Review of The Three-Body Problem by

Book cover for The Three-Body Problem

Woo, non-Western science fiction! I love the opportunity to get out of my ethnocentric mindspace. Liu Cixin offers up a science fiction set (mostly) in China during both the modern day and the Cultural Revolution. As such, he brings a lot of history to the story that Western readers are probably not familiar with. Nevertheless, he and translator Ken Liu do an admirable job spinning an engrossing story about humanity’s responsibilities, and what might happen if we don’t start taking them seriously.

A simple way to summarize The Three-Body Problem might be to say that it’s about an alien invasion.

Or you could think of it as being about a philosophical video game.

Or maybe it’s better to call it a conspiracy thriller.

No matter how you slice it, you find that this is a novel with layers. Indeed, most reviews tend to note that it has three main plots—Ye Wenjie’s time at Red Coast Base, Wang Miao’s involvement in an international effort to discover why prominent scientists are committing suicide, and the story of the Trisolarans as told through the video game The Three-Body Problem.

So the three plots in The Three-Body Problem come to resemble the problem itself, which has been a thorn in the sides of mathematicians and physicists for a while. The interaction of any two plots is pretty simple to delineate. But trying to understand the interactions among all three becomes a complicated task.

The story excels when it is peeling back the mystery, layer by layer, only to reveal a new set of questions. My interest probably peaked at the moments when Ye was recounting her time at Red Coast Base, either to Wang or the interrogator, because we are aware of the significance of her actions in context. It’s possible to see the influence of the Cultural Revolution on Ye’s decisions: her faith in humanity has been destroyed by the way the Cultural Revolution tore apart her family. When she discovers it’s possible to correspond with an alien species, she sees this as an opportunity to change the Earth forever.

The virtual reality game, on the other hand, falls flat. This is a shame, because it’s a really intriguing idea. I just have so many questions, though. The way Liu portrays it makes it seem like Wang has a privileged perspective in the game—which would make sense if each player’s instance were isolated, but then how would Wang interact with these other human player characters who seem to recur from civilization to civilization? It’s difficult to understand, and trying to puzzle this out affected my enjoyment of the game as it climaxed and revealed the secrets of the Trisolarans.

I’m also not sure how the Trisolarans managed to advance so far if their civilization keeps getting reset. They make a big deal out of how the pace of scientific and technological development on Earth is accelerating, while theirs has always maintained a constant or decreasing rate. (Or is it that each previous civilization retains enough hazy memories of the last that it can bootstrap itself slightly faster, given a long enough Stable Period?)

I’m not too bothered by that, though, just because I can recognize a compelling SF idea when I see one. The Trisolarans are intriguing on two levels. Firstly, in them Liu has imagined some of the challenges alien life might face as it evolves in a completely different star system. I’ve never quite heard an idea like this before, and I love that. Secondly, their nefarious scheme to slow down or stop the pace of scientific discovery on Earth is also something new. Usually an “alien invasion” plot involves the aliens showing up with advanced technology and using big guns on bigger ships. Parts of this plot are stretching what is otherwise a fairly realistic science-fiction novel, but I can deal.

I suspect that your mileage with The Three-Body Problem lies neither in a particular plot nor a particular character, though. Rather, it comes back to what I was saying above about the way these three plots interact somewhat unpredictably. There’s a lot of philosophy in here, particularly when it comes down to the way science interacts with society. But the major theme, as Liu relates it, is the way in which we will react when we discover we are no longer the only intelligent species in the universe. Will it bring us together or drive us apart? The Three-Body Problem proposes one possibility but hints that, as the story unfolds in the sequels, that too might change.

In the end, I enjoyed the novel rather more than I thought I would given some of the reviews I read from friends. The ideas here, if not sweeping, are stimulating. This is one of the types of science fiction I truly enjoy, where the ideas drive the story in new and often unexpected directions.

But I also agree with many of my friends’ critiques. This is a dry novel, reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson’s approach but, I’d argue, drier still in its absence of emotional anchors—even Robinson’s characters have fits of pique. I suspect that’s intentional, though, because there is plenty of emotion during the prologue, and it leaks through at other points as well, such as when Ye confronts her mother or her father’s murderers.

The question at the back of my mind, of course, because I’m reading this as a Hugo nominee: is it Hugo-worthy?

Definitely worthy of a Hugo, in the sense that I wouldn’t be upset to see this take the title. (And, you know what, Sad Puppies? In his afterword Liu mentions how he doesn’t use his fiction “as a disguised way to criticize the reality of the present,” so there you go. Although I don’t know if that’s just there to throw off the scent of the censors.)

In the end, though, I’m probably going to vote for The Goblin Emperor. It’s a story that just has so much heart, in addition to being damn good, whereas The Three-Body Problem is good and idea-heavy—against a similar book, like 2312 from a few years back, it would have the edge.


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