The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

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I have seen some mixed reviews of The Three Body Problem but I simply loved it in so many ways. It is a first contact book with a major twist and I don’t mean an ending with a twist but rather a major twist on the normal first contact trope and it asks the question do we really want any other civilisations out there to know about and be able to find us? A question that can be answered very differently depending on each person’s personal politics and beliefs.

The story begins in 1967 during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and it addresses that revolution in pretty condemning terms (the first chapter is titled “The Madness Years”); a fact I found rather surprising considering it was written as early as 2006 when I, in my probable ignorance, would have thought some of Liu’s criticisms might have verged on the dangerous. A second thread runs in the near future and has a very different feel; more prosaic where the earlier thread is slightly dreamlike, which is in itself strange in that it somehow retains that dreamlike feel even when dealing with issues closer to nightmare in nature. One of the notable aspects of the writing is this juxtaposition between the almost surreal past and the very down to earth future, particularly embodied by the cynical, chain smoking detective, Da Shi.

This is fairly hard science fiction with a significant amount of theory presented, and one of the real pleasures was how hard it was to tell quite where the line between real and speculative science lies; all felt plausible. The way the alien stellar system is introduced and explored through a “computer game” very neatly presented the potential problems of living in the orbital unpredictability of a tri-solar system; a fascinating issue that I have never previously considered. However I never felt that the science became inaccessible, though my own great fondness of hard SF may have something to do with that!

For the most part this is not a high action book and frequently has a rather more contemplative feel to it and yet it always kept me turning the pages. I’m very much looking forward to reading the next book.

5/5 stars
 
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I liked it too. I can see that it could be a little too hard for people who prefer the pace and style of a Warhammer 40K approach to sci fi. I've got the next one on the shelf and once I've finished up The Revenant I'll start that.
 
This is indeed a great book (actually on the last book now and it really doesn't let up, if anything it gets better!). One argument against the book is that the characterisation is a little thin, and while this is true (IMHO) the plot and narrative wholly make up for that!
 
I'm in the didn't like it school - I found the characterisation too limited for me to get into it and gave up a third through. But I can totally see why anyone into hard sf would love it. :)
I wonder if part of that is how very reserved the Chinese often are. I get the impression that they are not very 'open' about their emotions, so maybe what we might see as slightly restrained characterisation is very normal in Chinese literature.
 
Interesting as I found it deeply characterful but even then I was aware that I was missing quite a lot because although familiar with the cultural norms of expression, it's a passing familiarity rather than a lived one. The characters here are often what they do rather than what they feel (in that particularly modern anglo-saxon sense) which is quite in keeping with much of the more common Asian cultural norms and world view of how people are actually constituted.
 
I found myself getting bored by the first third - the game element just felt like fantasy. I put the book down and didn't plan to finish. However, I needed to read some fiction to unwind with this week, and it was still near the top of my Amazon Fire carousel so thought I may as well pick it up again.

I'm very glad I did - shortly there was the reveal about what the game meant and the whole story began to click into place, and I was hooked. A refreshingly unique and original science fiction novel. :)
 
A deeply satisfying trilogy. The sheer density of brilliant SF ideas is amazing. Loved it.
 
I found myself getting bored by the first third - the game element just felt like fantasy. I put the book down and didn't plan to finish. However, I needed to read some fiction to unwind with this week, and it was still near the top of my Amazon Fire carousel so thought I may as well pick it up again.

I'm very glad I did - shortly there was the reveal about what the game meant and the whole story began to click into place, and I was hooked. A refreshingly unique and original science fiction novel. :)
A deeply satisfying trilogy. The sheer density of brilliant SF ideas is amazing. Loved it.
The only thing I'd say is you have to be prepared for a lot of very hard science throughout the books, which is absolutely to my taste and I loved the books, but, if you don't like very hard SF, then you'll not enjoy these and I know many who didn't; just too much science for them.
 
I'll try to make this post free from spoilers, but you never know.

I read The Three Body Problem with my book club last year. I disliked it.... not because it lacked action and not because it featured characters from a culture which I don't always understand. I am weary of Chinese secrets of honor and vengeance. I was disgusted by the choice the main character made. Having only read the first book of the trilogy, I have assumed this choice represents the author's preferred method of government. But then again, if the author really is from the PRC, either the sequels change this projected overthrow of communism or the PRC has softened quite a bit.

I've read a dozen or so books translated from Chinese. I have many relatives in the PRC and North America. I lived in Taiwan. I can hold basic conversations in Mandarin. But I'm not an expert on Chinese culture nor Chinese communism. So some of the motivations for the main character mystified me. The detective, on the other hand, is a hard boiled cop with a love/hate relationship with bureaucracy... and he's completely understandable and relatable.

