The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin

February 9, 2018 § Leave a comment

First published in the Chinese in 2006
Translated into the English by Ken Liu in 2014


Wang Miao is an expert in nanotechnology. One day, he is invited (forcefully) to attend a meeting in which he finds out that the armies of the world are getting ready for a war. He doesn’t understand—this is the most peaceful time on Earth for a long time. What war, and who is the enemy? Instead of telling him, the general, General Chang, leaves him with this to ponder on:

“Yes, the entire history of humankind has been fortunate. From the Stone Age till now, no real crisis has occurred. We’ve been very lucky. But if it’s luck, then it has to end one day. Let me tell you: It’s ended. Prepare for the worst.”

This meeting proves to be a turning point in Wang Miao’s life. Very soon after, a countdown timer appears in front of him. Only he can see it, and it continues to tick away the seconds. He is disturbed by this and seeks advice from a fellow scientist friend, Shen Yufei. She suggests something that has never occurred to him: “Stop your [nanomaterials] project.” He doesn’t understand—what is the link between the countdown appearing in front of him, and his work? But instead of offering any explanation, she only tells him: “Just stop. Try it.”

All this leads to his discovery of a virtual reality game, Three Body. In this virtual world, the weather is completely unpredictable. When is day? When is night? How many hours has passed? When is the next sunlight? How long will it last? There are no real answers to these questions in this Three Body world, and that is the aim of the game: to figure out the laws that govern this world, and thence calculate a way to predict the climate.

This game sucks Wang Miao deeper and deeper into a world that is both fascinating and horrifying. How do you survive in a world where drought can last for centuries, and cold nights can go on for decades without a single moment of sunshine? And in what way is this world connected to the one he is living in?

I don’t think I’ve read that many science fiction books in the past. (I just Googled “science fiction”, and it appears that dystopian fiction is sometimes considered a sub-category of science fiction. I beg to differ, but that is a topic for another day.) In fact, I’m finding it extremely difficult to recall the titles that I’ve read that fall into this genre. I guess it’s obvious—I’m not a huge sci-fi fan.

So why did I choose to read this one? Not to mention, it comes in a set of three, and The Three-Body Problem is only the first instalment of the trilogy. I chanced upon it. China is making this book into a film, and because of some personal connections, I somehow got interested to find out what the original work was like, and how it would compare to the upcoming film.

My thoughts after spending a week with the book: it’s not a bad one. I can see why it has become such an influential book in China. The premise is interesting, the ideas are cool, the plot is quick. And yet, that is all I can say about it: it’s not a bad book. It’s just not great for me.

There was a lot of explaining going on, and while I appreciated those parts (my lack of knowledge in advanced sciences really needed them), I also found them a little dry and easy to glaze over.

That being said, though, I have a feeling that I will continue to read the second and third books. I’m not absolutely excited and hyped about it, but I do want to know how it will end. And that’s a sign of good storytelling.


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