I admit that for years I avoided Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem because I was intimidated. Very intimidated. Intrigued, yes, but...you see, there was physics involved. Although in theory I love physics and can fake it in a conversation about relativity, something about Liu’s novel made me believe it was way over my head. Now, usually I don’t mind a challenge, but higher math gives me hives.
I need not have worried — if even a physics luddite like me can read and understand The Three-Body Problem, anyone else who is similarly intimidated will be fine.
In essence, the novel, which won a Hugo Award in 2015 and was nominated for both Locus and Nebula awards, exists to explain what the three-body problem, which according to Wikipedia (don’t judge me; I’m a physics luddite) “is the problem of taking the initial positions and velocities (or momenta) of three point masses and solving for their subsequent motion according to Newton's laws of motion and Newton's law of universal gravitation.” In other words, can a planet with three suns in gravitational orbit around each other achieve a predictable, anticipatable pattern such that intelligent life can develop? (The answer for the predictable, anticipatable part is no, at least not given the physics as we understand them. But let’s play along.) Say that a species has developed under harsh and chaotic conditions, and is intelligent enough to be listening to the universe. If such intelligent life can endure although it’s facing extinction because one of its suns will soon go to a red giant phase and consume the planet, if said species receives an invitation from a relatively nearby planet with a stable orbit and just about perfect conditions, what is it willing to do in order to survive?
The puzzle of the three-body problem is worked out in a video game called Three Body that one of the protagonists, Wang Miao, plays. In many ways, the novel is constructed to showcase the progress of the game and to explain the three-body problem in visceral terms, in a similar way that Lev Grossman uses a video game to advance and mirror the plot in Codex, only more so.
So. A novel that exists to explain a problem in physics would hardly make compelling reading, would it? Well, it does. And wrapped around the video-game metaphor for the rise and successive setbacks of the Trisolarian civilization (Trisolarian: three suns, get it?) is a meditation about human nature and the pain and damage human beings wreak upon each other. The novel opens in 1967 in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, where a physics graduate, Ye Wenjie witnesses her father, Ye Zhetai, betrayed and denounced by his wife and Wenjie’s younger sister, and then beaten to death in a public “show trial,” murdered by high school students recruited to be Red Guards. Wenjie herself is sent off to a labor camp before being plucked out of obscurity and put to work on a secret government project.
The time frames shift between Ye’s life at Red Coast and present day, where nanomaterials expert Wang Miao is recruited to help the government investigate why so many elite scientists are suddenly dying. Part mystery, part physics problem, part “War of the Worlds” setup, The Three-Body Problem was a sensation when it hit the English-speaking market in 2014. President Barack Obama praised it. It was a bestseller.
I would be lying, though, if I said I didn’t have problems with the novel. Some can be (and probably have been) attributed to translation issues, which are always thorny. But that’s not all of it. Liu breaks a great many “rules” of science fiction and fantasy, to say nothing of the conventions of the novel. For one thing, this book reinvents the info-dump and raises it to an art form. Something happens in the novel, and within a short interval, two characters will spend forty pages explaining it to one another. There’s a Dan Brown aspect to the writing that detracts from the joy of discovery and renders it into straight exposition.
The characters are not three-dimensional — they’re actually quite flat; they don’t change, don’t develop. The only character who is treated in depth is Ye Wenjie, and she’s frankly unbelievable, a mixture of kindness with a ruthless pursuit of a single goal, and a characterization designed to deceive everyone, including the reader. I would have counted her character fatally flawed (I go back and forth about that) but that Liu makes the attempt to show the extent to which the Cultural Revolution was a meat grinder that destroyed everyone it touched. That’s the point of the scene with the reunion of the Red Guards in the middle of the novel. But — ah, but. Ye commits actions that other survivors of the Maoist madness don’t even begin to contemplate.
Really, the book is not about characters or people, or even Trisolarians. The scale is too large, the time frames too massive, and in perspective, individuals are like bugs (if you’ve read the book, you’ll get the reference.) There is a refreshing ruthlessness in the novel, though, a recognition that, if it actually comes to matters of survival, ethics is only a game, a patina of civilization for the weak-minded. Both the world of The Three-Body Problem and the context of the author (what Liu is actually saying about humanity) are quite different from our own Western cultural assumptions, and that is a bit disorienting even as it’s horizon-expanding.
I’ve wondered for the past three weeks what I was going to say about the novel; it’s both better than I expected and profoundly unsatisfying. I have not yet read the next two volumes of the trilogy, The Dark Forest and Death’s End, so my objections are so far provisional. I’ve stayed away from other reviews of the book and, although I knew the author Liu Cixin has generated some controversy in the West and has said he wants to steer clear of politics, I haven’t pursued that, either. Good luck to him in that, though — science fiction is inherently political, as is the very act of writing itself.
So I don’t think it works that way.