My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Three–Body Problem (2006) by Cixin Liu—the most popular contemporary Chinese science-fiction writer—is often proclaimed as the most prolific Chinese sci-fi writer because, in part, he has won the Galaxy Award (the Chinese Hugo) eight times.
Cixin Liu (surname Liu) has also won the Chinese Nebula Award and was named a Finalist for the Prometheus Award. The Three–Body Problem won the American Hugo Award and was named the 2014 Chinese American Librarians Association (CALA) Best Fiction Book.
Translated to English in 2014 by Ken Liu, The Three–Body Problem stands to the testament of Liu’s abilities to tell and craft complex stories incredibly well while keeping them engaging and thought-provoking.
The Washington Post wrote that Liu was able to interweave “hard science and adventure” in the first book of the series [the second book of the series, The Dark Forest (published in China in 2008), was translated by Joel Martinsen in 2015, while the final book of the trilogy, Death’s End (published in China in 2010) was also translated by Ken Liu and released in English in September 2016]. Kirkus Reviews gave The Three–Body Problem a starred review calling the book “remarkable, revelatory, and not to be missed.”
In The Three–Body Problem, the first of three parts is adequately named “Silent Spring” after the famous Rachel Carson book published in 1962 (click the link to read more about Silent Spring).
The first chapter in The Three–Body Problem, however, is named “The Madness Years” and takes place in China in 1967 during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and quickly sets the tone for the rest of the novel with a grim yet vivid scene during one of the battles:
“The new girl clearly thought she’d be just as lucky. She waved the battle banner as though brandishing her burning youth, trusting that the enemy would be burnt to ashes in the revolutionary flames, imagining that an ideal world would be born tomorrow from the ardor and zeal coursing through her blood…
“She was intoxicated by her brilliant, crimson dream until a bullet pierced her chest” (p 10).
Later we find Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist and witness to the battle, who has also seen her father killed, is being tortured for handling forbidden propaganda (i.e., the book Silent Spring) when the readers learn the identity of the fifteen-year-old girl who waved the red flag:
“Through her wet clothes, the chill of the Inner Mongolian winter seized Ye like a giant’s fist. She heard her teeth chatter, but eventually even that sound disappeared. The coldness penetrated into her bones, and the world in her eyes turned milky white. She felt that the entire universe was a huge block of ice, and she was the only spark of life within it. She was the little girl about to freeze to death, and she didn’t even have a handful of matches, only illusions…
“The block of ice holding her gradually became transparent. In front of her she could see a tall building. At the top, a young girl waved a bright red banner. Her slender figure contrasted vividly with the breadth of the flag: It was her sister, Wenxue…
“Gradually, the flag grew blurry; everything grew blurry. The ice that filled the universe once again sealed her at its center. Only this time, the ice was black” (p 39).
Waking, Ye Wenjie finds herself being flown to Red Coast Base, deep in the Chinese wilderness, where she must choose to either walk away or to join her enemy and live out her days inside the secret compound. But considering her past, Ye has secret motivations of her own as she begins helping Red Coast Base explore the stars for intelligent life.
Flash forward forty years to a computer game which requires a V-suit and to Wang, a nanomaterials researcher, who begins to see a countdown to the world’s demise in the form of a hologram in his field of vision. As scientists begin to be mysteriously murdered, Wang discovers the cryptic game and enters into a virtual realm (some of the best parts of the book take place here):
“There was a loud explosion, and two red-glowing mountains crashed against the earth in the distance. The whole plain was bathed in red light. When the dust finally cleared from the sky, Wang saw two giant words erected between the sky and earth: THREE BODY.
“Next came a registration screen. Wang created the ID “Hairen,” and logged in” (p 95).
Inside the virtual reality game called Three Body, Wang must learn to understand the alien planet’s biosphere and system (the goal of the game: to use “intellect and understanding to analyze all phenomena” until the pattern of the sun’s movement is known, p 101) while building and maintaining a civilization on the world known as Trisolaris.
Then the two characters, Ye and Wang, finally meet. Now an old woman with silver hair, Ye speaks to Wang as though she speaks to a child:
“The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a unique discipline. It has a profound influence on the researcher’s perspective on life… In the dead of the night, I could hear in my headphones the lifeless noise of the universe. The noise was faint but constant, more eternal than the stars. Sometimes I thought it sounded like the endless winter winds of the Greater Khingan Mountains. I felt so cold then, and the loneliness was indescribable.
“From time to time, I would gaze up at the stars after a night shift and think that they looked like a glowing desert, and I myself was a poor child abandoned in the desert…
“I thought that life was truly an accident among accidents in the universe. The universe was an empty palace, and humankind the only ant in the entire palace” (p179).
