Book Reviews

The Three-Body Problem Universe

Carlos Bean, 127

This review is of the first two books in a trilogy. The first being The Three Body Problem and the second being The Dark Forest. I refer to the trilogy as The Three Body Universe.


The Three-Body Problem:
My journey into Cixin Liu’s universe started as a harmless message from a friend. Over the years we have shared the joys of music, film, and books, but I was surprised when she pitched this, “Chinese Science Fiction.” My response was like many whom I would later pitch this three novel series to, “There is a Chinese Science Fiction?” Ignorantly thinking that these two subjects were somehow mutually exclusive.
Sitting alone in my mostly empty house, with my nearly archaic iPhone 4, the most advanced piece of technology within my walls, was when I decided put down my Sci-Fi like touch screen and pick up the hardback Science Fiction, The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu).


(Cixin Liu)

We are all taught not to judge a book by its cover, but the blue cover of this book is almost mesmerizing (as well as the Chinese cover but in a completely different way). A man standing beneath a pyramid etched with strange runes, three orbs overhead a midst a strange geometric formation – the title: in highlighter green, The Three-Body Problem. First serialized in 2006 by Liu, and then published in 2008, this Science Fiction wasn’t translated until 2014 for English readers. However, over the course of its early life, the book’s ripples turned into waves, winning literary awards and exciting readers across the globe.
Opening the book one may expect to find a table of contents, list of chapters, or like many Fiction books a direct plunge into the story. Liu’s table consists of names: the list of characters and their affiliation with each other. This is helpful, especially for western readers who may not be familiar with Chinese sounding names.
Over the course of this nearly 400-page book, one comes to see two stories that are happening simultaneously, at least for the reader. One story is about a young academic woman during the time that the Maoist factions took control of China, and their impact on (or destruction of) academia. A part of history I was not familiar with and the historical context drew me into the already vibrant story. Ye Wenjie, a young academic, who the story follows through this tortuous part of her life, similar to many Chinese academics of the late 1960s, feels abandon by reason. This leads Ye to hate humanity and with the pain in her heart, Ye betrays those who have hurt her.
The other story takes place near the present day. For the Nano-materials scientist, Wang Miao, who suddenly finds his life getting flipped upside down; a mysterious virtual reality game, Alien worshiping cult, and attempts on his life pairs him with a ‘rough around the edges’ policeman, Shi Qiang, or “Da Shi.” Wang’s Nano-material is a super-strong alloy that would help make giant technological advancements in the near future. Through this research in Nano-material, he is feared by the alien worshiper cult, and fits Wang to be a strong lead character as the world crashes around him.

(A powerful virtual reality simulator today: The Oculus Rift headset)


One of the most fascinating parts of this book is the depiction of the virtual reality game, “The Three-Body.” In the game, players take on historical identities and try to find a solution to the perils of the virtual planet. The problem is that this planet revolves around a three star system, causing erratic climate change as well as death to its virtual population. This physics problem is not new to science and was first proposed by Sir Issac Newton in 1689 in his publication, Principia. In very layman’s terms, it is how three bodies in motion interact with each other. Here is a video showing how three bodies might interact, as you can see it is very turbulent.

There are many things I like about this book; the two congruent stories, the many interesting characters, how the past effects the present, and the three-body game. But there are things I dislike about it too. For me there are some “technical” scientific parts of the story that go over my head. This gives the illusion that the author did his research on the subject, but makes some scenes a little dry. Another is that the story stagnated at the end. Many could argue that this could be a stand-alone book, and now after reading the first two books in the series, I agree. In fact, the second book could be stand-alone as well. However, by the end of the book you feel both fear and hope for the future – it left me wanting more!

**Warning: Stop here due to spoilers!**
The Dark Forest:
Before I go on, I have to share that there are (slight) spoilers for The Three-Body Problem within this review. I will still keep this review vague but there are some unavoidable plot points that The Dark Forest is based upon. However, I do admit that Liu’s stories are still worth reading even if you know a few of the surprises!
The Dark Forest came a year later for the English readers in August 2015, and is a worthy successor to Liu’s Three-body Problem (The Dark Forest Translated by Joel Martinsen). It is so new in fact that I had to special order it!
This book deals with the real issue of an impending alien invasion. How would society act? How would we overcome? Is it possible to plan ahead for fifteen generations of decedents? They are coming and we have 400 years to plan.
The Dark Forest mostly follows the path of one person, Dr. Luo Ji, an arrogant, self-absorbed prodigy, who like the main character of the first book finds himself thrown into circumstances that only he can face. Dr. Luo is ordered to help humanity in anyway he can. Not knowing why he was given this task, he gets the help of a much older Da Shi, the ‘rough around the edges’ cop from the first book. With this overwhelming responsibility, he begrudgingly makes plans to save humanity over the next two hundred years, facing both personal and societal demons.

(If you remember this scene from the movie Alien, you might have an idea how Dr. Luo makes plans over 200 years.)

It surprised me that by the end of The Dark Forest  I connected with this book more than I did the first. I was surprised because unlike the first book, this has almost no historical narrative, and is future based – the historical information is something I greatly enjoyed from the first book and there is very little new Chinese historical knowledge within this book. This book deals a lot with the idea of the “dead hand.” A phrase that I had to look up when it was mentioned within the text. The dead hand defined by is defined as “1. The ever-present, oppressive influence of past events.” This is seen throughout much of Luo’s journey – that past events shape what is to come.
One of my favorite things about this book is that it kept me guessing. Every time I thought I had it figured out, Liu changed the story on me! My dislikes, similar to the first book, is how this book ended. Like before  mentioned in the first half of this review, the book stagnates a bit, preparing the reader for the next and last installment.
While thinking of these books, memories reappeared. They led me back to the Science Fiction literature class I had as a senior in high school (now many years ago) and Science Fiction film classes I attended during university. These classes taught me that Science Fiction is a commentary on modern society. So how does the Three Body Problem Universe comment on modern society?
Examples we can see today are the recent terror attacks across the globe. These affect each one of us, in spite of our political, national, or ethnic backgrounds – that the “dead hand” of the past has a very real presence today.
This book in its physicality, the actual physical book, speaks of globalization. This series, once written in Mandarin, translated to English, then sold to me in a Japanese bookstore located in Thailand – is globalization.
Globalization, in a way, is mirrored in the books. Not so much the economic idea of globalization, but the idea that we are all in this together, globally – humanity as one; our planet is the most precious thing we have. There is an underlying environmentalist commentary present whenever Liu writes about our planet.
Overall these two books are excellent Science Fiction stories. There were times when I could not think of anything else except for getting to the next page of the story. I recommend these books to Science Fiction lovers and Fiction lovers alike.
The last book in Cixin Liu’s trilogy, Death’s End, has already been published in Mandarin and will be arriving for English readers in January 2016!

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