The Three-Body Problem
February 7, 2017 10:01 AM - by Cixin Liu - Subscribe

The Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China's most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin. Translated into English by Ken Liu and published in 2014, this novel won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2015.
posted by infinitewindow (26 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
This book freaked me out, which I think is usually a good sign in sci Fi.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:36 AM on February 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

This novel continues to fascinate me. I read it four months ago and left it with my hosts in Scotland (as is my custom when I stay in people's homes; letting someone borrow a book I enjoy gives me great joy), so I can't quote it directly. Part of what fascinates me is the interplay of 1. stilted dialog 2. passive protagonist 3. big Hollywood-style visual setpieces.

1. I defy North American native English speakers to read this novel out loud. The dialog is stilted and a bit bizarre. You'll laugh in frustration. Here's my theory about why the dialog is the way it is, but I recognize it's more of a rationalization than a hypothesis.

2. I honestly can't remember anything Wang Miao, the nominal protagonist, did actively on his own within the novel. So many peripheral characters get great action and great motivations. (Remember the guy in the beginning who seemed helpful and caring, who comprehensively snitched on Ye Wenjie?) It seems like a deliberate commentary on the actual relative helplessness of people caught up in world-historical events vs. the great-man theory of history. Ye Wenjie, the second-most interesting character to me, is definitely the "great man" and sets into motion the possible destruction of all life on our planet. The most interesting character to me is Big Shi, who if I recall correctly is basically a plot device and almost seems to recognize that fact and laugh at it.

3. But yeah, the Hollywood-style setpieces really dazzled me. It's almost like Liu Cixin dared the movie industry to make a faithful adaptation of his novel. The various in-game dooms of Trisolaris and the nanowire trap at the Panama Canal are begging to be shown on the silver screen. They're so big and so well done that they seemed like they were from another novel—one that was a lot more Western or conventional.

I haven't read the sequels yet. The back flap copy of The Dark Forest again makes the novel sound like a Hollywood SF thriller, but after reading this first in the series, I know that can't be the case.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:34 PM on February 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

It's interesting to read your take on this book infinitewindow.

I found its hopelessness to be pretty unsettling, but I couldn't quite shake the feeling it was like a Crichton novel.
posted by fleacircus at 9:00 PM on February 7, 2017

Starting in on this after I finish Schatzing's The Swarm. It seems like ever since I first heard about it (in an AskMe from a few days ago) it's all I ever hear about!
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:20 PM on February 7, 2017

The back flap copy of The Dark Forest again makes the novel sound like a Hollywood SF thriller, but after reading this first in the series, I know that can't be the case.

I've read it and it's great and utterly terrifying.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:29 PM on February 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

I enjoyed the book a whole bunch, but the one image/scene that stuck with me even a year after I've read it has to be the computer made out of soldiers with flags and horses. That was just such an amazing idea and a beautifully constructed image.
posted by Carillon at 11:14 PM on February 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

I've been so intrigued by this book, but I've heard it suffers from a near-total absence of women characters, esp women characters with agency, which is a real deal breaker for me.
posted by smoke at 1:13 AM on February 8, 2017

I've been so intrigued by this book, but I've heard it suffers from a near-total absence of women characters, esp women characters with agency, which is a real deal breaker for me.

There's no shortage of women in the books, including a major character in the first book whose very deliberate actions sets up the entire storyline, plus numerous others. And the third book follows a single woman across a huge timespan. Ok, it's hard scifi and most women are scientists and have Chinese names, which is perhaps a bit confusing if you're not used to that and not paying attention, and there may be other reasons the characters won't click for you, but I completely fail to see how someone could argue that they're not there.
posted by effbot at 5:57 AM on February 8, 2017 [12 favorites]

I've read the first two of these in the past month and have the third on the way to me from the library. I love the slow and increasingly horrifying unfolding of the plot in both of them. I started off being kind of impatient and wanting it to get rolling, and then by the last third of each book was excitedly trying to explain plot points to my completely uninterested husband. And the imagery! The nanoweb across the Panama Canal is something I will not ever forget.

