Author: Cixin Liu
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Hard Science Fiction
Series: Three Body Book One
The First Priority Is To Guarantee The Existence Of The Human Race And Their Comfortable Life. Everything Else Is Secondary.
Cixen Liu’s The Three Body Problem, originally published in 2006, is one of the bestselling science fiction books in China. Thanks to Tor Books and translator Ken Liu it’s been translated to English and was published in the United States for the first time in 2014. I was very excited to see what China could bring to the science fiction genre. A country with over a billion people must surely have some great writers living in it? Not to my surprise, it turns out Liu is one of them.
With a plot that is oftentimes non-linear and stretches from the Cultural Revolution in China, to modern times, and across the Milky Way to a planet called Trisolaris – which is in a star system around Alpha Centauri – The Three Body Problem encapsulates a lot of important historical events as well as theoretical scientific ideas. The plot centers itself around two characters: Ye-Wenjie and Wang Miao. Ye-Wenjie is a product of China’s Cultural Revolution, growing up during the time of Chairman Mao’s reign. The prologue opens the story with a lengthy sequence the brutality of this regime, and the nonsensical demands it placed on China’s scientific community. Ye-Wenjie eventually finds herself working in a secret Red Coast Base that is looking for extraterrestrial life.
Her experiences with the Chinese government have left her scarred, yet she continues to find solace in her research. Wang Miao is a nanomaterials researcher living in the present day. He becomes entangled in strange mystery where top physicists around the world commit suicide, many leaving suicide notes saying “physics isn’t real.” At the same time Wang becomes a big player in an online video game called The Three Body Problem, which he soon learns has much larger implications than just being a video game.
Of the many sub-genres found in fantasy and science fiction, I’ve personally found it the most difficult to get into Hard Sci-Fi. I enjoy abstract concepts and I love learning, but in the context of a story these principles tend to come at the cost of character development. Character development has always been one of my favorite parts of storytelling, if I’m going to lose that aspect of the story, then these abstract concepts better be pretty damn interesting. So as expected,The Three Body Problem’scharacter development is easily it’s weakest point, but the abstract concepts and the mythological styled story telling does manage to overcome this. It’s something that’s rarely pulled off, but Liu manages to make it work.
Not surprising is that the physics problem at the heart of this story is the Three Body Problem (or the n-body problem). This is a physics problem that tries to determine individual motions of three or more celestial objects based off their gravitational forces. That may sound like a mouthful, but Liu puts a visual to this concept that’s easy for the reader to identify with. Once that visual clicks, you’re basically left with some pretty mind-blowing worldbuilding, and theoretically it’s something that could exist in our universe.
Philosophically the book touches on a number of relevant social issues, all while adhering to Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory – so it doesn’t feel like the author is pontificating their “superior ideas” down your throat. Ideas like the cultural effects an extraterrestrial discovery would have on humans and vice versa are explored with a healthy dose of theoretical realism. Scientific developments of each of these cultures explore technologies that are largely believable, many of which people may see in the near future. There are definitely some further out moments in the technological development area- but they’re only moments that feel like they belong in the artistic liberties category as opposed to the “complete bullshit” category. With some suspension of disbelief these are easily overlooked, and make for a better and more interesting plot anyways.
By the end, and after going through a healthy dose of creative worldbuilding, examining physics problems, discussing relevant philosophical ideas, surviving thrilling conspiracies, and having a few of those “damn that didn’t just happen” moral dilemmas moments, I’ve got to say The Three Body Problem is easily one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. A sure to be classic. Fans of physics and hard sci-fi will be at home here, but anyone with an open mind will find a story that will not only capture your imagination, but have you thinking about the future of the human race.