Books : reviews

Cixin Liu.
The Three-Body Problem.
Head of Zeus. 2015

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 4 July 2017

1967: Ye Wenjie witnesses Red Guards beat her father to death during China’s Cultural Revolution. This singular event will shape not only the rest of her life but also the future of mankind.

Four decades later, Beijing police ask nanotech engineer Wang Miao to infiltrate a secretive cabal of scientists after a spate of inexplicable suicides. Wang’s investigation will lead him to a mysterious online game and immerse him in a virtual world ruled by the intractable and unpredictable interaction of its three suns.

This is the Three-Body Problem and it is the key to everything: the key to the scientists’ deaths, the key to a conspiracy that spans light-years and the key to the extinction-level threat humanity now faces.

Ye Wenjie watches from hiding as four teenaged Red Guards beat her father to death during a show trial at the height of the Cultural Revolution. This experience underpins a decision she makes many years later, a decision that indirectly leads to the suicides of many physicists, her daughter included, and will soon impact every person on earth. In the present day, Wang Miao encounters a strangely addictive full-immersion computer game called “Three Body”, which may hold the clue to the suicides, and other inexplicable events.

This is a peculiarly uneven book. The setting, both in the past and the present day, is richly drawn. But all the characters seem either very flat or completely over the top, and surprisingly incurious, even those who are supposed to be investigators. Some of their actions seemed to be purely to allow info-dumping. The alien world of the game is interesting, but the degree of immersion is implausible: why would anyone actually play it?

I don’t know how much of this is due to the translation, how much to the original, and how much to a different cultural style that I am unfamiliar with. Yet there are peculiar translator’s notes in places. I expect maybe the odd note to explain something that doesn’t translate (Hofstadter has a lot to say about issues that face translation across cultures), but there are also notes explaining some of the physics, which seems outside the job spec. There’s even at one point an author’s note explaining a point of physics: infodump via footnote!

Don’t get me wrong. There are lovely touches, like an incident precisely paralleling an earlier one: Ye Wenjie isn’t the only one to make a fateful decision. The scene of stopping the ship in the Panama canal will stay with me for a while. And the solution described in the final part, explaining all the earlier weirdnesses, fully encompasses the reason I read SF. I will be reading the next in the trilogy to find out what happens next.

Oh, but I just have to say it; sorry. The computer game “Three Body” involves the chaotic orbit of a planet around its three suns. Which is, of course, the four-body problem.

Cixin Liu.
The Dark Forest .
Head of Zeus. 2015

Imagine the universe as a forest, patrolled by numberless and nameless predators. In this forest, stealth is survival any civilisation that reveals its location is prey.

Earth has. Now the predators are coming.

Crossing light years, they will reach Earth in four centuries’ time. But the sophons, their extra-dimensional agents and saboteurs, are already here. Only the individual human mind remains immune to their influence.

This is the motivation for the Wallfacer Project, a last-ditch defence that grants four individuals almost absolute power to design secret strategies, hidden through deceit and misdirection from human and alien alike. Three of the Wallfacers are influential statesmen and scientists, but the fourth is a total unknown.

Luo Ji, an unambitious Chinese astronomer, is baffled by his new status. All he knows is that he’s the one Wallfacer the aliens want dead.

Cixin Liu.
Death's End.
Head of Zeus. 2016

Half a century after the Doomsday Battle, the uneasy balance of the Dark Forest Deterrence keeps the Trisolaran invaders at bay.

Earth enjoys unprecedented prosperity due to the infusion of Trisolaran knowledge and, with the Trisolarans adopting Earth culture, some hope that the two civilizations will be able to co-exist without the terrible threat of mutually assured annihilation. But peace has made humanity complacent.

Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer from the 21st century, awakens from hibernation in this new age. She brings knowledge of a long-forgotten program dating from the start of the Trisolar Crisis, and her presence may upset the delicate balance between two worlds. Will humanity reach for the stars or die in its cradle?