I've read some criticism about the way women are treated in these books as well and I don't really see it. There is some disturbing obsession & objectification by one of the male characters in the second book, but I don't think we're intended to think it's normal or good.
posted by something something at 7:18 AM on February 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

Agency is going to be a little weird because the story is kinda about oppression/repression of science and the main characters are all scientists. There's also a major character who is a woman who does some pretty significant actions. It's not notably progressive by gender but gender and agency seem like weird things to single the book out for criticism. Maybe I'm missing something.

I wondered, though how much of this book's popularity comes from the kind of regressive sci-fi fan pushing it, because of some very surfacey aspects. Like the beginning, when the revolutionary leftist girls beat the scientist to death with belt buckles --- just like Tumblr, amirite? And the main female character is sort of conniving, and FUCK YEAH SCIENCE is what should save the world. I didn't read the whole thing through that lens (having grown up in Kansas I know the threat to science and intellectual life in America is not from the left lol), but after I was done I was wondering how much of the buzz about this book was bad puppy buzz.

My favorite parts were the WTF-ness of the vision-clock, the sort of paranoia and gnawing madness of the discovery part. The idea of the unwrapped and re-wrapped AI particles achieving the power of like a magical, malignant invisible but omnipresent thing (much like an ideology); that was all kind of interesting and a little harrowing.
posted by fleacircus at 7:58 AM on February 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

It has been a while since I read this, but I loved the weird 50's throwback scifi feel of some of the chapters set on the trisolaran world. The growing sense of dread as we discover more about the trisolarans is very well conveyed.

I also really enjoyed seeing the Cultural Revolution from a Chinese prospective. I had assumed that being critical of the Cultural Revolution was still a no-no in China but this book pulled no punches.

One of the rare books that made me immediately want to read the sequel (which I still haven't done).
posted by AndrewStephens at 1:19 PM on February 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

This book was a crazy mix of enigmatic character motivations and incredible setpeices, as has been said earlier. It's a great example of how literature can spark the imagination to produce visuals to match anything Hollywood can create. Everything in the video game world, the Panama Canal trap, and the Trisolarans' attempts to create their computer particles are all incredibly fantastic sequences.

That being said, once I finished I had exactly zero desire to continue on with the next books in the series, so I looked up synopses of them and feel that this decision was right for me. It's impossible to say if it's the writing, or the translation, or the foreign culture it's set in, but I had exactly my fill of it, which I personally think is absolutely fine. I'd recommend it, but compared to other books I sought out due to acclaim from various nerd taste-makers (Seveneves comes to mind) it doesn't entirely live up to the hype.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:46 PM on February 8, 2017 [5 favorites]

Like Mr.E, this book just didn’t work for me. I wanted to like it & still can’t quite put my finger on why as it ought to have hit all my buttons.
posted by pharm at 2:30 PM on February 9, 2017

I liked Three-Body Problem but halfway through The Dark Forest I got bored and gave up. It was actually starting to pick up a bit as we learned more about how the Trisolarans think but ultimately I just moved onto a different book.

Anyway, Three-Body Problem itself was a great novel and I sort of wish it wasn't a trilogy and had a more satisfying ending just by itself.
posted by GuyZero at 3:02 PM on February 9, 2017

"That being said, once I finished I had exactly zero desire to continue on with the next books in the series, so I looked up synopses of them and feel that this decision was right for me. It's impossible to say if it's the writing, or the translation, or the foreign culture it's set in, but I had exactly my fill of it, which I personally think is absolutely fine."

"Like Mr.E, this book just didn’t work for me. I wanted to like it & still can’t quite put my finger on why as it ought to have hit all my buttons."

That's me as well. When I was younger I would never give up on a book, but that was before the Internet was common in homes and pockets, and I didn't have as much distraction. Now I try to let go of that nagging sense of personal failure if I don't continue, and just close a book that's not doing it for me and walk away. I'd say I got about 1/3rd of the way through this one. All my friends love it. I had every reason to love it.

and yet something was so off-putting about the writing style and the characters. It just struck me as relentlessly cold and unemotional which might have been the point, I couldn't tell. All I know is that at the time I was reading it, it was absolutely what I did not need to be feeling at that time so I had to let it go.

