I’ve been wanting to read The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin since I first heard about it not long after it was translated into English. Science fiction in translation is such a rarity to begin with but SF from China? Would it be totally different from the usual? Would it seem fresh and new? That Liu’s entire trilogy has now been translated tells you how long it took me to squeeze this first book in. But on the plus side, I don’t have to wait a really long time for the rest of the books!
The three-body problem is a physics problem that originally had to do with determining a particular point in time of three planetary bodies. The problem has been extended into quantum mechanics to encompass the motion of three particles.
In Liu’s book, the three-body problem has to do with a planet called Trisolaris that has three suns and the continually failing attempts of the Trisolarans to solve the problem of the orbits of the three suns. A solution is eventually found and they learn that the suns will one day crash into the planet. Thank goodness they discovered the Earth only four lightyears away where they have been invited to move in and take over.
Most of the book is written like a mystery/thriller on sci-fi. Expertly inserted into Chinese history and beginning with the Cultural Revolution, we follow Ye Wenjie, a physicist who saw her physicist father killed during a Struggle Session. Through twists and turns, Ye ends up working at Red Coast Base, a giant and secret operation that searches for signs of life in the universe as well as sends out messages to counter western propaganda. It is also a military operation testing and researching ways to takeover and/or destroy enemy satellites.
One day while working a monitoring shift, Ye discovers signals from Trisolaris. I am not quite clear on how the computer manages to translate the message in the signal, but it does. There are two messages, one official one and another unofficial one warning that Earth should not respond to the other message.
Then we have Wang Miao, a scientist who has just invented a nanofilament so strong it can slice through thick metal like a hot knife, among other things. As his project gets closer to completion, a countdown appears in his vision, something only he can see. In trying to figure out what the heck is going on, he stumbles into a police-military investigation. Scientists are committing suicide and they all belong to a mysterious group that Wang is asked to infiltrate and report back on. He is forced to work with Da Shi, an unconventional police detective who is happy to offend any and all with his blunt, cut the BS approach.
All these different threads are interwoven and we move forward on Wang’s timeline and forward and back on the others as Wang gets in deep and discovers all sorts of shocking and horrifying pieces to the puzzle. The story has a slow build but it is never dull because the pacing is fantastic. There were only a few spots where it bogged down a bit for me but it never lasted long.
Liu believes in putting the science in science fiction. But don’t worry, if you aren’t up on your quantum physics and have no clue about things like quantum entanglement or how a proton can be bigger on the inside when unfolded into two-dimensional space and then folded back up again, you will not be left behind. Liu is great at explaining things within the context of the story itself in a decidedly non-info dump way. It is impressively done.
The book is more than a sci-fi alien invasion thriller. It is jam packed with questions about humanity, our place on Earth, our place in the universe, and whether or not we are worthy to continue our very existence. Upon learning about Trisolaris and their impending invasion (impending being about 450 years because no one can travel at the speed of light), there are people who hope for extermination, others who hope for redemption, and still others who plan to resist and some who just want to survive. I am very much looking forward to the next book with great curiosity about where Liu will take the story.