The novel “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin was first published in 2006 serialized in the Chinese magazine Science Fiction World and in 2008 as a book. It was translated into English by Ken Liu. It’s the first book of the trilogy known as The Three-Body Problem or Remembrance of Earth’s Past. It won the Hugo and Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis Awards as the best science fiction novel of the year.
During the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie is forced to watch a struggle session during which her father is accused of counterrevolutionary activity for teaching the theory of relativity during his work as a teacher. When the man refuses to accuse himself and rebuts, the indoctrinated young Communists beat him to death. Ye Wenjie is branded a traitor for refusing to accuse her father and she ends up in a labor camp. However, thanks to her skills in astrophysics, she’s sent to work for the top-secret Red Coast project.
Wang Miao is a nanotechnology researcher who ends up involved in investigating the strange deaths of various scientists. He has to work together with Shi Qiang, a policeman of decidedly unorthodox methods who hasn’t ended up in disgrace only because he’s extremely skilled in his job. Wang Miao discovers the existence of Three Body, a virtual reality game whose goal is the survival of people who live in a world where environmental conditions change radically between what are called Stable Ages and what are called Chaotic Ages.
Note. The English translation uses the Chinese convention for people’s names, with the family name before the personal name, when the full names of the characters are mentioned. To avoid confusion, I do the same with the author’s name.
Liu Cixin grew up during the cultural revolution, so the parts of the novel set in that era of Chinese history were on the author’s direct experiences as well. The novel begins at that time in the English edition because it presents Ye Wenjie in chapters that come later in the original Chinese edition, as the publisher was afraid of having problems with Chinese censors.
In a novel like “The Three-Body Problem” moving some chapters may not be a problem because the various parts of the story are told in a non-chronological order. Ye Wenjie’s story spans decades, so it’s the one that shows this characteristic the most because it’s reconstructed as a sort of jigsaw puzzle in which very distant pieces are the first to be placed on the table. The consequence is that it takes time to get an idea of the big picture and in particular of certain crucial parts in the woman’s story.
The choices connected to the chronology of events are useful from a literary point of view but add difficulty in reading a novel that is complex for other reasons too. The plot has ramifications ranging from Chinese history to various scientific and technological developments with some connections only becoming clear at the end of the novel. The Three Body virtual reality game is the perfect example of how patience and attention are needed to understand the meaning of various elements of this series.
The slow pace, with little action, the characters not always well developed who often don’t inspire much sympathy don’t help the reader to get immersed in the events. For many readers, the Chinese setting, with many historical and cultural references, can be one of the problems even if in many ways it represents a strong point of the series with its strong influence on the characters.
“The Three-Body Problem” has a sort of ending but is open to developments that will come in its sequels. It’s not a perfect novel but in my opinion, the merits are much greater than the flaws. If you have the patience to read a novel with a complex structure and content full of references to Chinese history and culture, I recommend reading it with the awareness that you will have to continue with its sequels to have the complete story.