However, unlike most other books that I've closed before the end, I'm still tempted by this one. Maybe one day when my reading list subsides a bit I'll try it again.
posted by komara at 12:29 PM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I liked the way this book gave me what I assume was a Chinese centered perspective on the world. I didn't love the language. I assume that's because it's translated from Chinese. When I've read other fantastical translations (like the Wind Up Bird Chronicles or The Master and Margarita), I'm left with the same feeling as though they were written for children. That may be a limitation of translations in general.

I love the idea of the sophons. There is something so unique (to me anyway) and cool about that idea.

Since this book was so Chinese centric to my reading I was really surprised at how US centric the second book seemed to be. I wasn't sure if that was deliberate or not.

I felt like the 3rd book was the best of the series.
posted by willnot at 4:28 PM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had the same reaction as some of you when we read this one for book club a few months back. Intriguing ideas, love the cultural perspective, but ....just didn't care a lot. I wasn't sure if it was intentional or perhaps just distance created by translation-but the stilted language and the lack of emotional connection to the characters made me not interested enough to read the next two.
posted by purenitrous at 9:08 PM on February 10, 2017

A friend who is way smarter than I am recommended the first book and With good reason.
The fact that is a translation is a point in its favor, for me, because l didn't feel like I needed another 'American Brave White Man Saves the World by being Brave and White and a Man' ifyouknowwhatImean. And the main character is a woman who does something pretty massively fucked up for some pretty human reasons. Sold!
The set pieces are well done but I've really appreciated the craziness, inventiveness of the many many ideas that run through the book.
The stilted dialogue and at times flat characters were just a thing that was a little too bad but not terminal. I started the second book four times before I was able to get through the moronic pretentious first chapter. Most of the rest of the book, until about the last third, was a bit of a slog as well. The ending made up for it, though. I'm looking forward to reading the third.
Easily my favorite sci-if book since Blindsight.
posted by From Bklyn at 8:19 AM on April 22, 2017

Easily my favorite sci-if book since Blindsight.

[possible spoilers]

I recently suggested Blindsight to a friend in a discussion about The Three Body Problem. I think they are in a similar vein, which I would characterize as a bleak, Hobbesian universe -- life is a war of all against all.

I'd argue that the real bleakness of both lies in how everything we value -- down to the basic fabric of our existence -- everything beyond sheer simple survival must logically, inevitably, eventually be pared away. The universe ultimately belongs to the cockroaches.
posted by bjrubble at 11:49 PM on October 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

A thing I'll say about the bleakness: It plays real well reading it more or less spoiler-free in May-June of 2020.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:46 PM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Well, I finally read this. I had a sense I wouldn't like it and that's why I waited so long. And I hated it. I think I hate it in very much the same way as I hate Infinite Jest. It's less a book than it is a performance, and in each particular the performance is pretty terrible. But they both overawe the susceptible.

Most people seem to agree that the characters are thin, and most think the "hard science-fiction" nature of it redeems it — because that's sort of how "hard" SF is. But if the value in "hard" science-fiction is its science . . . the science in this book is just incredibly superficial. It's about ten pulp popularizations of (almost exclusively) math, physics, and some computer science (but, tellingly, no information theory) thrown together with little or no actual understanding. I've argued here in the past that the folk who defend SF on the basis of its scientific literacy are making a very weak argument, and only with regard to a tiny slice of physics and engineering, with almost no genre scientific literacy otherwise. But also, as we see in this book, even when it's limited to math and physics, it's mostly an appropriated jumble of terminology, only marginal better than Trek's technobabble.

I wanted this book to pick just one Big Idea plucked from actual physics and do it justice, but no. Everything anyone might think they learned from this book has actually done the opposite and lost knowledge. It'll take work to weed out the confusion this causes.

