The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

I’m no expert on sci-fi, but for me, this was one of the eeriest reads recently. Pushing me out of my comfort zone and making me consider other, foreign to me perspectives. I always believed that good sci-fi asks the question about what does it mean to be human. This one asks many even bigger questions about the entire humanity and its meaning. 

I got this book from a friend of mine, who like me rarely read sci-fi. But she followed the hype, read it and then started spreading the word. 

The plot kicks of during the cultural revolution in China. And this part really sets the stage for what’s to come. As one of the characters, Ye Wenjie, starts working in a Chinese closed military complex focused on SETI. They transmit messages and they listen. One day Ye Wenije comes up with an idea to use the sun as a transmitter to strengthen the waves and make them travel further into space. Don’t ask me about the technical details, it’s way over my head. 

Several years later a reply comes back. There is another civilization out there. Living in an Earth-like planet, but in a system with three suns, and without any predictability. Their civilization is destroyed by the volatile climate conditions caused by the impossibility to predict the orbits and trajectories of the three suns (which is the gist of the three-body problem). It is a system loosely based on Alpha Centauri. At the same time, someone on Earth develops a VR game that basically allows people to experience this reality and try to solve the problem. 

I know all this does not seem to make a lot of sense. It is a long and multifaceted book, so it really is difficult to summarize it in a paragraph. To add to this we also have a policeman Shi Qiang asking Wang Miao, a nanotechnology professor drafted in to help with the investigation into suspicious deaths of scientists. It looks like more and more scientists dealing with fundamental research are committing suicide. Including Ye Wenije’s daughter. 

All this is really just the plot. A formal device used here to start asking the more fundamental questions. What would humanity do if there was a reply from space? What if this reply was announcing invasion? The Trisolarians need a place to live, should and would we consider a peaceful solution? What can happen in science that makes multiple scientists kill themselves? Would someone on Earth help the colonizers-to-be? 

I don’t want to spoil the fun for you, so I’ll stop here. It is an amazing book, able to combine a well-paced plot with the amazement at the universe and exploration of human history and sociology. All this with a good dose of well explained and extremely well-researched science thrown in. But what is most staggering is the imagery, Cixin Liu writes in beautiful pictures, it is not the sci-fi of steel cans and spaceships, it is the sci-fi of awe at the universe and how little we really understand from it. He explores and pushes the limits of our understanding of the world. 

It reads like a dream, but it is not an optimistic book. I breezed through it and finished it full of apprehensions, but more than ever keen to jump into the second one, what I duly did. The book sparked numerous conversations and I spent a lot of time thinking about it. Because indeed it speaks about the human kind but also about the more universal philosophical problems. And that for me is a sign of good sci-fi. You can keep the whizzing spaceships 😉

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska

5 thoughts on “The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

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