It was with great anticipation that I watched my place on the library hold list for this book move closer and closer to the top. Originally published in China back in 2006, it won the country’s highest Science Fiction award that year and subsequently soared in popularity. The English language translation was released in 2014 with much fanfare and ultimately took home the 2015 Hugo for best novel. With all that excitement and praise, I couldn’t wait to see what the buzz was about.
The story begins at a university in Beijing during the height of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Here we meet a young astrophysicist named Ye Wenjie who watches her father get publicly executed by Red Guards after refusing to denounce scientific theories deemed counter-revolutionary. A few years later Wenjie becomes caught up in a political scandal of her own and avoids significant prison time by agreeing to work in seclusion on a top-secret government project aimed at contacting alien life. The story then skips ahead to the present day and introduces another Chinese scientist named Wang Miao, a leading researcher in the field of nanotechnology. An amateur photographer in his spare time, Miao discovers a countdown has begun appearing in the background of photos he develops in his dark room. Deeply troubled by his inability to make sense of the phenomenon, he sets off on a desperate search for answers that leads him into both the world of a highly technical online strategy game and a real-life battle being fought at the highest levels government over a decision made by Ye Wenjie decades ago.
Fascinating and full of suspense, I had a hard time putting this story down and finished it rather quickly despite some dense content. There were a few times where I wished I knew a little (or maybe a lot) more about physics, in particular dimensional theory and the gravitational problem from which the books draws its name, but nothing was ever so technical that it lost me. Indeed, I found the concepts and technologies explored here incredibly interesting and was even inspired to do a little outside research to plug some gaps in my scientific knowledge. Despite this extra bit of reading, my need to uncover the connections between Wang’s experiences and Ye Wenjie’s past drove me forward at a relentless pace. Though I did have some minor nitpicks about how the story played out, most notably Wang’s family disappearing from all consideration after the start of the book, on the whole I really enjoyed this and would recommend it to science fiction fans. I particularly liked how timely the story seemed considering recent articles covering the late Stephen Hawking’s warnings about contacting alien life and China’s recent investment in its own SETI program. I am definitely on board for the next two books in the series.