I recently read the English translation of the Three-Body Problem by Chinese author Liu Cixin. It is quite a popular science fiction novel. It won a Hugo, and even Barack Obama read and liked it. My opinion is a bit more ambivalent.
The story tells three tales. The first is that of Ye Wenjie, a female scientist whose father was killed in the cultural revolution, and whose mother and sister joined the Red Guard. She goes into exile and ends up in a secret military base.
The second tale, in the present, follows Wang Miao, an expert on nanotechnology, who is pulled into a government operation investigating an organization called Friends of Science. This leads to him experiencing bizarre scientifically impossible phenomena and to play a video game called three-body.
The third tale is that of the world Trisolaris, a world orbiting three suns, which suffers from the extreme environmental effects of the seemingly chaotic movements of its three suns. In the course of the book, it becomes clear this world is on Alpha Centauri, four light years from Earth.
Hard science fiction
This novel is hard science fiction, meaning it contains a lot of science. If you don’t have a feel for science, or in-depth explanations of how things work with (made-up) physics, don’t read this book.
The Three-Body Problem explores various scientific concepts and technologies, such a nano-technology, string theory, and of course, the three-body problem.
One interesting thing to note is that the Trisolaris planet is a planet orbiting three suns, making the actual problem in the book a four-body problem, not a three-body one. But let’s not nitpick.
The story starts off well with a lot of mysteries. What happened to Ye Wenjie in the secret military base? How does the three-body video game fit in and who or what is violating the laws of physics? What is Trisolaris?
The book answers all these questions, which is good. What is not so good, is that halfway through the book, the present day plot takes a backseat to flashbacks about Ye and the Trisolarans. The second half of the book sees very little action, and only exposition explaining the questions I posed above. I had a good idea of what the complete story was a little past the halfway point of the book, but unfortunately, that still left half a book where it is actually spelled out.
I was hoping the book would push to a present day climax after the flashbacks, but that did not happen. The book was just… over. With a ‘to be continued’ at the end.
A great start, with a mediocre ending. If you like hard science fiction, and like scientific accuracy over tension, this is the book for you. If you like a character-driven book that builds up an action-packed climax, the science be damned, then this is not the book for you.