Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem is the first of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy written by Chinese author, Cixin Liu, and translated by Ken Liu into English. This science fiction novel examines the convergence of physics, computer programming, nanomaterials, and other scientific progress through the eyes of outcast scientists from the Chinese Cultural Revolution through present day. Everything is political–the research being done is often viewed through a political lens, often fearfully. This fear, often legitimate, frames the actions of a number of the characters, including an astronomer Ye Wenjie, nanomaterial physicist Wang Miao, the surly counterterrorism unit, and the alien-loving militant and religious fanatic humans.

This blend of political fear and scientific progress makes for an interesting read. Throughout reading the book, it was subtly setting the stage for revolution–one that would end up ripe for a dystopian society. The thread of environmental justice was woven throughout the book, along with the types of science research the characters were passionate about. While the bulk of the information presented in the novel is related to physics, there are hints to environmental justice as well as other ideological issues, they are only hinted at, despite being a major driving force for many of the characters desiring to invite a totalitarian regime to take over Earth and eradicate humanity.

One thing that works for this novel is how the story-telling works in conjunction with character development. It isn’t told in a linear manner, progressing from one fixed point to the next. It starts with an intellectual 20-something, Ye Wenjie, in the midst of the Chinese Cultural Revolution moving into her work in a mysterious, top-secret job. Once it seems she’s settling in, the point of view switches to modern day to focus on a different scientist, Wang Miao, who is caught up in the aftermath of events set in motion decades earlier. From then on, it reads a bit like a sci-fi thriller where we are slowly fed information from present day with Wang Miao and flashbacks through Ye Wenjie. It works because it feels like a natural movement with both story-telling and with character development and providing a few surprises for the reader.

Wang could be considered a stand-in in some ways for the audience, which may feel like a negative experience for some readers. His experiences, occasional confusion, and interactions with modern day feel very familiar to the reader as we learn about things from the flashbacks that fill in gaps in how this future dystopia might come to fruition. While the setup is great in a lot of ways, the biggest drawback is still that it feels like there’s not enough detail in certain areas or that it can be hard to read quickly. Information needed to be digested, making reading it go really slow.

The book is at this constant tension of wanting more, quickly, but also needing time to digest the science aspect and how events are unfolding. Of the science fiction books I’ve read, it is definitely technically scientific.. This information is definitely necessary and great for those who love physics and theoretical ideas versus practical application, almost as if it’s another character of the story.

The idea itself is really intriguing – the search for and unique discovery of extraterrestrials blended with a portentous attitude about humanity, intrigue, virtual reality, politics, terrorism, and a dash of all of those things from the viewpoint of the extraterrestrials. It leaves the reader wanting more – which is just as well, as there are other books also written in English: The Dark Forest and Death’s End. It’s easy to see why this won the Hugo Award for the compelling story.