This entire article contains spoilers for the general plot points of The Three-Body Problem. Major spoilers for events that occur later in the book will be specifically marked.
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is one of the most successful science fiction novels to come out of China. Achieving breakthrough success in the international sci-fi scene, it was nominated for a Nebula Award and won several prestigious awards, including the Hugo Award for best novel. It’s a mind-bending tale in which the rules of physics are thrown into question, the multiple suns of an alien planet create awesome and terrible catastrophes, and reality is warped out of shape until nothing is what you thought it was. And I, a huge lover of science-fiction who never met a Hugo Award winner she didn’t like, am devoting an entire article to expressing all the reasons I didn’t like this book, at all. I guess it really is true that anything is possible.
But first, some establishing details. There are, appropriately, three major plot threads in The Three-Body Problem. The first is a military base using a giant radar dish to conduct mysterious operations against the backdrop of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Second, there are some strange present-day happenings which seem to indicate that the world as we know it is about to end — a man sees a ghostly floating countdown, a string of scientists inexplicably kill themselves, and a covert military operation keeps referring to a “war” with some unspecified entity. The third and final narrative element is a weird but compelling virtual reality game, set on an alien planet whose citizens are preoccupied with formulating an equation that will predict the erratic movements of its three suns.
These three central plot elements — secretive military base, world-ending mystery and VR game — are the celestial bodies that circle each other throughout the course of the story, bound by invisible ties that are slowly revealed as the story progresses. But rather than delighting in the divine movement of these heavenly bodies, much of the experience of reading this book felt like being pelted with facefuls of pesky space debris.
Simply put, The Three-Body Problem could be half the length. Repeatedly, the story grinds to a halt as characters spew pages worth of mathematical theory at each other, scientific concepts are over-explained and supplemental material is needlessly inserted. We discover characters’ motivations by virtue of the fact that they introduce themselves by saying hello and then neatly and chronologically relaying their entire life story. There’s a whole section in which a character recounts the operations of the military base, followed by ten pages of “declassified documents” repeating pretty much the exact things that she just described, but with more numbers. There’s a scene in which a character builds a human-powered computer and explains at length, across multiple pages, the intricate operations of how it works (these details are not integral to the story in any way). I’m reminded of the experience of reading The Martian — great if you’re a science geek who relishes the million realistic details and digressions, not so good if you’re the kind of person who opens a book expecting an elegantly told story.
The VR game is a particularly bad stumble, full of confusion and contradictions in how it works. It’s heavily implied that both 1) each instance of the game’s world is unique to each player, and 2) there are other players in Wang’s (the protagonist’s) world, even though it’s fairly obvious that both can’t be true. The other players seem unaware of technology like computers, even though the events of the book are set somewhere around the late 90s. At one point, Wang enters the game and pulls out of his virtual pocket the same bunch of documents he’s carrying in his real-life pocket, which is simply physically impossible. On the one hand, these are minor niggles, but on the other, in a science fiction book that clearly prides itself on the accuracy of its level of technological and scientific detail, from how each component of a motherboard works to the minutiae of radio astronomy, this part of the story stands out in how poorly thought through it feels. It’s rather incredible that the author spends so much time expounding on details, and still (at least in the case of the VR gaming sections) gets the details wrong.
Like planetary bodies hurtling through space, there’s a lot of movement in this story, lots of plot points and happenings and disparate components but no core to bind them all together. This is because ultimately, the anchor of a story — the thing that invests you and makes it all worthwhile — is the human element. But The Three-Body Problem fails to present characters worth caring much about at all. The most relatable character is the one the book opens with — a young woman (Ye Wenjie), who finds herself having to cope with the death of her father among the many other tortures and traumas of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. However, just as our breaking hearts are becoming invested in her story, we are whisked away forty years into the future. Only later is Ye revisited, but she is mostly relegated to the role of supporting character to the much less interesting Wang Miao. Even now I struggle to name any distinguishing traits about Wang. He’s smart. Yep, that’s all I’ve got.
