Book Review: The Three-Body Problem (Liu Cixin, trans. Ken Liu)

Review:  The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu
Science Fiction / #1 of 3, Three-Body

“All the evidence points to a single conclusion: Physics has never existed, and will never exist.”

The Three-Body Problem is notable for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s up for a Hugo this week. Second, it’s the first translated book that I’ve read since I started this blog…  and third, it is the first book by a male author I’ve read since I started the blog (you can read more about why that is here)!

I’m going to be careful with my plot synopsizing, because The Three-Body Problem is one of those books where I was retroactively really glad I didn’t read the cover. I only found out what the book is really about halfway through, and it was an exciting and surprising moment that would have been considerably less surprising if I had read the GR synopsis or the back of the book. What is with the massive spoilers on book jackets?? So if you want to stay truly spoiler-free, I’d advise avoiding them.

My spoiler free introduction: a rash of suicides among Chinese scientists has left the scientific community alarmed and confused. In investigating the deaths, and their possible link to a shadowy organization called the Frontiers of Science, nanomaterials expert Wang Miao starts uncovering mysteries that throw everything he believed to be true about the world—and about the laws of physics—into doubt.

First off: The Three-Body Problem is hard science fiction, in the sense that every other page gives you something interesting to chew on, whether theoretical physics or quantum mechanics or computer science. But everything is explained with such clarity that someone who hasn’t done a bit of science since high school (me) still found it easy to read.  The bigger question I have, since it was appealing to someone with my level of scientific background, is how the science stacks up for someone more knowledgeable.

This book was an outstanding read.  The Three-Body Problem is a chockfull of fascinating ideas; in addition to the scientific and mathematical concepts, there is a healthy dose of philosophy, history, political science, and sociology thrown in the mix too.  Part of it is set during the Cultural Revolution, and deals with the ways that anti-intellectualism and political ideologies impacted scientific study.  Other sections take place in the present day, including chapters set in “Three Body”, a virtual reality video game world that our protagonist becomes obsessed with and the weirdest, most wonderful part of the book.

The biggest surprise of The Three-Body Problem was how frightening it was. It’s not a horror novel… but I actually had to stop reading it before bed because I would get too anxious to go to sleep—I ended up relating quite strongly to one character in the book whose insomnia was exacerbated by imagining the emptiness of space and feeling “a nameless anxiety”.  If physics equals religion in this book, then it’s simultaneously about the terrifying power and enormity of God, and the hopelessness and despair of losing faith in God.

And the idea of science as spirituality is a very strong theme throughout the book, with scientists’ relationships with their work often described using religious terms. When our protagonist begins to lose faith in the laws of physics, he has a spiritual crisis in a church and struggles with the feeling that he has lost a crucial support in his life. Another central character, Ye Wenjie, describes a similar crisis of faith, looking up at the sky feeling her life has lost all meaning and purpose.

All was not perfect in The Three-Body Problem. There are some stilted monologues and awkward info dumps, as well as slightly clunky dialogue at times. The second-to-last chapter—which, coming just off the book’s climax, would ideally have carried some of that momentum forward—felt like a lot of contrived-feeling exposition to me, and made for a somewhat less exciting conclusion than I was hoping for. Some of this can probably be attributed to the difficulties of translation, and the use of narrative techniques and devices I am not accustomed to as a Canadian Anglophone – Ken Liu speaks a bit about these challenges in this article on translating Three-Body.

I also disliked the blandness of the main protagonist. Wang is a very blank slate; at the book’s conclusion, I still could tell you very little about him. There are other interesting characters, particularly Da Shi and Ye Wenjie, who are more complex and well-written. I suppose then that Wang’s lack of personality is a conscious choice to make him more relatable as the reader’s avatar, but I think his character is a huge missed opportunity.

But ultimately? This book would be a deserving Hugo winner. I prefer Ancillary Sword… but at the same time, I’d like to see another author (particularly one from outside the US) get the honour. I mean, Ann Leckie probably doesn’t have any more shelf space left anyway after Ancillary Justice won all the awards ever.

If you like ____________ you should check out The Three-Body Problem:

  • Wonderful, weird, creepy video game worlds
  • The amazingness of Science!
  • Chinese history, politics, and culture
  • Old-school sci-fi (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke)

If you dislike _______________, you might want to pass on The Three-Body Problem:

  • Reading about physics, math, science in general
  • Overly long explanations/exposition

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Three-Body Problem (Liu Cixin, trans. Ken Liu)”

    1. You’re welcome! It’s amazing how many plot summaries seem to have spoilers these days… though maybe I’m just a bit spoiler-sensitive. Still, I’d rather be too careful than not careful enough. I suspect you will quite enjoy The Three-Body Problem when you get around to it 🙂

    1. Oooh. It would be so interesting to read it in both languages! It’s one thing to read about the sort of changes Ken Liu describes making in his article, but I would be so curious to read/see them for myself in the text. (Alas for my monolinguism.)

  1. I still don’t understand majority of the physics in this book which lessened my enjoyment somewhat. I do appreciate the concept and how different it is from Western scifi, though. Also, the Chinese bloggers seem to all agree the next two books are a significant improvement on this one, so I am holding out hope!
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    1. That is very exciting! I wonder when the next one is due to be released in English? I’m really curious to see where things are headed… I feel like at the end of The Three-Body Problem, there are a lot of options as to how/when/where book 2 unfolds, and who it is about.

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