I was told many fables and fairy tales as bed time stories. Some European, some Chinese. My mother told me a story of newly married couple. Right after the wedding, the husband was conscripted to help build the Great Wall. When he did not return after his year's service, his wife went looking for him. She brought food and clothes to the Wall and asked the commander where her husband was. The commander pointed at the Wall. The wife did not comprehend. So the commander told her that her husband died from hard labor, malnutrition, exposure, and disease... and that just like all who died on the Wall, his bones were ground to make mortar. Her husband stood eternally vigilant against China's foes. I've never taken that story as an example of duty or patriotism, just the imperial utilitarian view of human life.

It's the utilitarian and fatalistic viewpoints that frustrate me.

Speaking positively, it's nice not to have the USA as the focal point of the story and universe.

Just my two cents.
 
I'll try to make this post free from spoilers, but you never know.

I read The Three Body Problem with my book club last year. I disliked it.... not because it lacked action and not because it featured characters from a culture which I don't always understand. I am weary of Chinese secrets of honor and vengeance. I was disgusted by the choice the main character made. Having only read the first book of the trilogy, I have assumed this choice represents the author's preferred method of government. But then again, if the author really is from the PRC, either the sequels change this projected overthrow of communism or the PRC has softened quite a bit.

I've read a dozen or so books translated from Chinese. I have many relatives in the PRC and North America. I lived in Taiwan. I can hold basic conversations in Mandarin. But I'm not an expert on Chinese culture nor Chinese communism. So some of the motivations for the main character mystified me. The detective, on the other hand, is a hard boiled cop with a love/hate relationship with bureaucracy... and he's completely understandable and relatable.

I was told many fables and fairy tales as bed time stories. Some European, some Chinese. My mother told me a story of newly married couple. Right after the wedding, the husband was conscripted to help build the Great Wall. When he did not return after his year's service, his wife went looking for him. She brought food and clothes to the Wall and asked the commander where her husband was. The commander pointed at the Wall. The wife did not comprehend. So the commander told her that her husband died from hard labor, malnutrition, exposure, and disease... and that just like all who died on the Wall, his bones were ground to make mortar. Her husband stood eternally vigilant against China's foes. I've never taken that story as an example of duty or patriotism, just the imperial utilitarian view of human life.

It's the utilitarian and fatalistic viewpoints that frustrate me.

Speaking positively, it's nice not to have the USA as the focal point of the story and universe.

Just my two cents.
It is possible that you are overthinking this. The main character is baffling to everyone until the end. I would suggest reading books 2 & 3 and then reassessing your conclusions.
 
One quibble about the plot of The Three Body Problem I did notice:

In the story, I was given the impression that the 3 suns of Trisolaris were effectively equal in effect and intensity. However, Alpha Centauri is a binary star system, with a red dwarf (Proxima Centauri) in a very distant orbit around them (anywhere between 4,000-13,000 AU). I struggle to imagine Proxima having any significant effect on the planet, and even if the planet were thrown out toward it, I would have thought the change from yellow suns to a small red sun would have been significant - but I don't recall any mention of that.

I was also left surprised that a planet experiencing such extreme conditions would be stable enough to support any civilization, left alone such an advanced one.
 
One quibble about the plot of The Three Body Problem I did notice:

In the story, I was given the impression that the 3 suns of Trisolaris were effectively equal in effect and intensity. However, Alpha Centauri is a binary star system, with a red dwarf (Proxima Centauri) in a very distant orbit around them (anywhere between 4,000-13,000 AU). I struggle to imagine Proxima having any significant effect on the planet, and even if the planet were thrown out toward it, I would have thought the change from yellow suns to a small red sun would have been significant - but I don't recall any mention of that.

I was also left surprised that a planet experiencing such extreme conditions would be stable enough to support any civilization, left alone such an advanced one.
I can't comment on the orbital mechanics side of things due to lack of detailed memory of that aspect of the books. The incidence of intelligent life throughout the galaxy/universe is looked at much more in the following books.
However One of the main premises of the books is that intelligent life is actually quite abundant in the galaxy but amenable real estate for that life is rather less so. So I guess the argument here is that if life can get a hold it will and if it does then eventually intelligent life will follow.
 
I just finished reading The Three Body Problem (yes, I know, I'm a little late to the game). I thought the book was poorly written in a number of ways. The author tends to explicitly tell the reader what s/he should be thinking, rather than allowing discovery. Yes, 'show-don't-tell' is a controversial and flawed mantra, but Liu Cixin would do well to give it some thought at least. I'm not afraid of the 'hard' aspects of science fiction, being a scientist myself (although not a theoretical physicist), but I did find some of the detail hard to swallow. Long explanations are fine if they are plausible, but become more tedious when highly speculative.

