Review: The Three Body Problem

The-Three-Body-Problem-Liu-CixinIf you read one Science Fiction book this year, make it the Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu. It is the first book in the Three Body trilogy, and an exceptional starting point for people interested in reading Chinese genre translations.

I really want to get into a thorough exploration of the work, but that’s going to tread into some spoilery territory, so what I’ll do is start with a brief review up top and then include the longer spoiler review at the bottom. I’ll provide ample warning, so if you haven’t read the Three Body Problem and want to be surprised you’ll get plenty of warning.

The non-spoiler review

The Three Body Problem starts with a gut-punch and never lets up from there. And that’s part of what makes this book so exceptional. Chinese fiction, especially, has a different pace and structure from western fiction. As a result, translations of Chinese novels often have issues with pace.

This is not the case here. Ken Liu has tread a very masterful line between preserving the cadence of speech and the structure of the story on one hand, while providing a book that flows correctly in English. If you’re familiar with works translated from Chinese it will still feel like a translation – but it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, easily on a par with the Shapiro translation of Outlaw of the Marsh, which has long been my gold standard. In fact, Liu’s translation likely exceeds even that one.

The impeccably paced story starts in the throes of one of the most tumultuous periods of the Cultural Revolution, before jumping to the near future. It introduces us to a world populated by scientists an soldiers, plutocrats and police. One scientist, Wang Miao, is recruited to investigate an unusual rash of suicides among theoretical physicists. The extra-governmental cabal that recruits him hints darkly that these deaths are part of an ongoing secret war.

As Wang digs deeper into the mystery his whole world begins to fall apart. And then there is that tantalizing video game…


Exploring topics including cycles of history, chaos and order, the lasting impact of violence on the psyche of survivors, string theory and first contact, it would be an understatement to say that the Three Body Problem is an ambitious book. However it is not a book in which ambition outstrips ability, and Liu Cixin manages to keep several thematic balls in the air with apparent ease, deftly tying the suggestion  that, “other than Stable Eras, all times are Chaotic Eras,” both to mathematical problems in chaotic systems and to politics.

Madeline Ashby recently discussed how she would like to do away with the idea that there is a binary division between hard and soft SF. I think The Three Body Problem provides a valuable example for why she’s right. This story is a scientifically rigorous story about scientists. And that’s effectively the operating definition for the hardest of the hard SF. And yet this is also a story which is entirely driven by the internal lives of its protagonists (and antagonists), and one which is much more interested in the impact of a cultural movement on the world than the direct impact on technology. These are both hallmarks of soft SF. And being constrained by neither of these binary positions it’s a better novel.


A few characters stand out: Wang Miao is an interesting protagonist – at times sharp witted and incisive, at other times retreating and confused. We’re invited to empathize with his sense of awe with the circumstances he’s thrust into, his vulnerability in the face of something much bigger than himself, while still being able to understand why he is the central figure for much of the story.

Ye Wenjie is another example of a beautifully complex character. Sometimes a kindly grandmother, other times a stubborn intellectual, always somebody struggling with the remnants of post-traumatic stress that was never allowed to heal, she is the thread that connects the disparate times and themes of the book most closely and is wonderfully rendered.

Shi (Da Shi) Qiang would have been the hero of a lesser work. This morally suspect disgraced soldier and failing cop is a man whose main failing seems to be a total inability to keep his mouth shut. And yet his bluff charm, easy humour and impish ingenuity make him lovable, even when it becomes clear he’s pretty much a total psychopath. Positioning him as a foil to the cerebral Wang Miao helps to establish this story as happening in the world – and gives the story enough dirt under its nails to remove it from what might otherwise seem an ivory tower parlour mystery.

This is about all I can say without venturing into spoiler territory.

So be forewarned.

If you haven’t read the book and want to avoid spoilers turn back now.

The spoiler review

Chaotic systems and cyclical systems

Compare the Trisolarian statement that, “other than Stable Eras, all times are Chaotic Eras” with the thesis of the first Chinese novel, “a kingdom long united must divide, a kingdom long divided must unite,” and we can see a through-line in the idea of history as a cyclical process.

And yet, where Luo Guanzhong saw destiny and inevitability, Liu Cixin instead invites chaos and unpredictability. While it is true that history cycles between periods of relative stability and harmony, and periods of conflict, he proposes, we cannot know when such a period will end, or even the form the conflict will take.

The factional divides within the ETO mirror the previous factional divides in the Red Guard so closely. Both are born of idealism. Both invite the disaffected. Both fall first into fanaticism and then into nihilism and both are ultimately most vulnerable to internal divisions brought about by their own fanaticism.

What lends an air of cyclicality to this is the way in which Ye Wenjie is so effectively demonstrated as a victim of the Cultural Revolution. She watches her father be murdered for refusing to compromise his principles. She watches her mother morph into something she can barely recognize in order to survive. This is a relationship she is never able (or even particularly motivated) to recover. She learns second-hand of her sister’s death but we, as the audience, are given the opportunity to witness this otherwise disconnected event in almost lurid detail: the passion of the believer and the ultimate futility of her death presented in language more poetic than the rest of the book.

She suffers betrayal at the hands of a would-be friend because he is in a position to avoid punishment for daring to have a differing opinion by casting the blame on her. Her refuge is effective a prison overseen by the military – and by the time she arrives there, almost dead, she is more than willing to sign away any vestige of freedom in exchange for nothing more than security.

And so her decision that humanity is incapable of governing itself, and the extreme action she takes to ensure that the Trisolarians are able to discover the location of the earth are understandable as a person in the depths of powerful post-traumatic stress. The world stabilizes around her, but she doesn’t even notice because she’s so wrapped in her own pain.

And yet, the organization that grows out of her actions, the one she becomes the titular commander of (even if not so much in actual function) rapidly falls into the same factional in-fighting and extremism that informed the cultural revolution.

Out of her desire to save humanity from the destruction of its own Chaotic Eras, she sows the seeds for the collapse of the next Stable Era.

Wang Miao, on the other hand, is very much a product of stable times. When we first meet him, he tells a gang of police and generals to get lost, secure that his position of relative wealth and prestige is sufficient to protect him. And it works – they have to plead with him to come to a meeting with them. They can’t just compel cooperation from Wang like previous government forces did from Ye. Furthermore, though he might have been old enough to remember at least the end of the Cultural Revolution, we never learn much at all about what he was doing at that time. It’s the Deng era of opening up and stability that define his experience.

It’s unsurprising he’s reluctant to involve himself in a shadowy conflict when he’s got such a pleasant bourgeois life.

This makes his shock when the world starts twisting into something far weirder all the more intense and poignant.

While Ye, unable to recognize the arrival of peace, and unwilling to accept that the world has stabilized makes a terrible and portentous decision because she can’t accept peace, it is ultimately the idea that the world is descending into chaos that Wang struggles with most.

By the time he’s willingly stringing his monofilament lines across the Panama Canal, watching unflinchingly as it slices a sailor into several pieces, we realize how tenuous our sense of comfort is – how any time the world might descend into chaos.

Shi Qiang presents one final view of how people relate to chaos and stability. He’s not broken by chaos like Ye, nor must he learn to adapt like Wang. Rather he thrives off chaos.

This “demon” laughs, teases and boozes his way through situations that leave the people around him reeling. It’s Shi who sees something fishy in the “miracles” sent to confound Wang, Shi who suggests using Wang’s monofilament to take the Adventist base and  he expresses no remorse either at the deaths of all the Adventists, or of the limited civilian casualties the plan will cause. He even suggests attacking during the day to minimize the risk that sleeping Adventists might survive.

When the Trisolarians send their final message to Earth, declaring everyone there insects, Ye goes to watch the sun set on Humanity in the place where she doomed it. Wang descends into depression. And Qiang leads his allies to a town afflicted by locusts.

He points out that the locusts might be as beneath humans as the humans appear to be beneath Trisolarians. But the locusts still thrive, despite everything humanity does. Even though humans never had to deal with the madness of living on a planet in a trinary star system, adapting is something we’re adept at. Shi Qiang invites chaos. It’s his constant ally.

Science in the Three Body Problem

There are a few interesting branches of science discussed or extrapolated from in the Three Body Problem. Since it is science fiction I figured I should at least touch on them.

