The Three-Body Problem Problem


I’ve been reading a lot this year. I set a personal goal to read thirty books by the end of 2018, which probably isn’t a lot for the real hardcore bibliophiles, but between work, travel, working on side projects, maintaining this blog, and also just trying to maintain a functional social life, reading two and some change books a month is one hell of an ask for me. But I’m doing it!

Along with some lesser known titles that have made my list, this year has proven a good chance for me to catch up on some of the classics, especially in science fiction and fantasy. I finally began Asimov’s amazing Foundation series, and delved into the strange world of Moorcock’s Elric Saga. I almost teared up reading The Wizard of Earthsea, and almost teared up for completely different reasons reading The Road.

Alongside these classics I’ve been reading some more contemporary stars. Among these, there were few I was more excited to read than Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem.

The Three-Body Problem is an absolute juggernaut of modern sci-fi. A Hugo award winner by Chinese author Liu Cixin, and start of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Three-Body manages to weave together an interesting, unique science-fiction mystery with a deeply introspective look at human, specifically Chinese, history. I’d heard about this book for a while, but it was when President Obama name-dropped it in an interview with the New York Times that I decided it had to make my list.

So, I bought a copy, tore into it over the course of three nights, my eyes glued to the pages, and

I have some issues.


That’s actually not fair. I think, of the two parallel narratives weaved through the book, one, the section set in China’s Cultural Revolution, is very good tip to tail. The modern section, however, starts off with some fantastic setup and then promptly stumbles over itself 2/3 of the way to the end.

With that, I am issuing a spoiler warning for The Three-Body Problem. If you’re looking for my opinion on whether you should read it, my answer is “Probably, yeah”. It’s real good, and despite a bit of a bungled ending, I think that doesn’t invalidate the interesting ideas in the book.

//Spoilers for The Three-Body Problem Follow

So, the modern section of the plot of The Three-Body Problem follows Wang Miao, a nanomaterials scientist who gets wrapped up in what seems to be a global conspiracy of scientists dying. As though this weren’t mystery enough, Wang immediately stumbles into a wide variety of very interesting mysteries: there’s this weird online game called Three Body that he becomes embroiled in that’s some sort of strange VR scientific puzzle, and on top of that, a countdown has become permanently present in his vision, adjusting itself as he looks from place to place. This is basically a triple-whammy of plot hooks: you have a puzzle, a murder-mystery, and a countdown clock. Frankly, the only better way to ensure your reader is enraptured is to promise a cash prize at the end.

Which is what makes it so disappointing that the book spends its final act explaining away all of these mysteries in literal, matter-of-fact fashion. Three Body is a game which, fairly literally, lays out the issues of the distant planet Trisolaris, whose inhabitants are now en route to Earth in search of a new, stable home. The dead scientists are killed by advanced Trisolaran technology, ensuring that human technology remains stagnant enough to maintain Trisolaran supremacy when they arrive. The countdown is similarly caused by that same Trisolaran technology.

I understand why the book does this. Where The Three-Body Problem ends is with the primary conflict of the series established: Earth is going to be invaded, by an enemy with perfect information and superior technology. However, Earth has a massive (500 year) span of time to prepare for this invasion. It is this conflict that, I presume, drives forward in the second and third books of the series. Similarly, I would have been disappointed had nothing been resolved by the end of Three-Body, all left as hooks to drag me into The Dark Forest, the second book.

Despite this, I can’t help but feel like, at least in my case, Three-Body did a bad job of setting up my expectations as an audience. The first two thirds of Three-Body are, essentially, a heavily science-focused mystery. The chapters are punctuated with small details, each of which carefully pulls you along towards the answers you seek. What is the meaning of the countdown in Wang’s eye? What is the hidden meaning of Three-Body?

Once these mysteries are resolved, Three-Body has no mysteries to replace them. Instead, it presents a situation, a difficult situation, but one in which all of the relevant details going in are known. The Trisolarans, and their capabilities, are named and known. The terms of the puzzle are laid bare. Why they’re coming, and how they found us, are said in no uncertain words. What’s left is how to solve the situation, and this is interesting, but the book loses any sense of mystery, replacing it with the satisfying, but ultimately not emotionally gripping, complexity of a particularly tough math problem.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it basically causes the entire first two-thirds of the book to feel like a waste. Three Body, the VR game played by Wang, isn’t particularly engaging as an intellectual puzzle (the solution is the name of the book), but its purpose, the hidden motivation behind it, is a massive driving factor for the book’s first two acts. To have those mysteries solved, and honestly dismissed as relevant from the larger puzzle, at the end of the book feels like a waste of time.

Which is probably why the second narrative of Three-Body, the portion set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, maintains its strength through the whole book. For starters, the introspective element, the part where a woman who’s lived a life of hardship and misery gets to choose the fate of the human race, and purposefully summons its extinction, is incredibly powerful, and punctuates how single events in peoples’ lives can taint their belief of all of humanity. Moreover, the events surrounding the Red Coast base prove to be directly relevant to the greater Trisolaran Crisis presented in the book’s conclusion: it is the cause, the setup, the force that puts all of the pieces in place. The book maintains the importance of this story’s events, rather than tossing it in the garbage and going “time for the real puzzle”.

Ultimately, I enjoyed my time with The Three-Body Problem, and will probably go on to read The Dark Forest and Death’s End, simply because, now that my expectations are aligned with the primary focus of the series, I am curious to see how the extremely interesting situation set up in Three-Body is resolved. However, I still find myself mournful for what could have been, the plot-threads and mysteries I found myself invested in, only to have them tossed aside for what was truly “important”.

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