Review: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Posted by DarkChaplain at 10/20/2016
The Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China's most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
Time to return to some full length non-tie-in science fiction, I'd say. Yup, this is a good one; the Hugo Award seems well deserved (though the Hugo's credibility has been pulled into question in recent years). I'm quite happy with what I read here, and have to order the sequel soon.

The Story:
"The Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China's most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision."

The Review:
The Three-Body Problem is an odd one. It tells its story in unusual, somewhat convoluted ways, but manages to tie them all together in the end, hitting the reader hard with twists and revelations. It gets you to sympathize with a lot of characters, just before pulling the rug from under your feet. It also made me look up chinese history, who'd have thought?

The novel starts during the cultural revolution in the late 60s China. Right off the bat, we are exposed to some of the cruelties and ideological dangers of that era. It is a bad time for science and "wrongthink", which this particular plotline focusing on Ye Wenjie maintains throughout.
Ye gets involved in some counter-revolutionary things and, to escape her own doom, gets recruited for a top-secret research project. The mission? Making contact with an alien civilization before anybody else can - because neither the United States nor Russia can be trusted not to misrepresent Earth, of course.

One chapter on this plotline, dispersed throughout the whole book, had me laugh pretty well. It contained documentation on the project's intentions and plans, including drafts for a message to send out to the galaxy, wherein China's propaganda of the time really puts it on too thick, and gets dismissed. It is a cool, rarely seen spin on science fiction; in general I rarely get exposed to chinese settings or history in fiction, which is kind of a pity. Of course that also meant I had to wikipedia a few bits here and there early on to get fully immersed in the historically-inspired parts and visualize what was happening. Nothing too bad though, just a general understanding should get you to appreciate the book more.

The second plotline centers on Wang Miao, a scientist working on nanomaterials, who got dragged into some weird events occuring in present-day China; Scientists all around are committing suicide, declaring that "physics doesn't exist" and the universe has been put on its head. Wang is asked to infiltrate the "Frontiers of Science", which is supposedly connected to it all, and stumbles upon two things shortly after:

1. A countdown running through photographs he takes, steadily counting down to an unknown event and
2. The game "Three Body", which presents the third major plotline of the book.

Wang is the connecting piece in the puzzle, through connections to characters on all sides of the mystery. Instead of walking away from it all, he decides to pursue the truth behind it all, which brings him to a friendship with Shi Qiang, called Da Shi. The detective comes across as rough and rude, but also as incredibly competent and like a life saver in many situations. While at first glance unlikeable, he quickly became one of my favorite characters in the novel (and I liked a bunch of them!). Da Shi, in essence, presents a counterpoint to the scientists and big wigs in the book, whose thinking is usually on a different level from that of the normal folk. He grounds the story and prevents it from becoming too theoretical in critical scenes.

The third plotline, the game "Three Body", still centers on Wang Miao, but this time he is wearing a virtual reality suit and playing an alternate reality type of game. It presents historical milestones and architectural marvels, from china's warring states period over egypt's pyramids to the pentagon, and poses the "Three-Body Problem", wherein three separate stars are following chaotic, unpredictable paths due to each other's presence. Civilization in "Three Body" falls prey to the unpredictable nature of the world's ecosystem, with sudden ice ages or inflammation or the likes, and it falls to the players to figure out a way to anticipate those "chaotic eras" and understand the pattern, to allow people to flourish.

This odd setting presents the reader with a lot of interesting and creative ways to visualize the highly theoretical technobabble. At one point it even comes down to mimicking the way a real-world computer would work (which made me laugh heavily), using human resources. Cixin Liu was very creative with these scenes, and as they run parallel to the ongoings in the real world, they help connect things and explain various problems to the reader. It was a clever way to approach the science in the fiction.

However, the Three Body game is also a bit wonky in places.
For one, there is a scene late in the book where Wang realises that progress through the game and the cycles of civilization they go through are recorded independently from one another, while in multiple sessions it appears that multiple players are in the same cycle with Wang. I also had some trouble with the way time in the game works, as it could speed up sometimes to test player theories, like their predictions for the alternating stable and chaotic eras' durations. How that would affect players outside of the immediate vicinity isn't touched upon. Likewise, when Wang leaves the simulation for about half an hour towards the end, four cycles have passed already, which makes me wonder about the timeframe there. On top of that, whenever Wang logged in, many cycles had passed, which means that the civilizations' comings and goings were occuring independently from his presence in the game to begin with.

That's the kind of nitpicking that I came to with the Three Body scenes. I enjoyed them greatly for what they did, but the framework didn't feel as solid as it could or should have. In hindsight they're not a big deal but they could have been expanded a little more. Then again, that's also down to me being a Gamer and enjoying solid representations of gaming-media in fiction.

The science behind it all appears in most cases as plausible, though I am not qualified to judge the theories' accuracy or can comment on their authenticity. They did, however, work in the context of the book, and nothing felt too far-fetched to break my immersion. If anything, I was impressed by how deeply Cixin Liu went into these often convoluted topics. The annotations often helped reference certain topics, be they historical or even just other media, like an Asimov short story that found use in the novel.
As a fan of science fiction, it certainly catered to me with its depth and complexity, though it will likely turn off readers who expect something straightforward without a lot of talk about theoreticals but little practical.

The real star of the book, to me, wasn't Wang Miao, the apparent primary protagonist, though. It was Ye Wenjie, who went from a tragic figure to somebody morally ambiguous. I loved the way her life was sketched throughout the book, with her plotline giving context to events in the present day and resulting in some big bangs as far as plot twists and revelations were concerned. She ended up being a very complex, oddly relatable character who one may or may not agree with, but will undoubtedly feel for. I also loved how one of her chapters got mirrored very closely by one of the final ones, from another side entirely. That managed to connect dots and present a mutual sense of wonder and change that I could appreciate. Additionally, it also presented a counterpoint to Ye's own actions, showing the alternative.

While I was initially a bit out of my depth with the chinese setting, history and names, I quickly got used to all of that and it benefitted my enjoyment of the book. The problem posed may be a global one, but I am glad that, for a change, such a tale wasn't based on US American tropes.

This being the first novel in a trilogy, you can bet that things are left relatively open for the sequels. However, the way it ended, while a cliffhanger, actually felt suitable here. It leaves the reader as uncertain about the future as it must be for humanity in the novel. The author managed to wrap things up in an emotional, sobering way without overplaying his hand or stretching things too far. As a result, The Three-Body Problem ends in a satisfying way that left me wanting more, but would also allow me to stop here and not read any further - it simply works.

Of course, I won't stop with this book; I'm in for the whole trilogy. If you enjoy less action-reliant science fiction, you'll probably do the same after finishing it.

The Three-Body Problem on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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