The Three-Body Problem - Liu Cixin, Ken Liu

The Three-Body Problem

by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)


Ye Wenjie lost everything in the Cultural Revolution: her home, her job, her parents, her hope. She watched silently and helplessly as her father was beaten to death during a struggle session for his refusal to renounce Einstein and science. She agreed when she was sent off to a logging camp that stripped an ancient forest into a muddy no-man's-land. And when another comrade's false charges gave her the choice between prison and work in a dangerous top-secret facility, she acquiesced to that too.

Nearly half a century later, Wang Miao, a hardworking nanotech scientist, is facing the end of physics. An inexplicable epidemic has quietly struck China's scientists. Again and again, physicists have apparently committed suicide, their only explanation a variation on the theme,

"Physics has never existed, and will never exist."

As Wang attempts to discover what is affecting the scientists, he is introduced to a peculiar and mysterious game, the Three-Body Problem, a virtual world of chaos and confusion that begins to bleed into his reality.


The three-body problem referenced in the title is simple to state: given three masses’ locations, starting velocities, and accelerations, where will they be at a given time? But the problem is surprisingly difficult. Hundreds of years ago, Poincare proved that there is no analytical solution via integrals. A few years ago, a solution was found via infinite sums, but convergence is so slow that estimation from this technique is essentially impossible. The novel extends this principle: put enough events into motion, and even if you understand their individual trajectories, no one can predict their outcome.


The Three-Body Problem is an interesting fusion of cultural commentary and science fiction. Much of the core of the story takes place during the revolution, and I was fascinated to see how deeply politics managed to worm itself into every aspect of life. For instance, during the heat of the revolution, the revolutionaries argue that Einstein's theory of relativity is too reactionary to be taught in schools:

“Its static model of the universe negates the dynamic nature of matter. It is anti-dialectical! It treats the universe as limited, which is absolutely a form of reactionary idealism.”

Initially, the story is slow-paced and reflective, focused on the changes that the revolution wrought upon society. Although I have never read the story in its original language, I think the translation captures the evocative lyricism of the novel:

“She waved the battle banner as though brandishing her burning youth, trusting that the enemy would be burnt to ashes in the revolutionary flames, imagining that an ideal world would be born tomorrow from the ardour and zeal coursing through her blood.”

“Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but part of a vast ocean.”

As the story’s political elements collide with the scientific ones, the plot begins to take some utterly bizarre turns. The plot examines themes of classism and nationalism, of faith and nihilism, and above all, of choices and their consequences. Wang is a likeable protagonist, and I especially enjoyed his interactions with the sarcastic and irascible policeman Da Shi. I also enjoyed the absurd, illuminating, almost hallucinogenic moments inside the Game. Although the story became a bit too implausible and bizarre for me, I was captivated to the end, and I think one of my favourite aspects was the author's exploration of China's political evolution.


I really just don’t understand the Adventists or the Redemptionists. Ye is especially perplexing to me. She survives and heals because of the kindness of strangers, but because of a few evil men, she decides that all of humanity is worthless. I simply don’t understand her choice. The classism, though, was interesting. According to its creator,

“To play it [the Three-Body Problem game] well requires knowledge and understanding that ordinary people do not possess.”

This elitism flies in the face of the principles of the cultural revolution. In some ways, both the Adventists and the Redemptionists are a reaction to the extremes of the cultural revolution. Both assert that an elite group should have power to alter the destinies of the masses.


It’s interesting to see the cultural differences reflected in the assumptions about the Trisolarans, however. According to Liu Cixin, people tend to assume that

“A society with such advanced science must also have more advanced moral standards.”

At least in American society, I don’t think that’s true. I can come up with at least as many examples of evil superior-tech aliens as helpful ones. In fact, I think the Culture is the only case that I can think of where the two are tied.


I was rather taken aback to see some familiar prejudices. One of the most unexpected came during a discussion of where America would have been without Cortes:

“The Aztecs [...] dark and bloody. [...] Blood-drenched pyramids lit by insidious fires seen through dark forests.”  “Aztecs from developing without bound, turning the Americas into a bloody, dark great empire. Then civilization as we know it wouldn’t have appeared in the Americas.”

Sadly, most of the elements of the Trisolarans’ evil plans were lost upon me. The sections with the Trisolarans felt rather ridiculous to me, a coarse parody of a militaristic civilization. Their world is simply too familiar. For example, if their whole history was truly focused solely on survival, then how did they develop entertainment and cultural technologies such as television? And the sophon bits really, really lost me. In retrospect, even the original plot thread was a bit disappointing. I still don't really understand the physicists’ panic. How does the breakdown of one theory imply the absence of any truth? Doesn't it simply imply a greater mystery and the necessity for a new theory?


I loved the game world, however, both for its absurdity and its insight.

(show spoiler)



In the world that Cixin Liu creates, perspective is everything. Politics, economics, and science shift endlessly and unpredictably, and a great leap forward can too easily become a tumble. As one character puts it,

“An adult and a child stand in front of the grave of a Red Guard who had died during the faction civil wars. The child asks the adult, ‘Are they heroes?’ The adult says no. The child asks, ‘Are they enemies?’ The adult again says no. The child asks, ‘Then who are they?’ The adult says, ‘History.’”

As Wang and Ye begin to realise, like the points in a three-body system, small decisions cause tiny perturbations that can be “endlessly amplified,” pushing events towards a destination that no one could have imagined.


~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, in exchange for my honest review. ~~ 

**Note: All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof. While they may not precisely reflect the final versions, I feel that they give an accurate portrait of language of the story.**