 The Three Body Problem

The titular problem is a classical physics dilemma. While two bodies act on each other in a predictable fashion, they move toward each other unless acted upon by an outside force, introducing a third body causes the system to become chaotic.

The near impossibility of the task occupies much of the Three Body game segments of the story – as Wang learns the history of the Trisolarian attempt to chart the behavior of their solar system sufficiently to be able to survive its Chaotic Eras and maximize its Stable Eras.

There’s also multiple instances of factions divided into threes within the book: Battle Command, the ETO and the Trisolarians for example, or within the ETO, the Adventists, Redemptionists and Survivalists. These allow this classical problem to both serve as a metaphor for the conflicts of disparate groups, and to be reflected by the chaotic actions of the various factions.

A solar antenna

I’m not certain how fantastical this is. But Liu’s description of Ye Wenjie using the sun as a supermassive antenna for trans-solar transmission is really cool. It made me want to learn more.

String theory

I’m still not entirely sold on string theory. It remains resistant to experimental verification and isn’t parsimonious. That said, the Trisolarian plot depends on unfolding protons from 11 dimensional string theoretical complexity into 2 dimensions in order to create proton-sized artificial intelligences. This leads to one of the most beautifully abstract areas of the text, which I loved every moment.

Nanotube Monofilament

These things are starting to exist in the real world. How long before we get Wang Miao’s weaponized version?


The Three Body Problem is a tour de force of speculative fiction. It fluctuates frequently between wonder, humour and despair. Ultimately this is a story about how people break, and it breaks its protagonists beautifully. And yet, for all their brokenness it ends on a bitter note of hope.

This, when you consider the scope of Chinese fiction over the last 500 years, positions the story beautifully in the context of its antecedents.

If you regularly read translated SF you’ve probably already put the Three Body Problem on your to-read list.

If you don’t, this book is a perfect place to start, beautifully written and beautifully translated.

In praise of translated works

Click here to access the publisher’s page.

I’ve been thinking about translated books a lot lately. There’s a few reasons for this. First, and foremost, is because the book I’ve most anxiously awaited this year is The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu. It’s currently sitting at the top of my to-read pile. I will write about it more in detail after I’ve, you know, read it.

The second reason is as part of the ongoing discussion of privilege within the genre community. Our understanding of what is normative is so closely tied to that issue, and comes across in the media we consume.

And, finally, I just really happen to like a lot of translated literature and, as part of my own personal process of fannishness I think about this stuff.

Cultural exchange and normativeness

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege this year. I mean, if you’re a decent person and you haven’t been living in a cave it’s kind of hard not to. There’s been a massive cultural transformation going on in various media sectors for the last few years. As any major shift in culture it has led to some substantial tensions which have largely flared up in circumstances like the WFA trophy controversy and Gamergate.

Of course, there’s also been the controversy surrounding Jian Ghomeshi, who surrendered to police and was charged with five counts as part of a serious collection of sex assault accusations. And there have been several situations in the United States, the latest and one of the most egregious being the refusal of a grand jury to bring Darren Wilson to trial for shooting an unarmed teenager twelve times, killing the boy basically just because he had dark skin.

If you’re a white middle-class male in a wealthy country you probably should be examining your own privilege.

Now I like to think that my parents raised me right. I’ve always been open and accepting of people in all their diversity. But here’s the thing, and it’s something I’ve really tried to confront in my own life lately, privilege goes beyond whether or not you act like a bigot. Because you can control that. I can choose not to be an asshole. But I can’t choose not to be a white man. And being a white man gives me the opportunity to be seen as normal.

It’s the assumption that boys won’t engage female protagonists but girls will engage males.

It’s the assumption that your video game avatar is going to be a tough-looking white dude with blue eyes and short brown hair. Even if you can change your avatar to look more like yourself, they will not be standard, they won’t be the face on the box.

It’s the ability to walk through a crowd without being shouted at, to be invisible and ignored if you want to be.

It’s the ability to not be judged for how you dress, for what you eat, for how you sound.

It’s the assumption that your opinion will be listened to.

And I can’t turn any of that stuff off. It’s not stuff I control. At least not directly. This stuff is culturally coded.

Now in sociology there’s a core concept called “material culture” – simply put, material culture is the parts of culture we can see, touch, interact with. It’s our food, our toys, our books, our music. And to certain schools of sociology almost all of our culture is coded in material culture.

