The Three-Body Problem

by Cixin Liu, 2006
Translated by Ken Liu

Review is copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2017.02.21

Copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: The Three-Body Problem — 三体
Author: Cixin Liu — 刘慈欣
Translator: Ken Liu
Year: 2006 (mine was 2014 English translation)
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates (Tor)
ISBN 978-0-7653-8203-0 (trade paperback)
View It On Amazon
Wikipedia Page
Author’s Wikipedia Page


Cixin Liu’s novel The Three-Body Problem won the Chinese Science Fiction Galaxy Award in 2006, and then won the famed Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, after being translated to English in 2014. This Hugo was the first-ever (source) awarded to a Chinese writer. The book’s initial sales in China made Liu the best-selling sci-fi author in decades (source). It also seems to be doing well among American readers; on Amazon it has a 4.2 (out of five) rating, with 78% of 1,251 readers awarding either a 4-star or 5-star review. President Barack Obama called it “wildly imaginative, really interesting... the scope of it was immense.”

The simplest way to describe The Three-Body Problem is to say it’s a first-contact novel — this is a sub-genre of science fiction, in which humanity makes its first contact with extra-terrestrial life. Human scientists in China send and receive the first messages with another sentient species, which turns out to be a race that lives on Trisolaris, a planet which circles three suns (the Alpha Centauri system), an unpredictable mechanical situation from which the novel gets its name: three-body problem. Trisolarans have been looking for a new planet for some time, knowing the end of their own is forthcoming.

The story is told mostly through the eyes of two characters — Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, both scientists.

What I Liked Least About It

Before reading the book, I assumed one issue would be the language barrier. I’ve read translated books before, and it’s usually obvious. This was not the case here. The book was excellently translated by Ken Liu (of no relation to the author), to the point that I couldn’t tell it had originally been written in another lanuage.

As I began to read it, my first complaint was (as happens often in my book reviews) my own lack of knowledge. Early on, readers will be helped greatly by having a working knowledge of modern Chinese history — which I do not. I was lost with reference to some of the dates and occurrences from the late 1960s and early 1970s — China’s Cultural Revolution.

Not long after, my second complaint arose. It seemed the main story required a long time to get going. The early parts were still interesting, but were not wholly related to the main plot, which I already knew about, so I kept waiting for it to arise soon.

Once the story picked up, however, I felt endeared to the characters and was emotionally invested in them and the story. The story built to a powerful crescendo, which brings up my third complaint: the ending fizzled a little for me. I felt let-down after such a big build-up. I won’t spoil the ending by describing it here, though I will say that the book is the first in a three-part series, so it might have been intentional. I also know that this is a subjective criticism; not every reader likes the same kinds of endings or has the same expectations.

What I Liked Most About It

Perhaps oddly, one of the things I liked most about this book is also one of the things I complained about above. Perhaps because I know very little about Chinese history — ancient or modern — it was interesting to learn a bit about it as I read, and to learn about it from the context of a Chinese person — as opposed to a western historian.

It’s also the only modern sci-fi book I’ve read by a non-American, which provided a fresh viewpoint.

The story itself was compelling, and I thought the main characters were relatable (contrary to some reviews that I’ve read). The “first contact” idea was approached in a relatively unique way too — humans never actually make contact with the Trisolarans, other than via messages that require four years to traverse the distance between Earth and Trisolaris.

There were also some hauntingly beautiful passages — at least to me. This one is an example, from page 217:
“As she pondered human nature, Ye was faced with an ultimate loss of purpose and sank into another spiritual crisis. She had once been an idealist who needed to give all her talent to a great goal, but now she realized that all that she had done was meaningless, and the future could not have any meaningful pursuits, either. As this mental state persisted, she gradually felt more and more alienated from the world. She didn’t belong. The sense of wandering in the spirutual wilderness tormented her. After she made a home with Yang, her soul became homeless.”


I wouldn’t recommend this to someone who isn’t already a fan of science fiction; it probably would not be the best introduction. But to anyone who is already enthralled by sci-fi, and is looking for a fresh viewpoint and a different kind of “hard sci-fi” story, this might be it.

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