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book reviews

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Book cover: The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem

Remembrance of Earth's Past #1

by Cixin Liu

(light spoilers)

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is a really strange book. It passed all of my criteria for being a good book, but was such an odd read that I am having trouble finding comparisons. Hell, I'm having trouble articulation exactly *why* it felt so strange, but after a couple days' reflection, I think maybe I've come to some conclusions.

Three-Body Problem doesn't have a protagonist

There are two main characters, but neither of them fit the mold of a traditional sci-fi protagonist. Wang Miao (a nanomaterials scientist) is the primary observer of the events that unfold during the book, but he does very little to drive the plot. He is targeted by a mysterious organization knows as the Frontiers of Science for membership, and subsequently recruited by the Chinese military to be their mole in this group. Once he agrees, he begins to suffer terrifying experiences that have no scientific explanation (like having a mysterious countdown superimposed on his retina), which severely test his mental fortitude. But, other than playing an equally mysterious VR game and attending a few in-person player meetups, he doesn't actually DO much. He's just in the right place at the right time to witness history happening.

The book's other main character, Ye Wenjie (a radio astronomer) actually *does* drive the plot, but all of her major contributions happen 30-40 years in the past and are just revealed during the course of this book (set in the present). Also, she's more of a villain, so I'm not sure she counts as a protagonist.

Three-Body Problem doesn't follow a traditional plot

The book opens with a problem -- scientists around the world are committing suicide. No one knows why, but theoretical scientists seem more susceptible, and nearly all of them have a connection to the Frontiers of Science organization. Wang Miao is asked to investigate, and in doing so becomes the potential next target of the malevolent force killing these scientists.

This feels like the opening to a thriller, and primes the reader for spycraft, intrigue, etc. It's a murder mystery on a grand scale! Add to this a sinister countdown that only Wang can see, a restricted virtual reality game with puzzling imagery, and scientific phenomena that feel frankly supernatural, and the stage is set for another Da Vinci Code. There is even a jaded, foul-mouthed cop who helps Wang stay one step ahead of the baddies.

And then the book takes a sharp turn into weird-ville and just gets stranger as time goes on. Yes, there are several murders. Yes, Wang eventually discovers why all of the scientists are killing themselves. But all of that feels like small potatoes by the end. The countdown was meaningless. The virtual reality game was a front. The murders don't mean anything. Because what is the death of a few scientists when weighed against the future annihilation of the entire human race?

Three-Body Problem is a Big Idea book

So, The Three-Body Problem isn't a thriller. What Three-Body problem *is*, is a nuanced discusion about what alien contact would mean to the human race. That's right, I said aliens. The *actual* plot of Three-Body starts about 30 years before we are introduced to Wang and his problems, when Ye Wenjie accidentally discovers how to communicate with extraterrestrial life.

Ye Wenjie is a woman who suffered horribly during China's Cultural Revolution in the 60s. Through a series of twists and turns, the former academic ends up working in exile at a secret government facility with the stated mission of establishing contact with aliens. They are really bad at it, though. It takes a combination of luck, specialized research and political maneuvering for Ye Wenjie to conduct the test that will ultimately attract the attention of another alien civilization. And then another set of lucky occurences for her to be the only one listening eight years later, when the aliens finally respond.

The message she receives is a dire warning. In brief, it warns the human race that they will be invaded and destroyed if the aliens can pinpoint where Earth is. Right now, they know what direction the message came from, but not how far away we are. The messenger -- a pacifist in this alien society -- begs Earth to remain quiet, so that the invasion fleet won't know which star to target.

So, of course, Ye Wenjie responds.

Three-Body Problem breaks all the rules

Show-don't-tell, show-don't-tell, show-don't-tell -- this is the mantra of the modern author. World-building and plot are supposed to be revealed through dialogue and action, with minimal text devoted to explanations. But Three-Body Problem has lengthy sections of exposition. Whether it is one scientist explaining their discipline to another, or a run down of past events from the viewpoint of an omniscient observer, the book is very information dense.

There is also a heavy reliance on "dream sequences", another no-no in modern literature. In The Three-Body Problem, they are actually "virtual reality play sessions", but the concept is really the same.

Wang's investigation into the Frontiers of Science leads him to an advanced online game called "Three Body". There, he observes a civilization struggling to survive under the harsh conditions of a seeminly eratic sun. Sometimes it is huge, sometimes it is small. It never rises or sets for long in a consistent pattern. In order to survive, the residents of this planet must "dehydrate" themselves during every chaotic era, only to re-emerge when the planet enters another era of relative stability. Over the course of the game, the players must discover the nature of this world and work to help the residents overcome its limitations.

Oddly enough, the VR sequences and lengthy bits of exposition work. They contribute to the overall strange feeling of the book, but don't outlive their welcome. We discover a lot about the nature of our alien antagonists through the VR segments, stuff that would otherwise have had to be narrated. Through the game, we learn that their world is trapped in a solar system with three suns and their planet is passed between them in a neverending game of hot potato. "Trisolarian" civilization had to rise and fall over 200 times to get to the level that it is now, but they are ultimately doomed. Eventually, their world will be pulled into one of those suns and vanish forever. The Trisolarians' only hope of survival is to find another habitable world.

Three-Body Problem does not have a conclusive ending

If you were expecting Three-Body Problem to be a one-and-done kind of book, I'm afraid you will be disappointed. The ideas are too big, the plot too grand to be addressed by a single book. Indeed, The Three-Body Problem is the first book of a trilogy, with a fourth companion novel waiting in the wings. The ending feels a bit abrupt, with the human race left in a moment of crisis.

Can our descendents win a war against a race with vastly superior technology and intelligence-gathering abilities, even with 450 years to prepare? Or will the Earth descend into war and strife that will consume it from within? Will the Trisolarian sympathizers on Earth manage to sabotage scientific progress and demoralize the rest of humanity, or will the rebel threat be contained? And who will rise to lead us through this crisis?

Honestly, I can't wait to find out.


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