(Major spoilers follow). Characterisation is glossed over for other characters as well, and many of them only make one or two underwhelming appearances — not enough to make you sit up even when one of them is horrifically murdered. The one exception is some brief buddy-comedy moments between the strait-laced Wang and the thuggish but benevolent cop Shi Qiang. These few interactions offer some brief sparkles against the vacuous firmament that is this novel’s roster of characters and relationships. The story is so focused on the what and the when and the how (and on expounding at length the scientific proofs behind the what and the when and the how) that it lets the who fall by the wayside. I get the feeling that the characters are only ever meant to serve as props for what the author sees as the much more important work of juggling plot elements.
Most of those plot elements are juggled with some competence. The military base is revealed as having been used to contact aliens, which are now messing with our reality and coming to get us — hence the weird events happening in the present day. So far, so coherent. But again, it’s that darn VR game that lets the team down, because the reasoning for its existence is so convoluted that I’m finding it difficult to even sum it up here in a way that won’t immediately put the reader to sleep. I’m going to try, but please feel free to skip the following paragraph if your eyes start glossing over:
The game was created by the members of Earth’s foremost pro-alien organisation as a recruitment tool, so that the players who showed great interest in the alien world and excelled in the game could be assumed to be more open to invasion by those aliens (??) and could therefore be hand-picked to join the organisation and receive the news that the alien world is, in fact, real (but not actually real as depicted in the game because not much is known about the alien world, so most of the details in the game are made up and therefore completely unimportant).
The point I’m trying to convey is that the game itself serves one small plot-relevant purpose (it’s basically just a vehicle for the protagonist and others to be recruited by an organisation — that’s it), and yet bizarrely takes up 50+ pages of irrelevant tangents that read like someone giving you one of those annoyingly unprompted descriptions of the dream they had last night (…and you were there, and you were there, and Einstein was playing a violin, and there was a massive pendulum, and the planet cracked in two, and the pope tried to cook me into a stew…). The Three-Body Problem reads like the author got so excited by demonstrating how many science facts he knows and delighting himself with endless thought experiments that he (quite literally) lost the plot.
That’s not to say the story didn’t have potential; personally I find “woman traumatised by the horror of the Chinese Cultural Revolution establishes contact with a hostile alien civilisation to get revenge on humanity” to be an incredible elevator pitch (remind me again why Ye wasn’t the main character the entire way through?). However, ultimately none of the interesting social or philosophical concepts the book touches on are well fleshed out and all of them have been more successfully explored elsewhere, with more relatable characters and much more emotional resonance. Contact offers a more gripping story about the geopolitical implications of alien contact, Wild Swans and Mao’s Last Dancer are more moving depictions of the insanity of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and if you’re looking for a beautiful and terrifying journey through a chaotic virtual solar system that will change your perspective on life, death and civilisational collapse, Outer Wilds has you covered. Compared to these works, The Three-Body Problem comes off as emotionally vapid and intellectually haphazard. It’s entirely possible that the sequels take the story in a more compelling and satisfying direction. I hope they do. I’m not going to read them though. I might watch and even enjoy the Netflix adaptation, as long as the creators have the good sense to cut out all the fluff and replace it with a bit more heart.
The pull quote on the cover of my copy calls The Three-Body Problem “The best kind of science fiction”. There’s no disputing taste, of course, but if I were grading The Three-Body Problem on Pixel a Day’s Patented Science-Fiction Goodness Scale, I would not place it at the more favourable end (if you’re interested, the scale ranges from 1 = Not So Much a Novel as a String of Science Lectures Poorly Cobbled Together to 10 = Life-Changing Masterpiece, where 11 = Ursula Le Guin). It’s my least favourite kind of science-fiction: all facts and exposition and info dumps and stuff, like science-flavoured fairy floss offering bulk but little fulfillment. The kind of book that delights in showing off the sheer quantity of information the writer scrounged up in their research, and largely forgets to ground the story in the things that matter — people. Because (and again, no disputing taste) the best kind of science fiction isn’t really about the science.
Youtube: Pixel a Day (youtube.com/pixeladay)
Other published work: