The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Blurb On The Back:

1967: Ye Wenjie witnesses Red Guards beat her father to death during China’s Cultural Revolution.  This singular event will shape not only the rest of her life but also the future of mankind.

Four decades later, Beijing police ask nanotech engineer Wang Miao to infiltrate a secretive cabal of scientists after a spate of inexplicable suicides.  Wang’s investigation will lead him to a mysterious virtual world ruled by the intractable and unpredictable interaction of its three suns.

This is the Three-body Problem and it is the key to everything: the key to the scientists’ death, the key to a conspiracy that spans light years and the key to the extinction-level threat humanity now faces. 

You can order THE THREE BODY PROBLEM by Cixin Liu from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

1967, China.

Ye Wenjie is a graduate student in astrophysics following in the footsteps of her father, Ye Zhetai, and mother, Shao Lin, who are both physics professors.  Wenjie’s sister, Ye Wenxue, is a member of the Red Guard and dedicated to purging non-Communist/Maoist thought from China’s institutions, even if that means battling other units within the Red Guard.  

With the Cultural Revolution in full swing, the Red Guard turns on Ye Zhetai, who refuses to stop teaching the Theory of Relativity and other theories from western physics to his students.  Wenjie is forced to watch as her father is publicly denounced, including by Shao Lin, as the Red Guards try to force him to renounce his teaching.  When he argues back and refuses to be cowed, the Red Guards lose control and he is beaten to death in front of a horrified Wenjie.

1969, China.

Numbed by what happened to her father, Wenjie has managed to join the Construction Corps and is helping to chop down mountain forests around Radar Peak, a top secret military facility.  But when she trusts the wrong person, the authorities come for her and she is given a choice: spend the rest of her life working at Radar Peak or face a 10 year sentence in a prison that she will very likely to die in …

40 years later, China.

Professor Wang Miao is a nanotech engineer working on a super strong material when he is visited by Detective She Qiang (known as Da Shi) and a couple of army officers who want to know of his links to The Frontiers of Science (an influential group of celebrated international scientists).  They work for Battle Command Centre, an international group of military and security personnel who are concerned by a recent spate of suicides among some of the brightest of the world’s scientists (including Yang Dong, a string theorist who Wang met through his own work), all of whom had connections with The Frontiers of Science.  Battle Command Centre wants Wang to infiltrate the group so they can learn more about what it’s up to and how it works.  

Having been fascinated by the beautiful and brilliant Yang Dong and shocked by her suicide, Wang agrees but almost immediately finds himself plagued by events that he cannot explain and which don’t make any sense.  Turning to Shen Yufei, a physicist and member of the Frontiers of Science, for an explanation, Wang gets in deeper with both the group and with a mysterious on-line virtual computer game called The Three-Body Problem.  The game takes players to an alien world with three suns whose unpredictability wrecks havoc on its inhabitants.  Despite himself, Wang finds himself fascinated by the game but the more he plays, the more he learns about what the Frontiers of Science really want and that discovery reveals a decades-old conspiracy that threatens the very existence of humanity itself …

Cixin Liu’s award winning SF novel (the first in a trilogy) rises above dull characterisation and inconsistencies in plotting in part due to excellent translation by Ken Liu (who provides some context via footnotes), but also by the way the story uses both the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and the three-body problem from orbital mechanics to ground the rest of the plot.  It held my attention but I don’t know if I would automatically read on.  

I’m not normally one for ‘hard’ SF, mainly because I don’t have the science chops to always follow the ideas and theories that the authors like to explore in their work.  However, there was a lot of hype surrounding this book when it was first released and it subsequently won a number of prestigious awards within the SF community, so I thought that I should check it out.

The first thing to say about this book is that I think you get the most out of it if you have a physics or maths background because a lot of time is spent in setting out the problems that the Trisolarans face by virtue of living in a world with 3 unpredictable suns.  Liu gives enough information for a non-science reader like me to understand why this creates social issues for the Trisolarans and also to explain why they undertake certain actions within the book (although saying that, I finished the book not quite understanding what the Trisolaran end game was intended to be).  However, I think that if you do have that maths/physics background then you would probably get more from the book about the nature of the problem, including understanding why it is so difficult to actually measure the orbits in order to predict them (something that I have to say, I never quite grasped).

The other thing that sets this book apart is the fact that the action almost entirely takes place in China and uses the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution as the jumping off point for the main events.  I came into the book knowing something about the Cultural Revolution as I studied it as part of my GCSE History course cough-cough years ago.  Liu’s depiction of the opening denunciation scene is stark and brutal and utterly terrifying with Ken Liu’s translation adding footnotes to bring context to some of the points that Liu mentions.  I felt that I completely understood the effect that this had on Wenjie and could well believe the impact it has on certain of the decisions she makes in the book (although not the decision to trust Bai Mulin, which seemed to stand at odds with her reserve and caution and only existed to drive the plot to the next point).  

In fact for me, the historic sections of the book that follow Wenjie are the main reason to read it because it gives you an insight into the time and shape her character and the main plot events.  By contrast, once the writing moves forward 40 years, the pacing and insight all disappear as we’re stuck with the somewhat bland Wang who is really only there to dig into what is currently going on and how this ties in with those earlier events.  I wished that the brutally candid detective Da Shi had a bigger role in the ‘modern’ events because the writing only really comes alive when he’s on the page to mouth off at authority and sardonically puncture the self-esteem of Wang and other scientists and military personnel.  

Writing wise, there are a number of elements in the story that didn’t work for me.  Most notably is the idea of people being intrigued by The Three-Body Problem computer game because from the scenes that we get (and there are a lot of them) there isn’t a lot of actual gaming or problem solving going on so much as players being witness to events.  The fact that the players have to play it in virtual suits is also used inconsistently.  At first a lot is made of how players can feel the temperatures at play, but this quickly seems to fall to the roadside in later scenes.  More serious is the poor characterisation – notably of female characters (who are all “unknowable” and “cold”) and I think that Liu missed an opportunity by not having a scene where Wenjie is forced to confront the impact of her actions on her own daughter because it would have brought an additional emotional element to her character and to the story.

This said, Ken Liu’s translation is excellent.  I loved the footnotes that he drops in when a name or event needs additional context and I think he gives the translation a sense of pace and rhythm.  The somewhat downbeat ending of the book also made me interested in seeing where humanity goes from there in light of the revelations and discoveries made.  However, in all honesty, given that my enjoyment of this book primarily came from the historical context I can’t say that I will rush to read the sequel because I suspect that now the background is established, then events will be moving forward without having regard to them.  Without that cultural/historical element to it, there isn’t enough in terms of characterisation to draw me back in while I don’t have the science grounding to be able to grapple fully with the hard science elements.  

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