Martinsen’s translation of the second book in the trilogy—has not yet attracted as much attention as it deserves: although The Dark Forest continues the plot of The Three Body Problem, it strikes out along its own distinctive course, differing greatly from its predecessor in its content, structure, and style.
The Three Body trilogy was the first work by a Chinese author to transcend the niche audience of loyal science fiction fans and make a splash in the mainstream of popular culture. Originally published between 2007 and 2010, the books have found tremendous success, both commercially—with combined sales of over a million copies—and critically: for the first time, established mainland literary journals such as People’s Literature Magazine were keen to devote space within their pages to the work of a sci-fi writer. Yet while foreign-language crime writers have enjoyed increasing popularity amongst English readers over the last few years, relatively few publishers have been willing to take a bet on science-fiction in translation.
The main protagonist of The Three Body Problem’s present-day narrative is Wang Miao, a scientist specialising in nanotechnological research. Summoned to a war committee by an abrasive cop named Shi Qiang, Wang is tasked with finding out more about the mysterious Frontiers of Science—an organization that is somehow connected with the large number of suicides occurring within the scientific community.
Wang’s investigation into their activities has the structure of a detective story, with a trail of breadcrumbs leading him from one clue-dispensing character to the next. At the same time, he finds himself afflicted with a problem out of a horror movie: the digits of a countdown start to appear before him, and only him—initially imprinted on every photograph he takes, and later appearing directly in his field of vision.
This storyline is interspersed with Wang’s forays into the “Three Bodies” game, where historical eras are spliced anachronistically together as civilizations cyclically flourish and are torched or frozen by the unpredictable emergence of celestial bodies. As the ominous countdown continues to tick towards its unknown conclusion, Wang has to work out what this virtual world (a metaverse like the one found in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash—a book which also features analog civilizations trying to solve a digital problem) has to do with the dying scientists, and what connects it all to the ominous threat of an alien race known as the Trisolarans and the “three-body problem” of classical physics from which the novel’s title is derived.
Though Wang Miao is the character with whom we spend the most time, he ultimately serves a secondary purpose: guiding the reader through the story of Ye Wenjie, the scientist who is truly at the heart of the book. We are first introduced to her in a prologue (considered sensitive enough to be transplanted to the middle of the book in the original Chinese publication) set in 1967: Ye sees her astrophysicist father being beaten to death by a frenzied mob of Red Guards. Two years later, she is relocated to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, where she will attempt to discern the true purpose of the huge radio antenna at the mysterious Red Coast military base.
It is only when Wang Miao meets an older Ye Wenjie in the present day that we learn the full story of her struggle to balance the pursuit of science with the need to survive. The carnage of the Cultural Revolution is not just a dramatic backdrop to the events of the book: it is integral to the plot, shaping the character of Ye Wenjie and determining the outcome of mankind’s first extraterrestrial interaction.
While the plot of The Three Body Problem is mostly linear, The Dark Forest switches rapidly between various different storylines in its opening chapters. We are now in the Crisis Era: the entire world is struggling to come to terms with the fact that every human action is now being scrutinized by Trisolaran observers, and the ticking countdown of this volume spans the centuries it will take for the alien invasion fleet to arrive.
The narration shuttles quickly from the storyline of Zhang Beihai, a political commissar who transfers from the navy to the new aerospace defence programme; to ordinary Beijing retirees fretting about the fates of their descendants and their own earthly remains; to the Wallfacers, a select group of elite strategists who must come up with stratagems for earth’s defence in the privacy of their own skulls; and the Wallbreakers, the team of Triosolaran sympathisers intent on sabotaging their plans.
Wang Miao is entirely absent from this volume; Ye Wenjie remains an important presence in the background of events, but only actually steps in at the very beginning of the book to pass the protagonist’s torch to a new character named Luo Ji.
Like Wang Miao, Luo Ji is a reluctant hero who has to be coerced into action by Shi Qiang (whose cynical smirk is one of the few familiar presences from the first book). Luo Ji, a minor academic in a little-known field who has more interest in womanising than saving the world, is anointed a Wallfacer, and the entirety of the world’s resources are placed at his disposal. While the other three Wallfacers come up with various high-tech schemes, Luo Ji puts his powers to a different purpose: scouring the globe to find the woman who most closely resembles the ideal embodiment of femininity he has constructed in his imagination and fallen in love with, and—once he has found her—living happily ever after together in the luxury of a secluded mountain idyll. As the decades flit forward and the true scale of the trilogy’s scope becomes apparent, a great deal of the suspense in The Dark Forest comes from a question of plot mechanics rather than story: will the author manage to contrive a narrative payout that merits the amount of time devoted to this seemingly tangential (and quite unsettling) relationship?
In an afterword to The Three Body Problem, Liu Cixin states that he does not use his fiction “as a disguised way to criticize the present.” Yet it is difficult to ignore the environmentalist message implicit in a narrative premised around the idea that the perfect conditions for life on Earth are so covetable that an alien race would spend four centuries travelling across the galaxy to enjoy them. And it is hard to read about the characters in The Dark Forest adapting their lives to the fact of omnipresent Trisolaran observation without being reminded of how much more transparent our lives have become in the last few years of increasingly ubiquitous surveillance and data leaks.
What connects these two books thematically is a preoccupation with different kinds of knowledge. In The Three Body Problem it is scientific knowledge: the story plays out the clash between the inductive and deductive methods, and depicts the calamitous consequences that ensue when science is disrupted—whether by political ideology or extraterrestrial interference. The Dark Forest focuses more on personal knowledge: the mystery of where faith (religious or ideological) comes from, the ultimate unfathomability of an individual mind, and our inability to truly gauge the inner lives of the people we love.
Liu Cixin spends more time developing the characters in The Dark Forest, but he also carefully limits our access to their intentions—dipping in and out of their consciousness as the narrative requires. The Dark Forest also contains more passages of finely textured physical description than The Three Body Problem. Perhaps deliberately inverting the darkness of the title, Liu repeatedly devotes time to vivid descriptions of various forms of light: the book twinkles with welding sparks, car taillights, dawn dewdrops, puddles, candles, storms, and sunsets:
The last rays of sunset shone, too, on the waves that rolled endlessly on the angry ocean and in shafts of light that pierced the jumbled clouds in the west and cast enormous golden bands on the water’s surface like petals fallen from heaven. Beyond the petals, dark clouds loomed over a world black as night as a thunderstorm hung between heaven and earth like the curtain of the gods, and only periodic lightning lit the snowlike spray thrown up by the waves.
This lavish description is much more rare in The Three Body Problem, which tends to employ a sparser, more functional style. The approaches of the two translators reflect this difference: Ken Liu hews closer to the Chinese, allowing the original syntax to shape the sentences of The Three Body Problem to a greater extent than Joel Martinsen does in The Dark Forest, where the stylistic demands require more flexibility. In The Dark Forest, Luo Ji’s lover tells him that in oil paintings “brimming with rich colors”, “white is as precious as gold”—whereas in traditional Chinese painting, “there’s lots and lots of blank space […] The scenery is just the border for that blank space.” She might just as well have been describing the difference between The Dark Forest and The Three Body Problem, two books so very different that it is hard to predict the direction the third book in the trilogy—Death’s End (also translated by Ken Liu)—will take when it is launched this summer.