The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu translated by Ken Liu (book review).

Near-future China is a place of high quality technological research, built on a background of fear, politics and persecution. Many have lost hope in humanity after seeing their families murdered and witnessing large scale destruction of natural environments. Some of these people are turning their hopes instead towards the stars, hoping that aliens will come and help the human race leave behind its barbaric beginnings and move towards peace and prosperity. Wang is a scientist and really just wants to get on with researching his nanomaterials, but when he is brought in on a government operation and asked to infiltrate an elite group of radical academics, he can’t just walk away. Instead, he is drawn into the mysteries surrounding the Red Coast military base and the challenging Three Body computer game. He soon comes to realise that it is a far greater game they’re playing, with the future of humanity as the ultimate prize.


It is quite rare to see Chinese Science Fiction novels on the shelves of local bookshops in the UK, so when I got the chance to read ‘The Three-Body Problem’ by Liu Cixin (the hyphen is only used in the title), I was pretty excited. In this review, I’ve followed Chinese naming conventions, with surnames written before given names. Set against a completely different cultural background than the Western Science Fiction stories that permeate the market, it opens up opportunities for a very different approach to this type of novel and ‘The Three-Body Problem’ certainly gave me plenty to think about.

The novel begins in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution, when many academics were persecuted and killed for their reactionary teachings. In the crowd, at one of these killings, was Ye Wenjie, who watched her father beaten to death by teenage members of the Red Guard. This really sets up the background to the story, where ordinary people feel unsafe, academics fear political reprisals and progress is virtually halted while China recovers from this brutal period of history. It is easy to see how people could lose their faith in humanity after witnessing such violent acts.

From political commentary on the 1960s, this book swiftly takes us forward to sometime in either present day or near future China, the exact dates aren’t given, when scientific progress is again on the move and a secretive group of intellectuals is under investigation by governments across the globe. We quickly move into Science Fiction as we consider the possibilities for contact with alien species and the technologies involved in both that first contact and subsequent possible invasion of Earth. It’s full of detailed discussions of scientific theories and problems, including the eponymous Three Body problem and should really engage readers who like to delve into the scientific background of Science Fiction possibilities.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. The science content kept me thinking, considering different possibilities and the consequences of different actions. The storyline intrigued me and I wanted to know what happened at Red Coast and what the Three Body computer game was really about. The characters were almost incidental, but they were still nicely detailed. The exaggerated comic behaviour of Shi contrasted nicely with the sensible and quietly competent actions of Wang and the bizarre characters encountered during chapters set in the game world take you away from the real world entirely.

In general, I’m not a fan of stories that jump about between different time periods but that technique worked quite well in this book. Historical details were revealed when they were necessary for the modern storyline to proceed. The only thing that I found a little disorienting was the section from the point of view of the aliens, which was perhaps too much of a departure from the main story and its timeline.

This was a really fascinating book and I’m delighted that there are two more to come in the series. It’s given me so much to think about and has prompted further research on a number of the topics contained within its pages. A great Science Fiction book that I’d recommend to readers who want to enjoy the science as much as the story.

Vinca Russell

April 2015

(pub: TOR/Forge, 2014. 399 page hardback. Price: $25.99 (US), $29.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-7706-7)

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