If you ever need a gut-check on the scope of your own fatalism, crack the spine on Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem.
The first in a trilogy, TTBP was published in China in 2008, and translated into English for the first time in 2014. It kicks off in the 1960s, during China’s Cultural Revolution, a period in which academics and scientists were punished (killed, even) for their alleged infractions against Communism. But this is just the tip of the three-body iceberg. What surfaces is a geopolitical novel carrying itself as a sci-fi novel (see: World War Z) that explores what might happen on Earth if and when an advanced alien civilization were to make contact. But like, with lots of physics. Lots of physics.
Since finishing TTBP a few months ago, I find myself mentioning it constantly. When people ask me about the most interesting books I’ve read this year, sure, but also in far less related conversations. If videogames come up, I’ll talk about the eon-spanning and intentionally plodding game used to suss out potential participants in the “What should we do about this alien race?” debate. If religion comes up, I’ll talk about the faith each society—Earth’s and Trisolaris’—has in the others’ capacity to save (or destroy) its planet. And if the topic of how best to quietly kill a battleship’s worth of political agitators comes up, I’ll definitely say “Why, a grid of super-sharp and near-invisible nanomaterial thread, of course!” (That happens.) In other words, the Three-Body Problem is nothing if not useful in everyday conversation.
Since finishing TTBP, I’ve also talked to other people who read it, and the votes are in: We are all, even those of who didn’t love every moment, just a touch obsessed. We think about this book a lot, and find ourselves weaving its name into conversations. In short: We have a bit of a crush.
I wouldn’t say that science-fiction has historically been my jam, and I wouldn’t say that TTBP is the best novel to turn to for breaking into the genre. It’s completely bizarre but still quite technical, and there are extra science-y bits that I made myself read multiple times over, but I know others just gave up and skimmed. Liu has an awesome imagination and a knack for storytelling, but I wouldn’t call his characters particularly developed or relatable, and I would also concede that it takes awhile for the novel to get going (but when it does, mannnnnn). Perhaps least important but not irrelevant, this is a translation—sometimes the language feels stoic or stilted, and it’s hard to discern how much of that is cultural, by authorial design, accidental, or a conscious decision on the part of the translator.
But at the end of the day, for me, none of that mattered. TLDR: I’ve never read anything like The Three-Body Problem before, and that was enough to keep me in the mix, keep me reading, and keep me talking about it weeks later. Challenge yourself to this book; I do not think you’ll regret it.
TITLE: The Three-Body Problem
AUTHOR: Cixin Liu
ALSO WROTE: the rest of this trilogy
SORTA LIKE: A Canticle for Leibowitz (review) meets The War of the Worlds meets Ready Player One (review) meets The Dark Tower (review) meets Interstellar meets Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
FIRST LINE: “The Red Union had been attacking the headquarters of the April Twenty-eighth Brigade for two days.”