Book review: The Three-Body Problem

The Three Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem
(Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1),
by Cixin Liu
Translated from the Chinese
by Ken Liu
Tor Books
First published as 三体
in May 2006
399 pages
Science Fiction


Buy the book on my Bookshop

I discovered Cixin Liu three years ago, thanks to Supernova Era, and was planning to read The Three-Body Problem one day. The book got suddenly pushed at the very top of my TBR when it was chosen for me by the staff of my awesome public library for their Winter Reading Challenge. Obviously not a challenge at all!

So I dived into The Three-Body Problem without knowing anything about it. And it’s definitely more fun if you don’t read the synopsis, which as too often, reveals too much.
I was not expecting the context at the opening of the book: the cultural revolution in China, with the complex relationships between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary groups.

I knew of course of this “revolution”, when brilliant students and scientists were sent to work the land. But I didn’t know much more about it. I learned a lot at that level. For instance that at the time, political symbolism was found everywhere, to absurd levels. Henceforth, using the term “sunspots” was forbidden for example, as it literary means “solar black spot”, and black was the color of counter-revolutionaries, and Chairman Mao was often compared to the “red sun.”

The book also refers to a key book: Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson.

We quickly discover a mysterious military base, with a very large parabolic antenna. Ye Wenjie is taken there for a very special mission. Then the book jumps to 40 years later.
We meet a strange group called The Frontiers Of Science; and Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher.
At the time, many physicist mysteriously commit suicide. Why?
Even more mysteriously, Wang sees a strange count-down, appearing on everything he looks at. What will happen at the end of the countdown?

The ambiance becomes quite scary. Something is looming, but we don’t really know what.
In parallel, we are introduced to a computer game called Three Body, within a strange world (Trisolaris –a fun reference I’m sure to the awesome classic scifi novel!) made up of stable and chaotic eras, where bodies can be dehydrated and rolled away, and then rehydrated to be brought back to life when times are more stable and easier to live in.
In the game, we meet many important historical figures, such as Copernicus, Leibniz, Galileo, Aristotle, Einstein, Da Vinci, Giordano Bruno, and Newton.
So, what’s the connection between the game and the rest of the novel?
Obviously, I’m not going to tell you.

The book is extremely rich in its background and in its ultimate message. It contains many layers, as apparently usual in Cixin Liu’s novels.

You can find here Chinese history, mythology, science, astrophysics (cosmic waves). It’s a lot about physics and metaphysics. There were even many references to (French) scientists and mathematicians, whom I only knew by name!
I didn’t even know about the three-body problem! According to a definition found on Wikipedia, “In physics and classical mechanics, the three-body problem is the problem of taking the initial positions and velocities (or momenta) of three point masses and solving for their subsequent motion according to Newton’s laws of motion and Newton’s law of universal gravitation.”

 Can the stability and order of the world be but a temporary dynamic equilibrium achieved in a corner of the universe, a short-lived eddy in a chaotic current?
Chapter 6

Beside the technical questions, we run into more social ones.
Our problems on Earth seem so numerous and complex, could we all agree to invite aliens to help us solve our problems? Would they come? Would they help?

To acquire moral awakening required a force outside the human race.
page 28

 Human society is incapable of self-improvement and we need the intervention of an outside force.
Chapter 18

I loved all these social questions and how they were dealt with.
And the whole geeky dimension, for instance the scene of a major computer motherboard made up of 30 million men in chapter 17.
And apparently yes, the sun can be used to amplify radio waves!

But it was quite unsettling to find sentences so close to the 2020-2022 American reality, in a book originally written in 2006 in China:

Your charge is to exploit and create environmental problems to make the population loathe science and modern industry.
Chapter 21

Unscientific ways of thinking will dominate scientific thinking among human intellectuals, and lead to the collapse of the entire scientific system of thought.
Chapter 33

I liked the postscript where the author explains how he got to write science-fiction and what’s the ultimate message behind this book.

Obviously I now need to read volumes two and three to know what happens next!

VERDICT: Can physics and astrophysics be used to ask help to resolve our social problems on Earth? Definitely a must read by THE Chinese master of science-fiction.


Or any other great recent scifi?

18 thoughts on “Book review: The Three-Body Problem

  1. Pingback: 2022 books in translation reading challenge | Words And Peace

  2. A mysterious base, a countdown… plus the Cultural rEvolution stuff. This sounds fascinating. I didn’t realize this was from 2006 either…

    Definitely getting this!


  3. Humanity needing the intervention of an outside force. A friend of mine, Kathi Harris, already wrote that book, called Medusa, about space aliens giving humans on earth ultimatums on getting their act together.


    • Actually, Cixin Liu wrote his book before her, in 2006, as specified near the book cover in my review. The English translation only is later, not the original text.
      Kathi Harris is probably a good author, but to be honest, I don’t know who could really top the writing quality of Cixin Liu. He is the most important scifi Chinese author alive, and for good reasons.
      Reading the synopsis and an except from Medusa, it seems to me it has no comparison with the complexity (I had to simplify the presentation, to avoid spoilers), intricacy, and high quality writing of the Chinese master, even after a translation into English!
      But I’m sure Medusa is a fun book to read, there are so many ways to approach the same idea

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This does sound very good. I had heard of it vaguely but your review encourages me to see about getting a copy to read. The most recent science fiction books I have read are two of the Murderbot series by Martha Wells.


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  6. I’ve seen quite a bit of Chinese science fiction around the blogosphere lately and I don’t think it’s all been on your blog. It’s interesting how patterns suddenly emerge in our collective reading, isn’t it? I’m glad you enjoyed this!


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