Then later the image of “a glowing desert” resurfaces on page 348, but this time it comes from the point-of-view of an alien scientist echoing the young Ye’s sentiments (also see related on page 271) on the very distant planet Trisolaris:
“What the listener of Post 1379 disliked the most was seeing the waves that slowly crawled across the display, a visual record of the meaningless noise the listening post picked up from space. He felt this interminable wave was an abstract view of the universe: one end connected to the endless past, the other to the endless future, and in the middle only the ups and downs of random chance—without life, without pattern, the peaks and valleys at different heights like uneven grains of sand, the whole curve like a one-dimensional desert made of all the grains of sand lined up in a row: lonely, desolate, so long that it was intolerable. You could follow it and go forward or backward as long as you liked, but you’d never find the end” (p 348).
This same alien-being on Trisolaris soon after discovers the young Ye’s message she had sent across the stars:
“With the best of intentions, we look forward to establishing contact with other civilized societies in the universe. We look forward to working together with you to build a better life in this vast universe” (p 349).
And years later, the young Ye receives the Trisolaran’s reply:
“Do not answer! Do not answer!! Do not answer!!!
“This world has received your message… I am a pacifist in this world… I am warning you: Do not answer! Do not answer!! Do not answer!!!
“… But if you do answer, the source will be located right away. Your planet will be invaded. Your world will be conquered.
“Do not answer! Do not answer!! Do not answer!!!” (p 272).
And all that stands between an invasion of Earth is the young, headstrong Ye, the same woman who witnessed firsthand the murder of her father and sister during the Cultural Revolution at the hands of the Red Guard.
Meanwhile in the future, Wang struggles with solving the Three-Body problem in the virtual reality and eventually learns the true trials of the game hold a far more important meaning:
“If you succeed in solving the three-body problem, you will be the savior of the world. If you stop now, you’ll be a sinner. If someone were to save or destroy the human race, then your possible contribution or sin would be exactly twice as much as his” (p 200).
Now dedicated more than ever to answering the seemingly unsolvable riddle of the three-body problem, Wang enters into the virtual reality one final time:
“The fifth time Wang Miao logged on to Three Body, it was dawn as usual, but the world was unrecognizable.
“The great pyramid that had appeared the first four times had been destroyed by the tri-solar syzygy. In its place was a tall, modern building, whose dark gray shape was familiar to Wang: the United Nations Headquarters…
“Wang heard a violin playing something by Mozart. The playing wasn’t very practiced, but there was a special charm to it, as though saying: I play for myself. The violinist was a homeless old man sitting on the steps in front of the UN Headquarters, his fluffy silver hair fluttering in the wind. Next to his feet was an old top hat containing some scattered change…
“As he gazed up at the awe-inspiring swings of the Trisolaran Pendulum Monument, Wang asked himself, Does it represent the yearning for order, or the surrender to chaos? Wang also thought of the pendulum as a gigantic metal fist [the image of the fist again connects back to Ye on page 39], swinging eternally against the unfeeling universe, noiselessly shouting out Trisolaran civilization’s indomitable battle cry” (p 240-241).
The descriptions of the virtual realm showcasing Trisolaris are superb and ties into the plot in a way that adds rather than detracts, clarifies rather than muddles. The plot devices within the virtual realm also enchants the reader to understand fully the alien world and allows the reader to make comparisons with the human world—which helps, as a whole, to better understand the trilogy subtitled “Remembrance of Earth’s Past.”
As you might have noticed, the enchantment in Cixin Liu’s writing and storytelling is also the complexity in character and subplots for which they stand to unravel by book’s end into a neat, yet profound, conclusion that not only makes sense but haunts the humanity within the reader’s bones. And the ultimate question in the book splits the factions (as well as readers) down the middle: do you save humanity which lusts for cruelty in war and fuels poverty and hunger for profit while causing, and ignoring, climate change? Do you embrace an alien species bringing an alien culture, perhaps, of peace?
Cixin Liu bounces from past to present, from Earth to Trisolaris, from character to character, from reality to virtual reality without ever missing a beat and without ever becoming confusing (something which I hope I’ve accomplished here while trying to simultaneously reveal some key plot points while also maintaining the best parts of The Three–Body Problem, which for most readers were the suspense, the mystery and the self-discovery as each page turned to wash away a little more dirt that covered the window of understanding),
Will Wang solve the three-body problem? Is there a solution?
Will Ye Wenjie ignore the Trisolaran’s warning and respond to an alien species far more advanced technologically and superior in intellect? Will she fight them or welcome them?
Well, you will just have to read the book to find out what happens in The Three–Body Problem and get prepared for the second book in the trilogy: The Dark Forest.
Keep reading and smiling…
And HAPPY BIRTHDAY today (June 15) to Emma An!!
The Three-Body Trilogy:
#2, The Dark Forest
#3, Death‘s End
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers