The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1)

The Three-Body Problem by Liu CixinThe Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (tr. Ken Liu)
Published: Tor Books (Nov 11, 2014)
Posted: Goodreads (Oct 9, 2016)
5 Stars (5 / 5)

The Three-Body Problem is the first novel in a trilogy of hard sci-fi novels titled Remembrance of Earth’s Past by Lu Cixin (tr. Ken Liu). Tor’s recent release of the trilogy’s third novel, Death’s End, sparked my interest to read this series from the beginning. Simply put: this is the best Hard SF extraterrestrial story I’ve ever read.

“In China, any idea that dared to take flight would only crash back to the ground. The gravity of reality is too strong.”

Similar to Neal Stephenson’s timeline hopping Cryptonomicon, The Three-Body Problem begins in our past and gives us insight into a pivotal time in human history. The first part of the novel takes place during the Cultural Revolution of Communist China in the 1960s. Familiar with the setting and subject matter, Liu paints the era red, thoroughly portraying the turbulent times in all of its visceral brutality. The Three Teachings were vilified, the names of scientific laws changed in accordance with propaganda, and all of academia is brought to its knees.

Ye Wenjie is forced to watch her father – a theoretical astrophysics professor – humiliated and slaughtered on the doorstep of a once great university for defending science. Anti-intellectual policy reigned supreme. The sciences were viewed as elitist ideals, reactionary and antithetical to the new revolutionary view of the world. Through an act of betrayal (and given her father’s past), Ye is unable to escape the stigma of being branded a counterrevolutionary. Ye, a brilliant student of astrophysics in her own right, is forced to work on a mysterious PLA base to clear her name.

The events that occur at Red Coast Base are integral to unlocking the mysteries to come.

Switching to the modern storyline, three of the world’s largest particle accelerators reach suspicious conclusions at the same time. In an instant, the world’s sciences are called into question once more. The laws and constants giving us insight into our universe are wiped away in the confusion. Unable to withstand scrutiny, the scientific community’s foundation is rocked and many of the world’s brightest minds are extinguished in a spate of suicides.

A mysterious group known as the Frontiers of Science proclaims that science has reached its limit.

Wang Miao, a micro-engineer and nanophysics expert, must aid an intercontinental intelligence organization in uncovering the secrets of the Frontiers. Miao, absorbed in his nanomaterial research, reluctantly accepts his task. But the events that unfold take him on a wild ride that drastically reshape his view of the world.

In the same vein as Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle and Anathem, 3BP explores physics and classical mechanics through the lens of history’s greatest thinkers: the philosopher Mozi, Confucius, Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Von Neumann, and Einstein are all included. The novel gets its name from an n-body problem that strives to calculate the mass and velocity of three sidereal bodies. Liu explores these concepts Reamde-style in a way that is completely original and unique: through a heavily detailed game named 3Body.

Miao, possibly named after the real world Qiudong Wang, is a strong protagonist. New to the ways of large scale mechanics, the nano-scientist learns various laws of physics and astronomy with the reader. Digitally transported into the 3Body virtual reality game, Miao must aid key historic figures in preventing the annihilation of a civilization threatened by three suns, a world forever at risk of destruction. In one of my favorite scenes, Von Neumann creates a human computer, each component and structure is represented by soldiers with flags (this includes the system bus, CPU, and virtual memory). The human computer is governed by real world logic and performs manual bitwise operations.

The science and technology outside the game world is also very interesting. Things like 3K glasses allow Miao to see the 7cm wavelength of cosmic background radiation, a virtual reality feedback suit, and the invention of nanomaterial are all very speculative and well designed.

Because of Miao and Ye’s knowledge of the sciences, the story is both compelling and extremely suspenseful. Miao’s storyline is well paced and never slows down. A master of solar astronomy, Ye’s knowledge of the stars and her constant dealings with various Communist political entities contribute to a sense of palpable tension. Everything from microwaves to information theory is explored in a way that the average reader can follow. Even Ken Liu’s translation notes are insightful and extremely helpful in understanding the concepts mentioned in both time periods.

One element that I really enjoyed was that, in both timelines, the story was extremely immersive. This was due to the excellent storytelling skills of the author and translator. Just as Ye’s situation is filled with tension, Miao’s ordeals were equally as dangerous when his game world bled into reality in unexpected ways. Side characters such as the crass cop Quiag Shi and the grieving Yin Ding were both extremely well designed, all featuring their own distinct personalities.

While The Three Body Problem is about an extraterrestrial threat, it’s more cerebral like Blindsight and Echopraxia by Peter Watts than action packed. A quality that fans of this sort of science fiction have come to love. That said, to give anything away about the aliens would probably spoil the plot. Suffice it to say the aliens are believable and scary.

The first novel in Lu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past is truly outstanding. While it can be compared to other novels in the genre, it’s original enough to be extremely original and well worth reading. Calling it “alien invasion” book doesn’t do Three-Body justice. This is excellent science fiction writing and I recommend it to all fans of hard sci-fi. Solid 5/5.

Selected Quotes

These may be difficult to appreciate without proper context.

“In China, any idea that dared to take flight would only crash back to the ground. The gravity of reality is too strong.”

While working for the Construction Corps deforestation group, Wenjie reflects on Carson’s Silent Spring (an environmental awareness book from 1962)…

“… but Carson’s book allowed Ye to see that, from Nature’s perspective, their use was indistinguishable from the Cultural Revolution, and equally destructive to our world. If this was so, then how many other acts of humankind that had seemed normal or even righteous were, in reality, evil?”

“To achieve a moral awakening required a force outside the human race.”

The narrative reflects on Wang thoughts of Shen of the Frontiers (an emotionless person with a single track mind)…

Wang subconsciously thought of her as the long-obsolete DOS operating system: a blank, black screen, a bare “C:>” prompt, a blinking cursor. Whatever you entered, it echoed back. Not one extra letter and not a single change. But now he knew that behind the “C:>” was a bottomless abyss.

Suicide victim Yang Dong’s mother talking to Wang Miao about her (the reason for the comment becomes more apparent as the story progresses)…

“Right now, events are happening beyond our imagination. It’s unprecedented challenge to our theories about the world, and she’s not the only scientist to have stumbled down that path.”

“But she was a woman. A woman should be like water, able to flow over and around anything.”

The more transparent something was, the more mysterious it seemed. The universe itself was transparent; as long as you were sufficiently sharp-eyed, you could see as far as you liked. But the father you looked, the more mysterious it became.

…her heart was like ashes from which the flames of love could no longer be lit.

The human race was a naïve species, and the attraction posed by a more advanced alien civilization was almost irresistible.

A society with such advanced science must also have more advanced moral standards.

“You amuse me. I will immediately notify the propaganda consul and direct him to repeatedly publicize this scientific fact to the world. The people of Trisolaris must understand that the destruction of civilizations is a common occurrence that happens every second of every hour.”

Words to consider while reading from Liu Cixin in the book’s forward…

The appearance of extraterrestrial intelligence will force humanity to confront an Other. Before then, humanity as a whole will never have had an external counterpart. The appearance of this Other, or mere knowledge of its existence, will impact our civilization in unpredictable ways.

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