Book Review: Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem

Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu, and published by Tor, is the first Chinese science fiction novel translated into English. It is wildly popular in China, and with good reason.

The Three Body Problem bears strong resemblance to American Golden Age science fiction, especially Arthur C. Clarke, but it is a refinement of it in a completely different direction than those taken by English speaking authors. It isn’t just because it’s the product of a wholly different culture and history (though that helps), it’s that it possesses a profound sense of cynicism and pessimism regarding the universe that is wholly alien to the mentality of Golden Age science fiction, and yet somehow makes the book refreshing and new, and massively magnifies the importance of hope and optimism.

Minor spoilers ahead:

The book is, nominally, a first contact novel, but one in which the aliens never actually appear. The hostile Trisolarans, while implied to be incredibly alien, are never seen. They are only seen in the novel through the framework of a bizarre, non-linear, virtual-reality videogame known as Three Body used as a recruitment tool for their agents on earth. Even in there, they are depicted as humans, albeit ones that can put themselves into suspended animation by dehydrating themselves. The aliens simply never show up- but they remain implacable, deadly foes, orchestrating the murder of scientists and the sabotage of human science through their communications with their human quislings, preparing the Earth for the arrival of their sublight war fleet. Their ultimate tool to prepare their way, though, is a complete and utter game-changer. I’m not going to tell you what it is, because spoilers, but it’s a complete game changer- I’ve read, quite literally, thousands and thousands of science fiction novels in my life, but I’ve never come across anything even remotely like this. I genuinely cannot wait until the sequel, The Dark Forest, comes out. It’s not often that I’m this surprised by a novel anymore.

The nominal protagonist, Wang Miao, wasn’t bad, by any means, but I found myself much more interested by the segments of the book set in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, following Ye Wenjie, the physicist who first contacted the Trisolarans, and the segments where Wang Miao was playing Three Body, which are genuinely fascinating. I think that’s more a reflection of the awesomeness of those sections of the book than anything else, though. Also, I feel very strong links between the portrayal of the present day Trisolaran civilization and the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the book, but that might just be me.

Overall, it’s actually rather difficult for me to analyze my thoughts on the book. It’s definitely a wonderful book, but even with the excellent translation and the footnotes scattered throughout the book to explain Chinese cultural and historical references, I feel like I’m missing out on a lot. The book is also slightly shorter than average, clocking in at just shy of four hundred pages. I’d be interested to read a comparison of the original and the translation. Regardless- you should read The Three Body Problem. Odds are it’ll be snagging a Hugo nomination from me for the next WorldCon (Which I’m going to!), though I do plan on rereading it before then. The Three Body Problem is a radically different take on science fiction, and a breath of fresh air that I feel the genre needs right about now.

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