The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body ProblemTitle: The Three-Body Problem
Author: Liu Cixin
Translation: Ken Liu
Series: Three Body #1
Published: 14 October 2014 (originally published in China in 2008)
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 7/10

In 1967, during China’s Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie sees her father, a physics professor, beaten to death for teaching the ideologically unacceptable theory of relativity. It’s a time of catastrophic anti-intelluctualism, when any academic considered too bourgeois and reactionary (i.e. most academics) is persecuted and killed. Ye Wenjie is an astrophysicist herself, but is forced to abandon her studies. Because of her father she is considered ideologically suspect, and when she is betrayed by a cowardly rebel, she ends up in jail awaiting death. She is saved only by a second form of imprisonment – the opportunity to work at project Red Coast, a top-secret scientific facility conducting SETI research. Ye’s work in astrophysics caught their attention, and her skills have become particularly useful since China started systematically executing its brightest minds. Ye expects nothing but a quiet life and death at Red Coast, but instead she finds something to change the world – communication from an alien race.

In the present day, nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao notices a disturbing phenomenon on the photos he takes – each of them has a sequence of numbers, counting down. Soon he starts to see it imprinted on his vision, and no matter what he tries he cannot figure out how this could be possible. His investigations lead him to an organisation called The Frontiers of Science and a game called Three Body. In the game, an alien world is besieged by unpredictable cataclysms and apocalypses. Various characters in the game – leaders, philosophers and scientists from Chinese and European history – try to come up with theories for predicting the next cataclysm or apocalypse, but these always fail. To beat the game, the player needs to solve the three-body problem, which Wang eventually realises is a mathematical problem.

All this is connected to the strange phenomena he experienced, the mysterious deaths of scientists, and the way scientific research has been losing credibility in the world at large. And it all comes back to Ye Wenjie, and her actions at Red Coast.

The Three-Body Problem was a particularly challenging novel for me to read and review. Firstly, it’s hard sf, which I seldom read because the science just goes way over my head. Secondly, the novel is partly set during the Cultural Revolution in China, which holds great importance for the story as a whole. And… yeah, I don’t know much about that either. Add to this multiple plotlines, some of which are non-linear and one of which takes place in the surreal world of a complex computer game, and what you’ve got is a book best read at a desk in the morning with a few cups of coffee, not relaxing in the evening with a glass of wine.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Three-Body Problem. I requested a review copy because I was curious, and although it was tough, it was worthwhile. I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about the science in the novel, but I found Liu’s depiction of the intellectual milieu of the Cultural Revolution unforgettable. China is described as a place where “any idea that dared to take flight would only crash back to the ground. The gravity of reality is too strong.” The Revolution is both wildly ambitious and severely limiting and destructive. It’s hard to fathom how absurdly restrictive life under that regime must have been. One of the scenes I found most memorable is when Ye Wenjie asks her supervisor to authorise an experiment that involves firing a radio beam at the sun. Her supervisor immediately rejects her request – the sun is a political symbol, and firing a beam at it could be interpreted in a negative way that would create a political disaster for everyone involved. Absurd as everyone knows this to be, it’s become such a fundamental part of their lives that Ye isn’t even shocked or angry at her supervisor’s decision; instead, she can’t believe she didn’t think of the symbolism herself.

This sociopolitical landscape is crucial to the story because the Cultural Revolution leaves many characters feeling disgusted with humanity. Ye Wenjie witnesses the death of her father; works for a company that chops down beautiful, ancient forests for lumber; is betrayed by a friend, her sister and her mother; and is jailed, nearly killed and eventually forced to work at Red Coast, all in service of the Cultural Revolution. Her experiences define her perspective of humanity:

Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but a part of the vast ocean.… It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.

This, in turn, drives the plot. Many people feel the way Ye does, and what they want is for a superior alien race to take over and force change up on the world. Exactly what action they think the aliens should take is a divisive topic of debate.

It’s a very bleak notion – this idea that humanity is a lost cause if left to its own devices. But I’m not al that optimistic about humanity myself, and in reading the novel, it’s easy to understand how people have come to feel that way. Also, the novel doesn’t push that perspective as the truth – it’s a meditation on morality and human nature, constantly grappling with the questions it raises. As a novel about science and philosophy, The Three-Body Problem is an exceptional piece of fiction. Liu does a really amazing job of tying all the elements of the novel together – the Cultural Revolution, the game Three Body, mathematics, physics, first contact, environmental destruction, etc.

