Guest Review: THE THREE BODY PROBLEM by Cixin Liu (Tor Books)

Liu-ThreeBodyProblemA satisfying start to a Hugo Award-winning Sci-Fi trilogy

With the scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence Day, Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

Reviewed by Ryan Frye

It is hard to believe that The Three-Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo award for best novel. Not because it isn’t deserving of the accolade — it is — but because, when I read it, I felt like I was reading a classic work of Science Fiction. The Three-Body Problem tackles the classic genre idea of whether or not there is other intelligent life in the universe. While the book is rooted in a question that could be traced back to the earliest beginnings of the genre, this book takes a markedly different and unique approach from the very first page.

It begins in the past.

To be more precise, it begins in the 1960’s, with the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Cixin Liu uses this tumultuous backdrop to achieve, on the wider scope, a frame of reference for how these events effected culture and people’s way of thinking; and, on a smaller scale, how distinct events shaped specific characters and their actions later in the narrative.

From there, the narrative leaps forward 40 years to the 21st century, when a series of prominent Chinese scientists have committed suicide. Wang Miao, a nanotech researcher, is recruited by Shi Qiang, an abrasive police officer, to help investigate these suicides from inside the scientist community. Wang soon discovers a new immersive video game called The Three-Body Problem, which seems to somehow be connected to the mysterious suicides. Here again, Cixin Liu is clever in his writing as he deftly uses this video game to slowly bring forward the idea of real life events outside of the game itself, and how they relate to humanity’s first contact with other intelligent life.

LiuC-1-ThreeBodyProblemUKThe Three-Body Problem is a very slow-burn read. It takes Cixin a long time to finally reveal all his cards, but the end result — an alien invasion force arriving at Earth — is deftly done. And it is achieved with a level of realism and style you don’t get in your typical alien invasion tales. I actually felt like there was a plausible reason for it all, and I appreciated how Cixin grounded it in the story and the characters.

Though the end result was highly satisfying, there were times when I found The Three-Body Problem boring. This was primarily due to the large amount of scientific exposition. As a result, the narrative often got bogged down by all the hard science. While this will appeal to many readers, in my opinion it came at the expense of the narrative flow. There were a few times, when things really dragged, that I had my doubts. In the end, though, I was very glad my persistence paid off.

It’s frustrating that the above synopsis (which appears on the back cover) divulges most of the entire book’s major plot points. I would have preferred to have “discovered” the novel’s events as I read, rather than have so much of the game given away in the cover copy. Luckily, the journey to that end point is well worth the effort. Just don’t go looking for the “commercial action of Independence Day” — it just isn’t there.

The Three-Body Problem was a refreshing read for me. It is a book translated from Chinese (by Ken Liu), by a Chinese author, set in China, with mostly non-Western characters. All of this ensured that the book landed outside the bounds of other SF I’d read up to this point. It’s so nice to see books from non-Western authors landing on our shelves. This novel will most certainly be a welcome addition to any SF lover’s collection. By the time I reached the end, I was eager for the next installment as things are set up so enticingly in the final moments. While The Three-Body Problem is a great novel, it is easy to imagine the follow up volumes in this trilogy to be even better.


The Three-Body Problem is published by Tor Books. Tor also publishes the other two books in the trilogy: The Dark Forest and Death’s End (due August 2016). The trilogy is published in the UK by Head of Zeus.


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