The short answer is that it's about aliens who're planning on invading the earth. But the way they do it is so strange and surreal. They start infiltrating the world's scientific establishment and getting the scientists to play this weird propagandistic video game that serves as a primer on alien history and biology. The book has a very murky, sluggish atmosphere. Everyone moves slowly. Everyone seems confused and trapped and hapless.
The book was translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu, which is strange for me, since I know that Ken Liu can form beautiful sentences, since he composes critically acclaimed English language speculative fiction, whereas the writing in this book, particularly the dialogue, is odd and stilted. For example, take the following passage:
Wang turned around and walked back to Shi. Forcing his anger down, Wang said, “The way you speak is not appropriate for a good police officer.”
“Who said I’m a good cop?”
“We don’t know why these researchers killed themselves, but you shouldn’t speak of them so contemptuously. Their minds have made irreplaceable contributions to humanity.”
“You’re saying they’re better than me?” Still seated, Shi lifted his eyes to meet Wang’s. “At least I wouldn’t kill myself just because someone told me some bullshit.”
“You think I would?”
“I have to be concerned about your safety.” That trademark smirk again.
Most of the awkwardness seems, to me, to lie in the transitions. A line of dialogue like "You think I would?" is alright, but it doesn't flow naturally into "I have to be concerned about your safety." It feels maybe a little too choppy to me. Obviously, it's possible to translate that dialogue in a way that sounds more natural, so I can only assume that the awkwardness is an intentional choice on the translator's part. In fact, in his afterward, Ken Liu writes:
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.
Which is something that bears thinking about. I feel this most often in the Japanese fiction I read. I recently read a number of Kawabata and Tanizaki novels, and they don't sound or feel like any kind of English-language fiction. They too have something of the same stilted formality as this novel, but in the case of those novels, the dialogue was much more arch and indirect. Here it seems like the dialogue might be a bit bogged down by the need to convey information. For instance, I felt like the first section of the novel, which takes place during the Cultural Revolution, didn't contain nearly as much awkwardness. It didn't read naturally, necessarily, but it wasn't hard to read. It was only when we reached the science-fictional part of the narrative that the writing became more difficult.
In any case, my ear eventually adjusted to the writing style, and I'm glad I persevered. I'm legitimately interested to see what's going to happen and to learn more about the book's ideas. And I'm actually sad that the second and third book in the trilogy aren't yet out.