Okay, here are some examples. An exact solution to a three-body problem (Newtonian or GR) is not practically possible and it's true the solution and extrapolations past a certain time horizon are extremely sensitive to initial conditions and thus, at sufficient scale, will evolve chaotically. But methods for approximations for n-bodies are sufficient for practical purposes and are fairly easy. We do this with spacecraft and objects in the solar system. We update the approximations with ongoing observations and this suffices. This would suffice for the aliens of the Centauri system. An "automated" numerical method for doing so by millions of people wouldn't require a Turing machine, much less a program running on an "operating system". He refers to the Monte Carlo method and he uses Von Neumann to give this credibility, but actually knowing the details of, say the manual computing of numerical methods using the MC method by Los Alamos scientists wouldn't look anything like he describes. His proton computer . . . well, string theory includes numerous compacted dimensions and he's read Flatland and he's heard of "lines of force" and also the strong nuclear force and he's heard about paired particles so . . . just throw all those words together in a quasi-credible manner and wow the masses with Science! (Oh, and rather than affecting the sensing equipment or anything more accessible, instead let's confuse the particle physicists by substituting our proton for theirs in exactly the right place and time, every time, so it produces a statistical result, because that's the most difficult, most batshit crazy way of going about it.)

Here's a species that's risen and fallen for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years, yet we gain the technology to send them a radio message and do so once shortly after they've just launched their interstellar fleet . . . from the nearest star. This is "informed" speculation about intelligent alien life built around contrivance on par with "the Egyptian gods were space aliens".

You know what a beach-ball sized sphere the mass of a proton would do in an atmosphere on a planet? It would go straight up. It wouldn't simply float and it wouldn't bounce around with no regard for the conservation of momentum.

You know what a giant space mirror would do that occludes half the sky and has the mass of proton and is "reflecting" solar energy across its surface? It would rapidly accelerate away. That's the universe's most efficient solar sail.

Another Big Idea is the benevolence or hostility of possible alien intelligent life. But there's absolutely no foundation for this — not a philosophical foundation generally, nor even more than the barest explanation in the particular: the aliens evolved in a very harsh environment. QED, I suppose.

Apparently, all scientific and technological advancement almost immediately stops in the absence of multibillion-dollar experiments in high-energy particle physics. This message has been brought to you by the Particle Physics and Engineering Union.

It's like this book has taken the ambitious science-based speculation typical of 80s and 90s hard science-fiction writers, and recapitulated it badly. And those books were already flawed, as "hard" science-fiction usually is.

The most humane thing about this book was its depiction of the Cultural Revolution. And of course it was: the author lived through these horrors himself. But even that is underwhelming if you've read any other books by Chinese writers who describe the Cultural Revolution and its contemporary echoes. I have, and they're better — not for the least because they weave it much more organically and effectively through the larger theme of the book. This is very clumsy by comparison.

As a story, it reads partly as a series of somewhat thin vignettes about Wengxie's life, interspersed with lifeless "metaverse" sequences that are sometimes almost didactic, with the protagonist sleepwalking through a series of encounters in which expository dialog is delivered.

The author's and the translator's respective afterwords don't help — they each make it clear that the book is as intended.

I'm thrilled to see non-English SFF appear in English and included among the award nominations. I don't think this book deserves its Hugo, but it's certainly not the first time this is the case. Its setting of precedent is more significant, and welcome. So that's good. That's about the most praise I can summon.

It's quite possible this will make a pretty good TV series. Though I don't see how including the in-game parts won't inevitably be cringe-inducing.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:13 AM on May 17, 2022 [6 favorites]

The most humane thing about this book was its depiction of the Cultural Revolution. And of course it was: the author lived through these horrors himself. But even that is underwhelming if you've read any other books by Chinese writers who describe the Cultural Revolution and its contemporary echoes.

I struggled with this book because I was most interested in the psychology of inviting aliens to come destroy your planet (though it seems less shocking now than it did when I read it several years ago), and that was clearly not what the book was most interested in. I don't know if other Chinese SF directly addresses the Cultural Revolution in that particular way.
posted by praemunire at 9:13 AM on May 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

I've only read maybe three novels by Chinese authors that include the Cultural Revolution thematically. I'd expect it to be fairly common, though, because it casts a very long, very dark shadow.

Liu Cixin is straightforward in his afterword about his intentions. Neither from the story nor his commentary do I get the impression there's more than a superficial insight into the psychology involved.

Keep in mind that Ye Wenjie, a Redeemer, invites the aliens assuming they are benevolent and wise and will save the human race, while, in contrast, Pan Han and Mike Evans, Adventists, seek the destruction of the human race merely because they are radical environmentalists. Both are very wealthy.

