the Little Red Reviewer

The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

Posted on: May 27, 2015

three bodyThe Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

published in November 2014

Where I got it: purchased new












This review contains minor spoilers.


I had a very tough time getting into The Three Body Problem.  In the first half of the novel, it’s hard to tell what’s going on, who or what is important to pay attention to. There are certainly interesting and important things that happen (and which are explained at the end), but I couldn’t understand how any of the dots were connected.


The story starts during China’s Cultural Revolution.  Professors, scientists, academics, anyone who is seen to be under the influence of western thoughts are persecuted and often psychologically tortured to the point of suicide. Ye Wenjie watches as her physicist father is murdered by teenaged Red Guards. Guilty by association, Wenjie is sent to the frontier to be politically rehabilitated through manual labor. A talented scientist herself, she is recruited to be part of the secretive Red Coast Base.  It will be years before anyone is allowed to talk about what happened at Red Coast.


The narrative jumps between Ye Wenjie’s life at Red Coast and modern day China, where nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao is pulled into a military investigation where he could be the key to stopping a dangerous enemy. Except no one will tell him who the enemy is, or where they are. He’s shown a list of scientists who recently committed suicide, and is exposed to a terrifying countdown that is counting down to, what exactly? Reluctantly, Wang becomes friends with Shi Qiang, the gruff police officer who had originally pulled him into the military meeting. A name on the list of dead scientists catches Wang’s attention, Yang Dong. He’s encouraged to visit Yang’s elderly mother, who turns out to be Ye Wenjie.


The connection between Wang and Ye Wenjie is a point of no return. For Ye, everything she’s worked towards is coming full circle. For Wang, he learns of a video game called Three Body, in which the goal of the game (or at least the first level of it) is to predict how long the next stable and chaotic eras will be in an environment in which the laws of orbital mechanics don’t seem to make any sense.  Players who understand what the game truly represents are invited to learn who made the game and why.

In Cixin Liu’s author’s afterward, he says:


“The stories written by science are far more magnificent, grand, involved, profound,thrilling, strange, terrifying, mysterious, and even emotional, compared to the stories told by literature. Only, these wonderful stories are locked in cold equations that most do not know how to read”.


Regardless of if you agree with him on not, that statement was tantamount to my enjoyment of The  Three Body Problem.  For the first half of the book, I was incredibly frustrated at the lack of characterization, and the author’s sheer refusal to tell me anything about where the plot was going, or the point of the whole thing.  The pacing was sluggish, I didn’t care about Wang or Ye Wenjie, and I just had a tough time caring about anything that was happening. Luckily, the second half of the book more than makes up for the first half.


At nearly the exact half way point of the book, the plots begins to resemble an asymptotic curve by quickly gaining speed towards a very specific vector. We learn Red Coast Base was in a sort of contact (with 4 years between their messages) with an alien race who live in the Alpha Centauri system.  The Trisolarans of Alpha Centauri live on a planet that is violently thrown between  the three stars of that star system.  Thus the Three Body video game. If someone can solve the three body problem, the Trisolarans will finally be able to predict the movement of their planet, and have a more stable civilization. However, if it is discovered that the three body problem has no solution, they will have no choice  but to find another solar system to live in.  The Trisolarans come up with what truly is an ultimate weapon, one that will  scare the shit out of you if you understand it.


I will tell you that the video game is not the weapon, and murder is not the worst thing Ye Wenjie is guilty of.


I’m still of two minds about Ye Wenjie and what she did. Should I hate her? But when I think about what she was put through, I don’t think I can  blame her for what she did. Most of the book is told through Wang’s perspective, but it’s Ye Wenjie that everything revolves around.  And what about Ye Wenjie’s counterpart on Trisolaris? That person made a very similar fateful decision, which makes me curious as to that person’s reasoning for their similar decision.


This is the point in which I’m not sure if I’m reading too far between the lines, or not enough. When I boil this novel down to its mathematical parts, everything in The Three Body Problem seems to reflect or parallel something else in the novel, ultimately connecting it all together into one grand unified theory of everything.  Wang’s experience with the Battle Command Center meetings parallels Ye Wenjie’s experience at Red Coast Base.  The Three Body video game seems simple, until you start to understand the layers underneath, making the game a metaphor for the entire novel. Is Liu’s depiction of the Trisolarans, a civilization that is forced to restart over and over a reflection of Earthly political trends and regimes and the idea of “If we can predict where this will go, maybe this time we’ll get it right”?.


The experience of reading The Three Body Problem was not unlike playing around with a parabolic mirror and spiralling around the thing until I landed on the focal point. Like the layers of the video game, the book takes on different meanings depending on how many levels you get through. You know you’ve made it to the final level when you realize this is a horrific, terrifying alien invasion story.
Did I have issues with the book? oh yeah. Would I recommend it? I’m not sure. Will I read the second one in the series? Absolutely. Having gotten through The Three Body Problem, I feel like the Three Body game players who were invited to the meetup, to be given privileged information regarding what they’ve really been doing (or in my case, reading).

8 Responses to "The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu"

For my part, I adored this book. I loved the look into a time and place I admit I know very little about. I loved the way the stories all came together. I love the concept and the way the Three-Body video game was set up to explain it in ways players (and readers) could relate to. Occasionally, I admit, it got a little exposition-heavy, but despite that, I really enjoyed it, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel!


the sequel will be out pretty soon!! I did really like how everything crashes together at the end.


Where you persevered, I gave up. I didn’t quite get to 100 pages before it went back to the library. I don’t know if the translation had much to do with it, but the writing put me off, the lack of discernible plot and direction bothered me, and after saying “what the hell?” enough times I quit.


it did take me two tries to get through this book. I made the mistake of starting it during a particularly busy time at work, so I was exhausted while trying to get through may 15 pages a night before falling asleep. So that didn’t help. Even second time through the entire first half of the book was a struggle. My husband read it first, and he was dying to talk about it with me. If it wasn’t for his insistence, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up again.


I enjoyed the historical element at the very beginning, but lost interest immediately after that. Like you, I just didn’t care, and like you, the last third totally made up for that. It has a classic Hard SF feel that I think will turn off a lot of modern readers, but I thought it was fun. I’m not sure if I’ll commit to the sequel.


I thought the portions that were from the alien’s POV had a really cool classic feel to them. Makes me feel a lot better to know other struggled through this, and had trouble getting invested. I sure hope the pacing in the sequel is better.

Liked by 1 person

I’ve been looking forward to reading this post all day, after I saw it in my feed this morning before work. You’re a bit more hesitant about Three Body than I am, but brought perspectives I hadn’t considered.
Also, the video game is the best part. “Dehydrate! Dehydrate!”


“Dehydrate! Dehydrate!”

yeah, that was pretty awesome! I liked the historical people who show up in the game too!


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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