Book Review: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1)

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The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu – Available Here

The first chapter of the book was wonderful. I mean, it did absolutely nothing to prepare you for the rest of the book, it triggered some things, but its haunting historical truth and the human madness dancing across the pages were so perfect I read it twice. I relished it, backtracking pages like rewinding a film to see the moment the world falls apart. From there things gallop with a mad physicists enthusiasm for the iconoclastic.

A mounting distrust of science permeates the entire book. They are planted in strange moments and given the odd interjection of these comments I assumed they were personal beliefs cast on to the page like prideful slabs on armor. I started keeping a tab of every time someone made an oblique and incorrect reference to agricultural sciences (GMOs are cancer, pesticides are so bad I have to bathe my vegetables for two hours before the kid can eat them, a massive misunderstanding of microwaves, as well as Einstein’s meaning when he used the word ‘god’, etc, etc, etc.) It became rather jarring, like having what may become your new favorite meal intermittently has pieces of glass ground into the foie gras.

Despite my misgivings, I kept reading, at first because the prose were perfect and any story whose premises lies in fraying the edges of astrophysics is going to be relentlessly interesting to me. After a series of suiciding scientists and a countdown timer projected into your brain you’ve got me firmly planted in my seat mouthing the words, “How in the hell?”

And so it goes for the first 2/3 of the book. It’s wonderful, almost perfect. Characters are revealed as enemies and then through the saintly act of finding common ground become allies. The plot is fleshed out flesh out through bar room bickerings and drunken heart to hearts, which is, to my mind, the most honest most of us ever become in this world.

Next, a bit of information: The Three Body Problem is a long-standing mathematical conundrum that doesn’t seem to have a proper answer. It’s predicated on being able to perfectly predict the motions of three (or more) bodies interacting through an inverse square force (which includes gravitational and electrical attraction and possibly some other things I’m not a proper scientist). It is a hypothetically solvable problem, but the intelligence and power needed to do so is so astronomically large and its potential uses of so little immediate interest that it is rarely given much consideration. Which makes sense, as it seems a frivolous waste of energy when an asteroid or a famine could kill us rather immediately.

Anyway, the crux of the novel takes place inside of a VR video game called, naturally, The Three Body problem. It in this game we are brilliantly showed a physical problem that no amount of mathematically planning and duct tape seems to be able to fix. It is a land called Trisolaris where there are times of chaos (when the suns are all gone) , and there are times of peace (where one sun hangs just enough to make the world entirely habitable), and then there a times when two or three suns appear and once and civilization melts away to ashen screams and an entire civilization falls to the side of memory.

I love this sections because each one felt so strange, mixed as it was with rogue AI and in-character VR suited players, it was surreal and fascinating to watch such a fragile society build and rebuild itself over the course of digital eons.

Then just into the last third of the book the action gets suddenly and seemingly artificially kicked up to 11, as though the author become frustrated with what he was wandering towards and simply wanted to rush forward and get to the high concept murdery bits. And by giving into that urge he indelibly altered a once slow detective narrative into a pop action novel where the hero being dragged, almost if by magic, to each and every single important plot point from here to the end of the book.

The book sprints to its ending, sometimes well enough, and sometimes with a frustrating lack of skill. We are given a handful of massive information dumps and all the pieces are shoved into place and the truth of the now very, very real Trisolarians are going to invade our planet and they’ve got super smart protons that can ruin any chance we expanding our scientific skill set in the 415 years in-between now and the time they arrive (again this part is fantastic and I love it for its visual intensity alone). Moreover, they now have them quantumly entangled to they can receive any and all information that we convey in speech, email, or literally anything else.

This is a daunting series of events, but one I would have not happened, at least to this point, so quickly. The Trisolarians started off as a strange group whose worlds were being consumed and they needed a way out. This is a very rational, indeed empathetic thing for the reader grapple with. Sure we can fear them, but their world was literally threatening to kill them, I’d want to leave to.

But then they shake all of that off and spend a handful of chapters on the Trisolarians who viciously destroy every non-malevolent notion of their cross-system search for a new, less volatile home.

Alien uncertainty relegated to common, human style villainy.

The first portion of the book had done so well at being unique and digging around the tropes and expectations of the invasion concept, yet by the time the novel is done we are left with the same tired certainty that yes, the big monsters from space and evil and they are coming forest.

Great, I’ll get my space suit…I just hope they aren’t bugs.

If it sounds like I’m being hard on the book it’s because I am. I am disappointed because with only a few minor tweaks and one major one we could have had a classic on par with Solaris. And even with the broken want the book is so enrapturingly strange, so competently written, that issues of fact, historical character are and remain small.

But then I suppose the fate of the entire human race does that to most things.

“The creation myths of the various peoples and religions of the world pale when compared to the glory of the big bang. The three-billion-year history of life’s evolution from self-reproducing molecules to civilization contains twists and romances that cannot be matched by any myth or epic. There is also the poetic vision of space and time in relativity, the weird subatomic world of quantum mechanics … these wondrous stories of science all possess an irresistible attraction. Through the medium of science fiction, I seek only to create my own worlds using the power of imagination, and to make known the poetry of Nature in those worlds, to tell the romantic legends that have unfolded between Man and Universe.” ― Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem

About Tietsu

Someday the words that fill my brain will fill cheap paperback books. Until then, I will collect them here.
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