The Three Body Problem

by Cixin Liu


I have a weakness for marginally-better-than-average sci-fi, and this is definitely better than most sci-fi books I’ve read. (Which may be a sad reflection on the state of decent scifi worldbuilding).

Great fun to read! despite the difficulty of translation.

“You also taught the big bang theory. This is the most reactionary of all scientific theories.” One of the male Red Guards spoke up, trying to change the subject.

“Maybe in the future this theory will be disproven. But two great cosmological discoveries of this century—Hubble’s law, and observation of the cosmic microwave background–show that the big bang theory is currently the most plausible explanation for the origin of the universe.”

“Lies!” Shao Lin shouted. Then she began a long lecture about the big bang theory, remembering to splice in insightful critiques of the theory’s extremely reactionary nature. But the freshness of the theory attracted the most intelligent of the four girls, who couldn’t help but ask, “Time began with the singularity? So what was there before the singularity?”

“Nothing,” Ye said, the way he would answer a question from any curious young person. He turned to look at the girl kindly. With his injuries and the tall iron hat, the motion was very difficult.

“No … nothing? That’s reactionary! Completely reactionary!” the frightened girl shouted.

The descriptions of the Cultural Revolution were vivid, horrific, and historically plausible. I am boggled that I had not understood the depth to which Maoist China was trapped in a ideological fervor.

Anti-intellectual movements were common in Communist regimes (from the USSR to Mao to Pol Pot) as well as in fascist ones (Hitler attempted to exterminate Polish intellectuals), but it never occured to me that a populist, leftist student movement would denounce empiricism in the name of an ideology. And this forms the basis of Ye Wenjie’s belief in the irredemable nature of humanity.

It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.

Humanity is Evil crops up in The Three-Body Problem quite a bit - is the justification for Frontiers of Science and calling for the Trisolarian incursion. This book was written in 2006, perhaps before the heyday of the climate movement? but it is interesting how self-loathing on a macro-level can lead to such horrific actions. Ye Wenjie became what she strove to destroy when she killed her husband and superior at the altar of her cause, but nevertheless stopped short of calling for humanity’s extinction (Mike Evans did that for her).

Someone truly neutral will then be able to comment on whether we’re the heroes or villains of history. [from the Central Leadership of the CCP]

Quite funny that the CCP is described here as unsure of their standing in history. Perhaps another example of the leaders of movements having less zealotry than their followers.

Most people did not want to be indispensable, because they understood that in highly classified projects like this, once someone was put into a core technical position, it would be very difficult for him to be transferred out. Thus, all of them tried to deliberately hide their technical competence as they went about their jobs.

The description of Red Coast was telling: simultaneously high-status yet inefficient by dint of its nature as a classified endeavor. Ecosystems like this manifest whenever incentive structures are sufficiently misaligned (I should probably specify this claim more, but words fail me at the moment). System alignment is hard and aligning the goals of agents in a system with the system’s goals is a hard problem.


Da Shi is an interesting character. He’s the perfect foil to the intelligensia who populate the main cast, but he’s too perfect? From the moment you meet him you can instantly predict that he will be “the street-smart person who saves the protagonist’s hide”, and the trope usage is just the cherry on top (rebellious, but the C/O lets him stick around? really?)

The transition from:

Shi’s questions irritated Wang again, not unlike the feeling a man has upon finding out that he has swallowed a fly with his meal. to in the final moments of the book:

“I bet you’re happy to be proven right. There really was someone behind all this.” Wang forced himself to smile, hoping Da Shi could see it.

is predictable yet half-satisfying.

Wei Cheng is described as this otherworldly mathematical prodigy who does math instinctively, and as a result never has to work hard at it. Despite his genius, he’s lackadaisical, and is unmotivated until he encounters the three body problem, at which point he becomes obsessed with finding order in the chaos. This characterization is decently interesting, especially when put into context of his relationship with Shen Yufei, but I have a hard time believing that he would get nerdsniped by the three-body problem of all things?

I didn’t find Wang Miao particularly interesting as a main character. Ye Wenjie works very well, but her total confession at the end makes less sense than I would have wanted it to. Mike Evans is too farcical to take seriously. The rest don’t really register as interesting to me.


Using the Three-Body Problem as the underpinnings of the book was a good idea! Even if from a mathematics perspective the problem is quite simple, the symbolism of simplicity breeding chaos is too good to pass up.

Humans took more than a hundred thousand Earth years to progress from the Hunter-Gatherer Age to the Agricultural Age. To get from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age took a few thousand Earth years. But to go from the Industrial Age to the Atomic Age took only two hundred Earth years. Thereafter, in only a few Earth decades, they entered the Information Age. This civilization possesses the terrifying ability to accelerate their progress.

“On Trisolaris, of the more than two hundred civilizations, including our own, none has ever experienced such accelerating development. The progress of science and technology in all Trisolaran civilizations has been at a constant or decelerating pace. In our world, each technology age requires approximately the same amount of time for steady, slow development.”

Linear progress vs. exponential progress is an interesting demarcation between humans and Trisolarians, and this leads to the development of the sophon. I loved the descriptions of the sophon-failures, especially the three dimensional one.

People noticed the eyes moved faster than the other solids filling the sky, and they were gathering into one spot. Soon, two eyes met and merged into one bigger eye. More and more eyes joined this big eye, and its volume grew. Finally, all the eyes melded into one. It was so large that it seemed to represent the gaze of the universe upon Trisolaris. The iris was clear and bright, and at the center was the image of a sun. Over the broad surface of the eyeball, various colors cascaded in a flood. Soon, the details over the giant eye faded and gradually disappeared, until it became a pupil-less blind eye. Then it began to deform until it finally lost the shape of an eye and became a perfect circle. When the circle began to slowly rotate, people realized that it was not flat, but parabolic, like a slice cut from a giant sphere.


Hidden dimensions are an underutilized resource in the sci-fi I’ve read, and very stoked to see them represented here!