Book Review : The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Andrew Stephens, Tuesday the 21st of March, 2017


The Three-Body Problem (三体)
By Liu Cixin
Translated by Ken Liu
Published by Tor Books
ISBN: 978-0765382030

The Transmit button was a red rectangle. The listener’s fingers hovered above it.

The fate of Trisolaran civilization was now tied to these slender fingers. Without hesitation, the listener pressed the button. A high-powered radio wave carried that short message, a message that could save another civilization, into the darkness of space.

Do not answer! Do not answer!! Do not answer!!!

Excerpt from The Three-Body Problem (三体) by Liu Cixin

In 1971 a worker at a Chinese radar station managed to use the Sun as an amplifier to send an unauthorized message to the stars. This was picked up by the Trisolarans, the civilization inhabiting a planet that orbits chaotically around the three stars of the Alpha Centauri System. More technologically advanced than humanity, the Trisolarans quickly decide remove this rival race. Acting at 4 light years is difficult even with their advanced science. However they can influence human affairs in indirect ways and they find that a surprising number of humans are OK with their wipe-out-all-of-humanity agenda.

The Trisolarans have a very unique civilization and the story follows its course over thousands of years as they slowly gain understanding and eventually mastery over the physical conditions in their system. Events back on Earth are only slightly less interesting - the plot follows many strands and is laden with grand schemes and audacious revelationsI believe The Three-Body Problem was originally published as a series of linked short stories, which explains the way the plot jumps around. The parts set during the cultural revolution are a fascinating and unglamorous depiction of the periodI was under the impression that it was still forbidden in China to critique the Mao's Cultural Revolution but it seems I was wrong as Liu Cixin pulls no punches.

The Three-body Problem reads like a real throw-back to the classic sci-fi novels of the 1950s and 60s. This is not a criticism, I loved those novels growing up but the humans do tend to talk and act like they are stock characters in a particularly melodramatic soap opera. Perhaps it is the effects of being translated out of Chinese - the dialog never quite rings true to my ear. Instead of having opinions characters become points-of-view personified in the service of the themes of the novel.

But forget the characters, old-school scifi pays its way in the currency of cool ideas and The Three-Body Problem does not come begging. From the epic tale of the Trisolaran origins and the evolution of their society in the face of huge external difficulties, to the dastardly plans to disrupt human progress from afar (including a truly bizarre recruiting scheme), to humanity slowly realizing what the threat is without having the means to do much about it, this is a novel delivers a satisfyingly high notion-per-page ratioIt is a shame that the Hugos don't have a category for "Best Use of Nanofilament as a Plot Device".

The novel concludes with one Trisolaran scheme foiled but humanity still facing annihilation in 400 years once the enemy fleet crosses the interstellar void, neatly setting things up for a sequelI have since read The Dark Forest, my review. In a novel of heart-stopping cliffhangers this counts as a somewhat happy ending.

As well as being a mighty book in its own right, The Three-body Problem is also a love-letter to the good parts of mid-20th-century American science fiction through a Chinese lens. I really enjoyed it.