The Three-Body Problem

It’s been quite some time since the last time a book forced me to read it. That’s right, forced me to read it.


For a while now I’ve been hearing about how good The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is. So last friday I got the audiobook version, and began listening to it at the gym. At first things were a little weird since I wasn’t expecting a sci-fi novel to begin with the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The story then goes back to the present day and we follow the steps of Wang Miao, who works on nanotechnology, and is called into a meeting at the Battle Command Center with military personnel from China, the US, the UK, the CIA, and a detective from China’s police. It turns out that weird stuff is going on (which we’ll learn more about later), the world’s governments seem to be gearing up for war (though not a war amongst themselves), and the Battle Command Center wants Miao to do a little bit of spywork.

Then, as the novel begins to set this James Bond-XCOM feeling, there comes a suicide note that says

All the evidence points to a single conclusion: physics has never existed, and will never exist.

Considering that the person who wrote that note worked on string theory, those are some strong words. Then again, they worked on string theory, so there must have been plenty wrong with then to bein with. Ha! Just kidding!

Anyway, Miao agrees to become an informant for the Battle Command Center, and as he’s going through his hobby as a photographer he notices that there’s a countdown in all the pictures he’s recently taken. To make matters worse, he begins to see the countdown before his eyes as he goes about his everyday life.

Things just keep getting worse and worse for Miao. I won’t get into the specifics, but he sees something impossible happen: the universe flickers for him, like a lightbulb being turned on and off and on and off again. Those flickers are nothing more than the short and long pulses of Morse cose, and the message they transmit is the countdown, still going down and down.

Just what is going on? A countdown to what? How can the universe be made to flicker? Who would be able to do that? That was the point where I said to myself: “Screw it, let’s get this book. We’re reading this.”

From that moment onwards I couldn’t put my Kindle down (I wish this were an advertisement. Amazon, let’s make it happen!), and the next thing I knew was that it was 5 am of the following day, I was still some pages away from the end, and I had to grab some sleeping time. So much for string theorists having something wrong with them, right? Still, as soon as I woke up I went back to reading the book, and my interest didn’t falter until I finished it.

There is just no way I can convey how immersed I got in this novel. As a comparison, only Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, The Lord of The Rings, and, of course, the Harry Potter  series managed to capture so much of my attention. I think that by beginning with the Cultural Revolution, of which I knew nothing about, the book was able to catch my interest. I even took some time to learn about Mao Zedong’s rule, current opinion on him and his policies, and about life in modern-day China. The concensus seems to be that he was a brilliant strategist, but a terrible ruler.

Let’s get back to the topic at hand. The Three-Body Problem deals with the first-contact between humanity and an alien species, and the terrible consequences of not keeping radio silence in a hostile universe. This alien species, the Trisolarans, has had to survive in a completely ludicrous situation: their planet is part of a solar system with three stars, which causes their home world to be kicked around and go through unpredictable periods of stability and chaos. Every so often their civilization is wiped out and has to begin anew, so they are on the lookout for a friendlier neighborhood. That neighborhood ends up being a place where conditions are more stable and the dominant species has invited them over: Earth.

The Three-Body Problem is part of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, and I think the best praise the first entry in a series of books can get is when people look forward to reading the next entries. I’m doing just that with The Dark Forest, and it seems the same thing will happen with Death’s End. Liu Cixin, thank you for such  great novels.

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