The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is the first entry in The Remembrance of Earth’s Past series and has become an international sensation since its original publication in Chinese in 2006 and subsequent English translation by Ken Liu in 2014.
The novel opens during the Cultural Revolution, a period of fanaticism where the People’s Republic of China essentially became a personality cult for Mao Zedong. The cult of Mao dominated all facets of people’s lives, seeking to erase all non-Communist aspects of Chinese history and culture, through violent means if necessary. Of course, this also meant tight control over the Chinese education system to prevent the teaching of counterrevolutionary ideas.
Against this backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie’s father is a well-accomplished physics professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. He is at the forefront of his field, teaching core theories of modern physics such as general relativity and quantum mechanics. His embrace of Western science—including the work of Einstein and Bohr—leads him to be accused of embracing reactionary ideologies. He is beaten to death by students from the Red Guard in front of his terrified daughter. Ye Wenjie herself later becomes persecuted and imprisoned for embracing Western thought. She is saved by two military scientists working at the Red Coast, a top-secret space program by the Chinese government, who recognize Ye Wenjie’s outstanding abilities as a physicist.
The core idea of The Three-Body Problem draws directly from Stanisław Lem’s 1961 sci-fi classic, Solaris, which considers whether a planet that orbits two suns can support the evolution of life. In Solaris, the two suns have vastly different intensities, causing the climate of the orbiting planet, Solaris, to vary drastically depending upon which of the two suns is currently closer. The resulting climatic fluctuations cast doubt upon whether Solaris has a climate consistent enough to support biological evolution, which requires relative climatic stability over millions of years.
In The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu ups the ante by introducing a third sun to the problem. The orbital path of a planet around three suns poses a complex mathematical problem that has eluded solution for hundreds of years. In The Three-Body Problem, the orbiting planet, Trisolaris, experiences periods of relative stability punctuated by periods of sudden climatic chaos.
Throughout its planetary history, Trisolaris has undergone hundreds of stable periods, where society has achieved varying levels of scientific and technological development, only to be wiped out by sudden climate changes. The Trisolarans have evolved the ability to dehydrate themselves to survive through these periods of chaos, but they have finally determined that the only way their society can survive in the long-term is to colonize another inhabitable planet with a more stable climate. Compared to Trisolaris, the pale blue dot we know as Earth looks rather enticing.
Beyond its excellent treatment of scientific principles, The Three-Body Problem raises several important philosophical questions, the deepest of these being: Is humanity worth saving? As Ye Wenjie becomes one of the leading scientists searching for extraterrestrial life, her experiences during the Cultural Revolution have molded her views on the value of humanity.
Although Solaris and The Three-Body Problem start with essentially the same premise, The Three-Body Problem succeeds in ways where Solaris falters. Whereas Solaris falls quickly into pseudoscience, The Three-Body Problem is built upon largely believable scientific principles. Cixin Liu injects the plot with heavy doses of realistic quantum entanglement, information theory, nanotechnology, and particle physics. One of the most interesting concepts proposed by The Three-Body Problem is a new subatomic particle called a “sophon,” which can change dimensionality as a way of storing information. Beyond the hard sciences, Cixin Liu also brilliantly handles questions of sociology, especially in relation to the Cultural Revolution and its impact on human psychology and the decisions made by individual characters.
The story itself is told from multiple points of view across several decades. Such drastic shifts in perspective and time frame could be disorienting in less capable hands, but Cixin Liu adeptly handles these transitions, using them as an effective way to build the greater narrative.
The Three-Body Problem is a nearly perfect sci-fi novel, translated vibrantly by Ken Liu. The translation also includes several helpful footnotes to help non-Chinese readers understand key aspects of Chinese history mentioned in the novel. Everything about this book is so well conceived and executed, earning my highest rating.