At once frustrating and fascinating, Cixin Liu’s ‘The Three-Body Problem’ explores an outlandish plot against science

July 29, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 29, 2019

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu’s fascinating but uneven science-fiction novel, opens in 1967 as internecine battles rage across Beijing. The scene becomes even direr as the author, a Chinese native and former power plant engineer, focuses on an intellectual clash at Tsignhua University, where a physics professor refuses to renounce his scientific approach when called upon to do so before an audience of frenzied revolutionary diehards. China is in the grips of the Cultural Revolution, a period that saw spouses, siblings and friends turn against each other in the name of ideological purity.

By the end of the chapter, which is titled “The Madness Years,” a young physicist named Ye Wenjie has seen a beloved relative killed, partly at the instigation of other family members, and discovered the corpse of a revered mentor. An emotionally devastated Ye is exiled to a remote mountain range in Northeast China, but despite her disinterest in bucking authority, troubles flock to her like moths to a flame.

Salvation of sorts arrives in the book’s third chapter, which sees Ye’s services coopted by administrators at a secret alpine communications facility known as Red Coast Base. When she enters the installation, Ye expects to remain there for the remainder of her life. In fact, the disgraced physicist encounters multiple situations that will shape not just the rest of her existence, but potentially those of her nation, species and planet.

These three amazing chapters set the stage for the rest of the novel, which in part questions whether the human race is capable of governing itself wisely, whether we are fit to serve as guardians of Earth and its ecology, and indeed whether we deserve to survive at all. It’s ambitious territory for Liu to stake out in his narrative — first published in serial form in China in 2006, and translated by Ken Liu for publication in the United States eight years later — but the author certainly seems to be up to the task.

Sadly, the character and tempo of The Three-Body Problem almost immediately change for the worse in the next chapter, which follow a Beijing materials scientist named Wang Miao in the early years of the 21st century. (The exact chronology is difficult to reconcile. Wang mentions that the United States has just rejected the Kyoto Protocol to fight climate change, a decision that President George W. Bush made in March 2001; however, it’s 1969 at the end of chapter three, and chapter four explicitly moves the story “Forty-plus years later.”)

Characterization is not to be Liu’s strong suit; Ye and a quirky maverick cop named Shi Qiang are just about the only figures drawn with any nuance. Thus the story’s main character, Wang, is little more than a cipher as he is asked by a mysterious governmental organization to infiltrate a group called Frontiers of Science; becomes caught up in a strange and sprawling plot to thwart scientific research; and begins to unravel the true nature of Red Coast Base and Ye’s activities there decades previously. It’s obvious that something bizarre is occurring; early on, the scientist starts seeing a countdown appear not only in certain photographs but in his eyes, and later he sees the universe appear to signal to him on cue.

‘The Three-Body Problem’ by Cixin Liu.

Unfortunately, Wang and his thinly drawn comrades grope in the dark for quite a long while. Ye reappears in the story, although she never again makes anywhere near the emotional impact of her initial arc. The lack of developments combined with the absence of personality left me rather frustrated.

It must be said, though, that Liu manages to ratchet up the stakes even with his rather wooden characters, as this colloquy between Wang and Shi demonstrates:

“[T]hey want to ruin science’s reputation in society. Of course some people have always engaged in anti-science activities, but now it’s coordinated.” 

“I believe it.” 

Now you believe me. So many of you scientific elites couldn’t figure it out, and I, having gone only to vocational school, had the answer? Ha! After I explained my theory, the scholars and my bosses all ridiculed it.” 

“If you had told me your theory back then, I’m sure I wouldn’t have laughed at you. Take those frauds who practice pseudoscience — do you know who they’re most afraid of?” 

“Scientists, of course.” 

“No. Many of the best scientists can be fooled by pseudoscience and sometimes devote their lives to it. But pseudoscience is afraid of one particular type of people who are very hard to fool: stage magicians. In fact, many pseudoscientific hoaxes were exposed by stage magicians. Compared to the bookworms of the scientific world, your experience as a cop makes you far more likely to perceive such a large-scale conspiracy.” 

“Well, there’re plenty of people smarter than me. People in positions of power are well aware of the plot. When they ridiculed me at first, it was only because I wasn’t explaining my theory to the right people. Later on, my old company commander — General Chang — had me transferred. But I’m still not doing anything other than running errands… That’s it. Now you know as much as I do.” 

“Another question: What does this have to do with the military?” 

“I was baffled, too. I asked them, and they said that now that there’s a war, of course the military would be involved. I was like you, thinking that they were talking nonsense. But no, they weren’t joking. The army really is on high alert. There are twenty-some Battle Command Centers like ours around the globe. And above them there’s another level of command structure. But no one knows the details.” 

“Who’s the enemy?” 

“No idea. NATO officers are now stationed in the war room of the [People’s Liberation Army] General Staff Department, and a bunch of PLA officers are working out of the Pentagon. Who the fuck knows who we’re fighting?” 

The book takes its name from a virtual-reality game called “Three Body,” which refers to the challenge of modeling the movement of multiple objects in space. When Wang first logs into the simulation, in chapter seven, he experiences what initially seems to be a dull scenario on a fictitious heavenly body. Eventually, Liu builds up a vibrant and exotic world that desperately seeks knowledge that can escalate its chances of survival. Within the game, Wang comes across a number of strange phenomena, including a computer formed by a vast formation of soldiers.

As it turns out, Liu’s strongest writing shows up at the beginning and end of The Three-Body Problem. Once the plot against science has been exposed, the author deploys a terrific set piece involving some extremely sharp nanoscopic wire. Perhaps more importantly, he rolls out some astounding concepts, such as “unfolding” and creating amazing devices from subatomic particles. (Interestingly, the book employs the same concept, quantum entanglement, that featured prominently in Patrick Tomlinson’s 2018 science-fiction–comedy Gate Crashers.)

Regrettably, the reader must slog through rather a lot of dull passages to get to the good stuff. The Three-Body Problem is only for lovers of so-called hard science fiction. The volume kicks off a trilogy, but I’m on the fence about whether to read the subsequent entries in Liu’s series.

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