Book Review: The Three Body Problem

Minimal spoilers only – less than reading the blurb of the three books.

Quite simply the best science fiction I’ve read in a decade.

Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem, with its two sequels (the trilogy is collectively titled ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past) is both gripping and immersive, intensely human in its depiction of characters yet of almost unimaginable grandeur in its scope and scale. The science feels robust, firmly rooted in today’s theories and possibilities, even when speculating on future developments far beyond our current prowess, and his depictions of future society and its response to crises feels deeply realistic: one both despairs but is ultimately uplifted at the triumphs and foibles of humanity.

The first book, the Three Body Problem, stands by itself as a superb first contact novel, richly deserving the Hugo it was awarded (the first translated work to win the award). Set in the present day, with a history firmly rooted in the events of the Cultural Revolution, it deserves to be placed alongside classics such as Carl Sagan’s Contact as amongst the best examples of the genre. If Liu had stopped at that point, he would still have written a science fiction classic.

Yet the next two books take the story on, looking beyond the first radio contact to its consequences, two hundred years and more into the future. Positing only three significant new technologies, all within our theoretical reach – cheap fusion, a space elevator and hibernation – Liu paints us a picture of human civilisation as it explores the solar system, creating marvels of engineering whilst still being subject to hard constraints, such as the speed of light. Once again with Clarke we marvel at Rama, but here it is human construction on display. It is Liu’s triumph that these depictions are at once awe-inspiring and yet deeply believable, perhaps in part because they are always clearly secondary to the principal driver of the series, that is humanity’s indirect contact with aliens and the broader nature of the universe and the societies it contains.

The extra-terrestrials themselves, the Trisolarans, are at the same time genuinely alien, truly menacing and yet deeply comprehensible and even relatable in terms of their motives. We never actually see one in the flesh, yet this doesn’t prevent them from being a full and richly detailed player. For ultimately that is what both they and humanity are, on a stage as wide as the universe itself, where Liu’s conceptions, and successful depictions, equal or surpass those of Stapledon. As to the depiction of humanity, whilst it can be mistaken to generalise from a single point, it’s interesting to speculate on the extent to which Liu’s Chinese culture influences his vision. In Western science-fiction, society often seems to either progress teleologically or descend into dystopia (channeling, perhaps, our image of the UK/US, or of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union). In the Three Body Problem society is always flawed; frequently subject to mistakes, overweening self-confidence and destructive paroxysms of violence, coming from both the mistakes of individuals and the folly of crowds; yet, at the same time, it undertakes programmes of great vision, achieves mighty accomplishments and is capable of great compassion and love. The parallels with a nation that in a sesquicentennial period has undergone the Taiping Rebellion, Boxer Rebellion, brutal invasion and simultaneously equally brutal civil war and madness of the Cultural Revolution, and yet has still emerged as one of the most powerful and accomplished nations on earth, seem clear. It’s a subtly different vision from a different culture, and a compelling one.

Literarily, these are accomplished books. The prose is superb (for which praise must be given to the translator as well as to Liu himself), the character development outstanding and the texture rich and deep. At one point, Liu inserts three chapters of original fairy tales, which are not only excellent in themselves, but manage to be a deep and multi-layered metaphor for the events of the subsequent book. And yet techniques such as these are not gimmicks, but are intimately connected to and essential to the plot, which never ceases to be deeply and utterly compelling.

Overall, the Three Body Problem and its sequels are absolutely superb works of fiction: deep, thought provoking, awe-inspiring and thoroughly enjoyable. I can’t recommend them too highly: a must-read for anyone who’s not yet read them.