Staff Review: ‘The Three-Body Problem’ by Cixin Liu

Cixin Liu, as is the case with most great science fiction authors, has a proclivity for inspiring a unique hope in me. This is the kind of story that makes me want to get up and do something, makes me regret what I haven’t done, and ultimately want to go back in time and set a course for being a scientist. Subsequently, I hate reading good sci-fi.

Sci-fi is so often about humanity striving against itself–always fighting against it’s more base instincts, on a path to a better civilization. In a way, it’s almost depressing that even as these authors imagine a society of humans among the stars with ostensibly enlightened values, those same humans still succumb to the same things we do today, and have in the past.

But this is exactly what my hope is borne out of–that in spite of all the challenges, we will keep moving forward and creating new things previously never even conceived of. The Three-Body Problem encapsulates this sentiment in a very tangible and unique way by first grounding itself not in an imagined future, but in history–and a dark piece of history at that. The novel starts in the brutal Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, and then widens the scope of the story to give a more complete picture of how what occurs in the past can bear fruit far into the future.

The Three-Body Problem is a story about first contact, an unsolvable math problem, deification, and survival of the fittest on a terrifying galactic scale. But it starts with the extermination of China’s intellectual elite during the Cultural Revolution. Liu is intentional in reminding us what darkness we are capable of, and while that shadow hangs over over the novel, it is also the fuse of humanity’s eventual quest toward the stars. Somehow, we can wrench some good from all things.

It is often with great drama that a moment of first contact is made in fiction, but that couldn’t be further from the the case in Three Body, and the deftness with which Liu maneuvers around the focal point of the story is tantalizing, frustrating, and riveting. He spends his time illustrating the entire portrait from the outside in, piecing together both the present, and the past that lead to it, slowly casting a dreadful light on what first contact can truly mean. In fact the novel’s biggest success is its journey. It at once spans decades, weeks, and millennia across its stories in so natural a way that you feel as though you’ve read a much longer story than you actually have. I suppose that makes it sound like a boring slog, but there really is just that much narrative packed in this book, very little of it wasting the reader’s time.

The novel is not without faults–there were a few things that weren’t to my taste. There’s a notably generic “plays by his own rules” cop that against all reason continues to be a relevant major character. There’s a cabal of the world’s elite that cohere to do bad things without fear of being caught or concern for the consequences of what their public gatherings might be. The few words uttered by these characters when they do speak, are asinine at best—certainly not the words of what are purported to be some of the world’s smartest people. The reason I’m able to forgive these is that they are the products of concepts that are intensely interesting, even if the devices to explore them are not. This cabal is comically unimaginable, even within the context of sci-fi, but what they represent is not, and remarkably thought-provoking. There’s a lot to explore on this very topic when it comes to sci-fi writing, for another time though.

Humanity has spent as much time thinking about the stars as they have thinking who else might be out there, what they’re like, whether we can find common ground with and learn from them. Whether they’re only interested in exterminating us. Liu darkly considers the unsettling idea that Darwin’s law extends well beyond Earth.