The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

A science fictional cover shows floating object in front of a mysterious pyramid, with strange devices in the background, all done in a monochromatic blue palette.

By Gabriela P.

If you ever find yourself having trouble finding your next book to read, take my advice – choose a science fiction novel. I’m sure most people associate the genre with high-tech futures, robot butlers, and mind-bending math equations, but the most important aspect of the genre comes from the wonder of discovery. Experimentation, analysis, deduction: all keys to jump start intellectual excitement. Even if many of Cixin Liu’s novels may touch on those first, stereotypical themes.

The Three-Body-Problem begins in the middle of China’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s. From the perspective of a persecuted academic, the immediate result is a strong emotional hook. A woman, Ye Winjie, watches as her father is killed during a riot. She is sent to a labor camp and then to a hidden scientific facility, where she begins to use her background training in astrophysics. A test radio signal sent up into space results in an unexpected response eight years later. The alien civilization at the other end are the Trisolarians, from Trisolaris. As the book’s title says, they face a problem. Their world orbits three stars in an unpredictable pattern, continuously destroying civilization and leaving the inhabitants to restart. Earth and Trisosolarians become connected, with Earth being the Trisolarian’s new hope at finding a habitable planet. With 450 years to prepare, humans have to figure out what to do.

This highly inventive book jumps between time periods and across the universe. As the story slowly unfolds, the reader is constantly left to wonder, “where is this going to go next?” Keeping in mind that the book is the first in a trilogy, the scale of Liu’s world-building is astounding. The book is definitely not a quick read, but fans of scientific info-dumps will enjoy those sections. Regardless, the time taken to explore tangents and add description is ultimately fascinating and an experience you’ll remember for years. Or at least, until you read the sequels.

The title is available as a book, an e-book, and an e-audiobook.

Gabriela is a customer service specialist at the Miller Branch. She loves long walks, reading with her dog, and a good cup of coffee.

A New Universe of Sci-Fi: Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem (and sequels)

A mostly blue background shows a pyramid, mysterious objects floating in the sky and in front of the pyramid. A lone human figures appears small in the foreground.

by Khaleel G.

When one picks up a science fiction titles from our shelves, there’s a good chance that author will hail from the US or UK. Their stories, however wild and imaginative they might be, will still have roots in English-speaking literature, with all its tropes and customs, characterizations and particularities. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but one must wonder – how do writers from abroad imagine the future, or space travel, or alien life? If England can produce an author of such wide-ranging influence as Arthur C. Clarke, what speculative fiction might be borne out of Russian experiences? Or Nigerian? What possible futures have international authors imagined?

Cixin Liu is a Chinese author who has received massive acclaim in his own country. Yet only recently, several of his novels have been translated into English, including his most popular series, Remembrance of Earth’s Past. Consisting of three hefty tomes, its story pushed my mind as far as science fiction allows, in a way few other books have done.

While the story bounds about the 20th century and different countries, we follow Wang in his investigation, leading him to a popular and mysterious virtual reality game. Called “Three Body,” players enter into an open plain, accompanied by digital avatars of famous scientists. In the sky above, the sun disappears or multiplies, seemingly at random, resulting in the player freezing or burning to death, then having to start all over. Wang has to puzzle out this video game amid all the political and scientific intrigue, as it may hold the key to the cause of all these events.

To say anymore would spoil the reveals Liu builds over the first book, and throughout the following two sequels. But the translation by Chinese-American author Ken Liu (a wonderful speculative fiction writer in his own right) delivers the plot in clear, steady language. If the above paragraphs made this seem unwieldy and convoluted, do not worry – for as wide as the narrative goes through the cosmos and time and space, alongside characters of various national origins, the books never feel impossible to progress through. Like other sci-fi authors I’ve written about, Cixin Liu takes the time to let the reader absorb the world, understand its rules, and thusly be prepared for the twists and turns of the plot.

That being said, if I had one criticism of the series, it’s that the characters don’t have a whole lot of progression or development. Indeed, outside of Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, I had a hard time recalling any one character, or even their name. Yet, at the same time, the books still work as fiction. See, the focus isn’t on individuals; humanity itself is the protagonist, and the laws of physics, the cosmos, the nature of sentient life serve as co-stars and antagonists. I never would have thought I could be captivated by a description of microphysics, but in one scene, an atom is “unfolded” to a gargantuan size, then shrunk back down; it sounds technical to describe here, but the reader’s experience in the moment is awesome, the true meaning of “invoking awe.”

Throughout the books, that sense of amazement is always around the corner, shocking me at with the scope and scale of events. Again, without spoiling anything, this series goes further and wilder than any other sci-fi novel or series I’ve read, to a finale beyond imagination. I have re-read the last fifty pages of the final book, Death’s End, on a few occasions since I first finished it, yet each time, it creates this vertigo-inducing wonder in me, a near-physical sensation in my gut, like falling into the wide open ocean. Like, how can this be?

The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End sit amid the titans of sci-fi literature, with a viewpoint and flavor all their own. Their popularity has inspired film and upcoming TV adaptations, and pushed Chinese sci-fi into the mainstream of American publishing. Liu has other works in our collection, as do more Chinese authors. Science fiction always seeks to expand the reader’s mind, and with more diverse authors in the mix, our minds can only get wider and wilder and weirder. And I welcome the prospect!

The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End are available in print from HCLS, and in digital eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/Overdrive. We also have Cixin Liu’s works in his native language