The novel does have its shortcomings however, and its weakest point is its characters. Most of them feel flat, moving mechanically through the story with little to bring them to life. It makes sense in a few cases – some characters are just simulations in the Three Body game, and there’s a fairly long section that doesn’t use any named characters at all, like a fable, focusing only on plot. But readers might struggle in the absence of strong characters to connect with, and  it really doesn’t help that Wang Miao, one of the protagonists, is terribly bland and forgettable.

There’s not much to say about him except that he works in nanomaterials and gets caught up in the story because of his scientific education and mindset. At the start, we’re told that he’s an avid amateur photographer, but this is just a plot device that gets discarded after serving its purpose. The same goes for his family, who seem completely pointless from the start. He has a wife and son who both express alarm at Wang’s strange behaviour when he starts freaking out about the countdown, but then they disappear from the plot and Wang doesn’t give them a second thought. It’s particularly odd given that he’s always doing things that would affect his family – he buys a virtual reality suit and spends hours playing Three Body; he skips work; he stays out late investigating the mysteries he encounters; he gets tangled up in a global conspiracy; he finds himself in real danger; he travels to another continent. All this, and not a word about his wife and son. Why write them only to drop them completely?

It’s no surprise, then, that Wang’s part of the story tends to be pretty boring, and the novel as a whole takes a long time to get its main story going with Ye Wenjie. Ye at least is a more exciting, memorable character, given that her experiences are far more dire and her ideas and actions set the story in motion (while Wang just runs around gathering info). Still, she comes across as cold, perhaps because she’s a scientist. In fact most of the characters are scientists or mathematicians, and it’s worth noting that the only other character I found memorable was a police detective – a big, boisterous man named Shi Qiang, nicknamed Da Shi (Big Shi).

So yeah, not an easy read – the content can be complex, the pace slow, and the characters hard to connect with. The one advantage of this is that when the plot eventually gets to its most dramatic moments, it’s incredible to read – bold, exhilarating, thought-provoking stuff. Although there were times during this book that I thought I’d made a huge mistake requesting a review copy, by the end I was very curious about how things are going to turn out for the human race in the second and third books. I don’t know if I’ll keep reviewing the series (feeling a bit out of my depth here), but I would like to keep reading.

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8 thoughts on “The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

  1. “It’s a very bleak notion – this idea that humanity is a lost cause if left to its own devices.”

    Can’t say that I’m a stranger to that outlook. Seems like a book worth checking out.

  2. Perhaps we in the western hemisphere have different character expectations?

    I learned long ago not to let hard science throw me from a story. I usually go with the ‘I’ll roll with this and hope it’ll make sense in context/by the end of the story’ option. The first time my eyes (and brain) crossed when I read KSR’s ‘Mars’ trilogy I did the ‘roll with it’ thing and it worked.
    Then an interesting thing happened. I found myself being able to grasp hard science concepts easier. I guess osmosis really works! 🙂

    • I was wondering if it might be a cultural difference as well, but since I don’t know much about Chinese fiction I didn’t really want to comment on it.

      The “roll with it” approach is something I’m forced to do as well, although sometimes it’s hard because I can be quite pedantic about knowing what’s going on 🙂 But if I don’t keep going I’ll never finish the book! I think you’re right, it’ll get better with practice. When I first started reading sff I’d sometimes struggle with tropes that later became perfectly natural.

  3. As a Chinese reader, about the character Wang Miao I have the same feeling as you. Wang Miao in this book is just a tool to make plot go on. Ye Wenjie is the most important person in this book and she will play a very important role in the second book.
    The first book is just an opening of a epic-scale trilogy, and you will find the second book very character driven and much more interesting for a normal reader(not a hard SF fan). The trilogy is really worth going on especially the second and the third book.
    Normal readers(not a hard SF fan) will find the second book very exciting. Hard SF fans will find the third book is their favourite. Over all, the first book in this trilogy is just the iceberg above the water.

    • Thanks for your comment bsidb! At least I’m not alone in my feelings about Wang Miao 🙂 Good to know that the second book will be more character-driven. It’ll help me commit to the challenge of reading the final book. This first book really did feel like the tip of the iceberg, at the end – more than enough reason to keep reading.

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