But of course, cultures don’t exist in a vacuum – despite our compartmentalized mythology, masquerading as history, they never have (though that’s a rant for another day).

Cultures interface with each other all the time. They export bits of themselves. They import things from other cultures. Thinkers from one place talk to thinkers in another place. Early Buddhists in India and Nepal traveled to China, met Taoists, formed ch’an. More controversially they probably encountered Hebrew culture (either via the Persians or in the aftermath of the Macedonian conquest) and may very well have helped influence the development of Christianity (records for that are much spottier, we know the Buddhists got as far as Afghanistan, and were influential enough there to build monumental structures, and the roads through Afghanistan eventually made their way back to the Mediterranean, and there are a lot of similarities in doctrine and dressing between early Christianity and Buddhism, but a lot of that is circumstantial at best).

But the English speaking world has, for the last three centuries or so, been AWFUL about resisting the import of culture. This grew out of imperial attitudes of both the British Empire and American manifest destiny. It led to the creation of things such as “illegal immigration,” which didn’t really exist as a concept until the 1800s. On a more recent front it has made native English speakers much more likely to be monolingual than native speakers of other languages. And we don’t consume media from other cultures very often either.

Horace Engdahl famously despaired that Americans ” don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature” he called this ignorance and said it was restraining.

Now, to be entirely fair, I don’t agree with even half of what Engdahl says. He enjoys courting controversy and frequently posits opinions that are difficult to say the least. But, on this, I think he’s right. And it’s not just the Americans. It’s English Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand too.

We don’t read translations. We buy books from American and British publishing houses, written in English, by native English speakers. Mostly white. Mostly men. And this reinforces our view of the world – that white, English speaking, men are the default.

We buy fantasy stories and every one is set in a thinly veiled England. Hell, Westeros even LOOKS like England. We buy science fiction stories and they’re populated entirely by space Americans. Think about that for a second, our fiction of the fantastic is bound into our cultural context to the point where the best other cultures can often hope to have within them is a position of respected Other. Never the hero. Never the focus.

The arrow of causation on this doesn’t point just one direction. We consume media that reinforces our ideas of normativeness, and those in turn strengthen the subconscious idea we have that this is normal.

So how can we begin to break this cycle?

Learn about somebody else’s normal.

Now it’s not a perfect process. The market for translated literature is small and the selection is limited. Generally you’ll only find works if they:

  1. have a large fanbase to either provide a financial incentive for translation or to do the grunt-work of translation for free
  2. have a significance to canon (IE: were highly influential to later works or won international awards).
  3. are from cultures with either current or historical global power.

As a result you’re much more likely to find books translated from Latin, Greek, German, French and Chinese than from !Kung or Hungarian. You’re also much more likely to find OLD literature than new.


Soul Mountain

Seriously, go read Soul Mountain, right now if you haven’t yet. It’s just brilliant.

Hell, I seek out translated work, and I’ve probably read a dozen Plato, Aurileus or Confucius age works and half a dozen of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s vintage for every one Gao Xingjian. And partially that’s down to availability. It’s just not that often you run across something published in the last 30 years translated into English.

But translated books give you a valuable gift. They give you a chance to experience somebody else’s expectations of what constitutes normal, without having to take the time and effort to become literate in other languages to the point you can manage their literature. It gives you a chance also to see what other cultures consider fantastical.

And this gives us a paradoxical understanding both of the beautiful diversity of the world and its fundamental humanity.

It’s NOT a magic bullet

Fixing the privilege problem, if it can happen at all, isn’t going to happen overnight, and it isn’t going to happen just by watching fansubs of anime and reading the Witcher books while listening to Mongolian throat singing. Consuming culture is not the same as engaging it.

But it teaches a valuable skill. If we immerse ourselves in worlds from outside our privileged bubble we can learn a bit about the experiences of the people we’ve spent the last three centuries othering.

We can read to prime ourselves to listen. And if we learn to start sincerely listening to diverse voices, not just in our media but in our daily lives, maybe we can eventually make some progress toward a more equitable world.

At least I hope so. Because I don’t want my daughter to have to grow up in the one we’ve got right now.