Reading Resolution: “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu

4. A book written in East Asia: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu


List Progress: 19/30

It has been a seriously long time since I’ve read any hard sci-fi. Science fiction is considered “hard” when its fictional elements are closely derived from science fact, with attention and detail given to how the fantastical elements might function. This is on a spectrum across from “soft sci-fi”, where the mechanics are glossed over and science basically functions like magic. The Three-Body Problem, a Chinese sci-fi novel by Cixin Liu, is one of the hardest I’ve come across. Almost all of the major characters are physicists and plot elements arise from scientific problems, instead of science serving a discrete plot. The real three-body problem (a physics problem aiming to determine the paths of three gravitational objects moving in relation to each other) is not just an interesting term to use for the title, but a core part of the narrative. Now “hard” and “soft” are not qualitative terms, there is nothing inherently better or worse about hard sci-fi, but it is distinct and a big change for me. Thankfully, The Three-Body Problem pulled me along through the narrative and kept me engaged to the end of this scientific journey.

The Three-Body Problem follows physicist Ye Wenjie during the Cultural Revolution, as she and her academic father are persecuted for their studies, and she eventually ends up sequestered away at the mysterious Red Coast Base, working on solving the mysteries of the cosmos. In the present day, nano technician Wang Miao is finding baffling anomalies in his research, while also being drawn into playing an immersive new video game called “Three Body”. I am trying to be cautious with specific details, as the story has a satisfying way of unfolding mysteries that feel surprising but not like cheap twists. The second half in particular, I was pulled through trying to find out what happened next.

You need to be very prepared for technical discussions in this book, and my eyes definitely glazed over for some of them. This isn’t technobabble that a character rattles off before doing some cool space battle, the tech is the plot itself, plus or minus a murder mystery here and there. This isn’t the kind of sci-fi I’m looking for often, but The Three-Body Problem does it well and gives these problems real societal and moral weight. The individual characters are pretty thinly sketched (save Ye Wenjie), but the movements and societies, be they national, global or galactic, feel rounded and real.

The ending left me a bit lukewarm, though, as Liu brought together the conclusions to the many questions he had raised, and this does mean I’m not racing off to read the next two books in the trilogy right away. But for a change of pace, from a different culture, language and subgenre than I’m used to, I’m really glad I took the time for this one.

Would I Recommend It: Yes

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