Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is the type of epic science-fiction novel that’s carried more by its science than its fiction. I don’t mean that uncharitably. The fiction in The Three-Body Problem is interesting—I just found it hard to get into.
The story starts during the mass madness of China’s Cultural Revolution. We see one faction of Red Guards using the young soldier of another faction for target practice, and a professor being sentenced to die because he taught “reactionary” scientific theories like the Big Bang and the “black banner of capitalism represented by the theory of relativity!” Yet there’s no clear protagonist initially. And shortly after Liu seems to settle on Ye Wenjie (the professor’s daughter) and her exile to a secret radio facility in the mountains, the narrative skips ahead forty years to another character: Wang Miao. These threads come together eventually, but when the transition first happens, it makes the opening appear inessential.
Despite Wang’s penchant for photography, I never found him compelling on his own. But the mysteries he begins to investigate are: why are his fellow scientists starting to commit suicide? Not just in China, but all around the world? And why has a ghostly countdown suddenly appeared before his eyes? Wang’s pursuit of the truth draws him into a multinational effort to understand these incidents, an inquiry revealed to the reader through a variety of mediums: redacted government documents, transcripts of interrogations, and—most notably—an immersive video game that tasks Wang with determining why an Earth-like civilization is repeatedly destroyed by extremes of heat and cold. (The latter element feels like a sophisticated form of LitRPG, a relatively new genre wherein much of the story takes place inside the pseudo-reality of a video game.)
Again, this was all interesting. But at times the dialogue sounds forced. (Although to be fair, it’s hard to tell how much of this was a result of Liu’s original prose being translated; The Three-Body Problem still has some beautiful sentences. One of my favorites: “The line’s color became red, like a snake awakening after hibernation, wriggling as its skin refilled with blood.”) More significantly, the main characters often lack agency. In flashback, we see Ye make a choice with enormous consequences for humanity, and Wang exerts some influence over the Three Body video game. But for the most part, he’s just reacting to strange circumstances. And when the mystery is finally solved for him (by Liu, essentially; the final insights are more given by the author than earned by the protagonist), there’s no opportunity for him to apply that knowledge against the newly revealed antagonists—Book One ends without any real resolution other than setting up Book Two. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it did strike me as unsatisfying.
The science, though! The Three-Body Problem is chock full of imaginative technological exploits. One of the characters uses the sun to broadcast radio waves to the universe. An army of men work together to create a human motherboard by waving flags to mimic circuits. Nanofilaments form a deadly, invisible web. Two protons are coded on a global scale.
Could any of this really happen? Maybe, maybe not. But Liu makes it all seem possible. And the prospect of seeing more of these imaginative, intelligent spectacles is why I’ll be continuing on with the series.
Note: Since the translation uses the English versions of the author’s name and his characters’, I did the same in this review. For more like it, sign up for Nick’s monthly newsletter.