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I embarked on The Three-Body Problem because a colleague considered it a cultural touchstone that occupies the moment between China and the Western world. I traveled in Chinese-speaking countries for many years, and know a little of the Chinese having studied there, but this is the first Chinese novel – sci-fi or otherwise – I’ve ever read, so I was curious how it would be.

The Three-Body Problem is Book One of Remembrance of Earth’s Past, a trilogy being marketed as a global phenomenon: the first major sci-fi novel out of China by “China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.” It received the Chinese Science Fiction Galaxy Award in 2006 and Three-Body Problem has been immensely popular among hundreds of millions of Chinese and a comparatively small, committed group of sci-fi readers internationally. It was originally published serially.

The English translation by Ken Liu (Tor, 2014) was nominated for a Nebula and Hugo Award for best novel – becoming the first translated novel to be nominated for a major SF award since Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in 1976. Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015.

Translations of Books Two and Three were released in 2015 and ’16 and the Three-Body Problem movie is expected later this year.

The novel takes the late-1960’s, early-70’s as a launching point for a fictional narrative that bounces forward 40 years to look back upon it as history. The context for beginning requires some understanding of the temperament of China, then. I took footnotes seriously and in real-time. I kept my cell-phone or computer handy and spent a few minutes googling and reading about historical events and figures as I went along to aid the translation. It helps.

The main characters are mostly scientists – theoretical physicists, astrophysicists, a nanomaterials guy – or military strategists. This is highly intellectual hard science and military thinking. You have to know a thing or two about the state of contemporary knowledge in many disciplines or be willing to learn as you go. I think this would have been more enjoyable in the serial form. I got regular headaches trying to read and follow all this in massive novel form.

Keeping Google handy helps a lot with both the Chinese history and the science. Complex scientific theories and ideas are referenced liberally throughout. It’s apparent Cixin Liu, an engineer by trade, has an expansive and comprehensive understanding of many disciplines. His knowledge of computing, theoretical physics, astronomy and chemistry has bloomed into the books of Remembrance of Earth’s Past. I got headaches, but I learned a lot.

The Setup

During the Cultural Revolution in China, a young woman, Ye Winjie, sees her father, a prominent scientist, killed before her eyes. Ye Winjie is profoundly affected by this and the brutal ignorance of the state and its ferverous minions. She grows up to be a scientist, herself, and is assigned to a remote radar telescope facility for a top secret project. She discovers scientists have revealed an alien culture in the vicinity of Earth’s next-nearest star, Alpha Centauri. A warning from the alien culture not to reveal Earth’s location for fear of invasion is unequivocal.

Ye Wenjie decides life under humanity is worse than worthless, headed for self-destruction, and, skillfully masking her intentions to gain the access necessary, she uses a massive radar dish and the power of the sun as an amplifier, to send a message across space, unilaterally inviting the aliens to come to Earth and take over. And so begins the saga between Earth and Trisolaris that will last hundreds of years.

Now two groups of people exist on Earth who know about the aliens, those who want to prevent them from coming and those who would aid them. We are are led in the narrative of those who would prevent them by a naive but inquisitive scientist and his gruff but lovable foil, an earthy cop who balances out the eggheads and help them push on.

Ye Winjie is a confined leader of those who would aid the aliens – called Trisolarans because they live on a planet with three suns. Yet she manages to connect with a disgruntled hippie who believes imperialist capitalists are carelessly destroying the world. He in turn inherits billions from his industrialist father, and together they create a small, committed force to help the aliens come to Earth to take over.

Meanwhile, the chapters concerning the Trisolarans are fast and heady. The unique structure of their system – a planet with three suns – results in rapid-fire changes described expertly in socio-philosophical and biological terms. It’s smart, interesting theoretical evolution.

The Three-Body Problem is a huge story with bold strokes, and lots of technical and philosophical ideas emerge from high concepts and hard science. A solid understanding of computing, physics, astrophysics, chemistry and theory is brilliantly at play here as the Trisolarans develop and indeed outdevelop us.

There are fascinating conceits:

  • the idea of dozens of physicists and scientists going mad because the physical universe itself flickers and communicates with them directly is terrifying, an idea that shakes the core of belief in what is real.
  • an alien culture less than five light years away has warped their specific consciousness through an elaborate and abstract intervention only they can observe with highly sensitive devices. It’s fantastic and explained through complex multi-dimensional chemistry.
  • having no machines, the Trisolarans construct a giant computer out of single individuals with flags – a massive human motherboard, with files of soldiers running as BUSes through it. It’s just so Chinese. But brilliant in the details of the construction.

While science makes this novel complex, by the time it all gets unraveled, including the complicated rationale of the humans who choose to collude with the aliens in their effort to take over the Earth, we are left with a basic story and simple characters executing a complex, tumbling plan toward Human and Trisolaran interaction. It’s a contact story that spans hundreds of years.

I was reminded of the devices of other sci-fi novels – the aliens use a video game to communicate with humans like in Ender’s Game, the rapid evolution of the Trisolarans reminded me of a story I read in the 80’s about life that forms on a pulsar.

The science and technology elevate this work more than the philosophy. There are clunky philosophical problems I associate as typically sci-fi that are exposed by the science, but it feels inhuman.

It’s sad and simplistic to accept a sane, highly educated person could give up on humanity unilaterally and gain access to the means to execute their betrayal. Isn’t it? It may sound sexist, but I couldn’t imagine a woman being the one to do it.

Once she commits the greatest universal act of betrayal in human history, Ye Winjie finds a community of supporters from cultures all over the world. Have we given up on ourselves so completely? It’s depressing.

This strikes me as a cultural question. Maybe it’s a collision of my mindset with contemporary Chinese or SF. The Chinese and the Trisolarans are foreigners to me here and Sci-Fi is my means of comprehending each, only abstrusely.

Conveniently, the Trisolarans live only four and a half light years away, so communications require just eight years between planets. Presumably in the next volume … we meet.

I finish what I start so I’ll review The Dark Forest, Volume Two of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past, next.