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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Three-Body Problem

Liu Cixin

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To purchase The Three-Body Problem

Title: The Three-Body Problem
Author: Liu Cixin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 399 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Three-Body Problem - US
The Three-Body Problem - UK
The Three-Body Problem - Canada
The Three-Body Problem - India
  • Chinese title: 三体
  • Translated by Ken Liu

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Our Assessment:

B : spreads itself a bit thin, but goes in some interesting directions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Wall St. Journal . 12/12/2014 Tom Shippey

  From the Reviews:
  • "One can’t fault the ambition, nor the still-unshaken conviction in the powers of science. Sci-fi fans often boast about their favorite genre’s diversity and universality. Now they have a classic example to point to. Not a page-turner, but packed with a sense of wonder, coupled to human experiences few of us have had to face." - Tom Shippey, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The first, short part of The Three-Body Problem -- a three-part novel that is the first in a trilogy -- is set in China in the late 1960s, at the height (or depths) of the Cultural Revolution. Even science can be denounced as reactionary if it doesn't fit the ideological fashion of the day -- the term "sunspots" forbidden because in Chinese it is 'solar black spots' and black is the color of the counter-revolutionaries ... -- and scientists physically attacked for standing by their beliefs. Astrophysicist Ye Wenjie sees first hand what it can lead to, and is lucky to be offered asylum of sorts at a top secret base, Red Coast Base.
       Jumping some four decades ahead, it is Ye Wenjie's daughter, Yang Dong, who also became a physicist, who takes a step echoing the drastic actions of the Cultural Revolution -- for reasons that seem similarly unfounded, leaving behind a note that states:

All the evidence points to a single conclusion. Physics has never existed, and will never exist.
       Wang Miao, a scientist working with nanomaterials, learns of this when he finds himself invited to a 'Battle Command Center', where they are dealing with some disturbing events -- though Wang and some of the others who are sitting in, like rogue policeman Shi Qiang (nicknamed Da Shi), clearly aren't getting the full story. With NATO liaisons and two CIA officers present, whatever is going on clearly is of international concern.
       Following up, Wang is led to begin playing an online virtual reality game called 'Three Body'. Mixing real historical events and figures (though not necessarily along the historic timeline), 'Three Body' is an unusual game wherein players advance through stages of civilization and technological and scientific discovery -- in a world definitely not quite like the familiar one. It becomes clear that the video game is a sort of test run, a means of determining the usefulness of the players in something of a completely different order of magnitude and significance. The Trisolarian civilization featured in the game -- a real world with three suns that is doomed -- have settled on an escape plan, and it's a plan that is bringing them to earth. Not any time soon -- even their advanced technology means they have a long trip ahead of them -- but eventually.
       Wang learns that contact was made with the Trisolarians at the Red Coast project. More ominously, he learns that the first message earth got back from Trisolaris emphatically said: "Do not answer !" ..... And, indeed, there seem some valid concerns about the kind of contact the Trisolarians have in mind when they show up -- complete conquest sounding much more likely than happy coexistence. They are, after all, technologically obviously more advanced -- though as it turns out, interestingly enough, possibly only for now: by the time they get here, the tables may have turned (leading them to try to prevent that from happening via an unusual two proton advance party of sorts ...).
       The Three-Body Problem pits those who despair of humanity and figure mankind is doomed to extinguish itself anyway (and hope maybe the Trisolarians could get things back on track) against those who worry about the possibly much worse consequences of this very foreign invasion, by an advanced civilization that probably sees humans as the equivalent of bugs .....
       From the first, man's maltreatment of the planet is an issue in the novel: already during the Cultural Revolution one of the books Ye Wenjie reads (and finds enormously influential) is Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. A variety of asides and smaller episodes deal with current conditions, from Ye Wenjie complaining about having to soak vegetables for two hours before cooking them, because of all the pesticides used in growing them, to an American planting trees in the hopes of saving a bird species that needs them to nest in. Many have a bleak outlook on what might come next -- but with so little known about the Trisolarians it's unclear whether their arrival is anything to pin any hopes on.
       Liu offers a variety of adventure along the way, from the virtual reality game that he repeatedly immerses readers in (and which at least moves mercifully quickly), to a rather bizarre plan to get at some information that involves Wang's expertise with nanomaterials, the Panama Canal, and a really hard to believe outcome. The uncertainty -- about the Trisolarians, as well as about science itself ("You really believe that the laws of physics are not invariant across time and space ?" Wang is led to ask) -- is more intriguing, making for a nice air of science fiction mystery to the story. And the clash of those who believe in science and those who seek to undermine technological advancement -- for ideological reasons, above all else, whether during the Cultural Revolution or, for different ones, in the present -- makes for decent tension. The ends to which people are willing to go is not always entirely convincing -- there are a couple of rather casual murders along the way -- but there's a good amount of good-versus-evil ambiguity.
       Liu spreads everything a bit thin, and the story clearly has a way to go beyond this (unsurprisingly, given that it is a trilogy), but there's a lot crammed in here, keeping the reader engaged (if also occasionally off-balance). Liu tries too hard with some of the characters -- independent-minded cop Shi Qiang is almost a cartoon figure, and used as such throughout -- and doesn't really offer enough personal background to make any of them feel very real (or three-dimensional ... they're all pretty flat). But there's enough in the mix -- including some interesting theoretical ideas, including about the meeting of very different civilizations -- to hold one's interest, and make one curious about what comes next.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 November 2014

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The Three-Body Problem: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Liu Cixin (刘慈欣) was born in 1963.

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© 2014 the complete review

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