Liu Cixin seems interested in the question of whether an alien intelligence would be hostile or friendly. This is something that interests me and which I have explored in my own work. He takes a pessimistic view in the novel, and further emphasizes this in the postscript. Personally, I'm more open to the view that only a benevolent, civilized, cooperative, enlightened and 'humane' species can thrive and form a highly advanced community (socially and technologically). If, when we came down from the trees, we had only been driven by aggression then it would have been impossible to develop as a society. Of course, self interest remains a key driver of human behavior and society has developed constructs to align selfishness with benefits to the whole (law and order, capitalism, democracy, maybe religion etc). So the question remains, must a very highly advanced society necessarily be good (moral, ethical, loving and humanitarian) or can it be evil? I would love to have this debate with Liu Cixin. He may point out historical missteps, many of which are shockingly recent (war, slavery, the Cultural Revolution in China, of course) but I would argue there is an underlying trend in the right direction. Mankind continues to make mistakes. I think that in the future we will shake our heads in disbelief at the abuse and consumption of animals, and at our current lethargy in dealing with the climate crisis. It is always possible we may revert to a harder, harsher, more self-interested, belligerent state of existence. But my point is that, if this happens, we would similarly revert or stagnate as a technological species. Advancement is linked to education, understanding, enlightenment, love and cooperation. If we turn our back on those qualities then we also turn our back on progress.

I've struggled to explain myself in a few short words, but it is my belief that to develop to a state of great technological advancement (as the Trisolarans have done in The Three Body Problem) it would not be natural to be so callous towards another intelligent species. I could be wrong of course.

Overall a disappointing book with dull prose (even allowing for the translation) and poor character development (as many others have pointed out).
 
I just finished reading The Three Body Problem (yes, I know, I'm a little late to the game). I thought the book was poorly written in a number of ways. The author tends to explicitly tell the reader what s/he should be thinking, rather than allowing discovery. Yes, 'show-don't-tell' is a controversial and flawed mantra, but Liu Cixin would do well to give it some thought at least. I'm not afraid of the 'hard' aspects of science fiction, being a scientist myself (although not a theoretical physicist), but I did find some of the detail hard to swallow. Long explanations are fine if they are plausible, but become more tedious when highly speculative.

Liu Cixin seems interested in the question of whether an alien intelligence would be hostile or friendly. This is something that interests me and which I have explored in my own work. He takes a pessimistic view in the novel, and further emphasizes this in the postscript. Personally, I'm more open to the view that only a benevolent, civilized, cooperative, enlightened and 'humane' species can thrive and form a highly advanced community (socially and technologically). If, when we came down from the trees, we had only been driven by aggression then it would have been impossible to develop as a society. Of course, self interest remains a key driver of human behavior and society has developed constructs to align selfishness with benefits to the whole (law and order, capitalism, democracy, maybe religion etc). So the question remains, must a very highly advanced society necessarily be good (moral, ethical, loving and humanitarian) or can it be evil? I would love to have this debate with Liu Cixin. He may point out historical missteps, many of which are shockingly recent (war, slavery, the Cultural Revolution in China, of course) but I would argue there is an underlying trend in the right direction. Mankind continues to make mistakes. I think that in the future we will shake our heads in disbelief at the abuse and consumption of animals, and at our current lethargy in dealing with the climate crisis. It is always possible we may revert to a harder, harsher, more self-interested, belligerent state of existence. But my point is that, if this happens, we would similarly revert or stagnate as a technological species. Advancement is linked to education, understanding, enlightenment, love and cooperation. If we turn our back on those qualities then we also turn our back on progress.

I've struggled to explain myself in a few short words, but it is my belief that to develop to a state of great technological advancement (as the Trisolarans have done in The Three Body Problem) it would not be natural to be so callous towards another intelligent species. I could be wrong of course.

Overall a disappointing book with dull prose (even allowing for the translation) and poor character development (as many others have pointed out).
I agree with you Christine, with regards to the quality of the book and I really didn't see what all the hoo-ha was about. I think a little part of the problem is the translation, another is that I think that it was written at first for a non-western audience and thus the style probably reflects Chinese tastes more and this probably threw me off a little.

But as a reader, I found a lot of very purple prose that really stood out and the science was crowbarred in, in mostly indigestible chunks. Not that I didn't understand it, it was just pretty dull. Overall it just didn't work for me.

From my meanderings on Youtube, I do find the whole 'Dark Forest' hypothesis very interesting and the three body problem series goes to some fascinating places - I got more enjoyment watching Quinn's Ideas channel explaining the series - but I have no urge to read any more of them at the moment.

Again late to the ball I have the urge to find and read Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time. Although I should really get through more of my 'To Read' pile....
 

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