Evans's radicalization came about because of an oil spill, his reading of Peter Singer, and possibly deforestation in China during the Cultural Revolution; it's not clear what led to Pan Han's radicalization, it's not described. Liu Cixin seems to take it as a given that extreme environmentalism is necessarily virulently misanthropic. So there's not any deep psychological insight there. These are caricatures or strawmen, they may as well be twirling their mustaches.

And while Ye Wenjie has the most cause to be an eliminationist misanthrope, she's actually a moderate. Given all this, I don't see the coherent theme of an examination of the trauma of mass atrocity and its relationship to humanism that you speculate could be there. It's a dramatic backdrop for storytelling and a convenient excuse for a misanthropic worldview, no more than that.

I can imagine a book where the Cultural Revolution serves as a thematic ingress to a science-fictional examination of "progress" and trauma, individually and culturally, setting the stage for first contact . . . but this isn't that book.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:43 AM on May 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

> big Hollywood-style visual setpieces

A Chinese adaptation started airing Jan. 15, 2023. FanFare post.

There's a Netflix adaptation from the Game of Thrones folks purportedly scheduled to air in 2023.

There's also a donghua (Chinese animation) adaptation from Bilibili which so far has been widely panned.
posted by needled at 6:32 AM on January 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

I read the English translation of the trilogy and some chapters of the original Chinese text (across all 3 books). Some thoughts...

- The translations don't capture a lot of nuances in the original text. Foreshadowing, themes, symbolism, and details that add more depth/dimension to the story and characters are much more prominent and poignant in the original.
That said, I much prefer Ken Liu's approach to translation than Joel Martinsen's approach. Ken Liu - especially in the first book - tried to retain a lot more of the original Chinese meaning, syntax, details (etc), although this came at the expense of text that was very... expanded and sort of clunky if purely viewed from an English/Western reader perspective with little to no exposure to the Chinese language/culture. So for example, often there seems to be half a sentence of the original text that winds up being translated into a few sentences in English, and a paragraph in the original text translated into something closer to a page in English, and so on. But I personally prefer that approach to Joel Martinsen's approach which seemed to err on the side of producing a translation that would be most palatable to an English/Western reader at the cost of just... replacing words/phrases with stuff that meant something different, etc.

- Of the three translations, I really liked reading Ken Liu's translation of the 1st book - it had the effect (for me) of communicating in both English and sort-of Chinese, in the sense that while reading the English I could guess what the original Chinese text might have said, and could appreciate the shape of what the original Chinese text might have meant in its tone and details (based on the translation).

- Some simple things such as character names (and their symbolism) were not quite captured in the translations as well (this reddit post goes into some detail, although I personally think the "Cheng" part of "Cheng Xin" may have more/other homophonic interpretations than the post defined). When that sort of symbolism becomes more apparent I think it also puts the author's approach to characters in more perspective: some characters are meant to be more symbols/archetypes/types than fully-realized characters in some sense (maybe Orwell's Animal Farm characters could be a useful comparison on some level). I know it's possible to do both (i.e. make a character both symbolic/archetypal as well as more fleshed out) - I think I'm personally ok with the original author's balance of these two aspects.

- The Cultural Revolution is very well-known to Chinese on many levels, similar to how the Holocaust is very well-known to Europeans and North Americans. And, also similarly, "known" not just in the sense of "here's a thing that happened in history", but also in the sense of "this is something that affected my family during that time, changing the course of lives, with generational trauma/effects that have lasted until this day". I know a lot of Western readers have sort of latched on to the Cultural Revolution part of the story and expressed a desire for more background/details - which does make sense as a request/expectation from a Western reader - it's just that Liu Cixin was writing for a Chinese audience that would be able to grasp more details/subtext/nuances/background more easily without the need for more exposition or details spelt out explicitly.
Thinking about that part of the book as a plot point, it made a lot of sense to me that the trilogy's events were set in motion during that time - the Cultural Revolution was a time when both logic and humanity/heart were scarce or denied: the specific intellectual gaslighting coupled with brutal, dehumanizing physical treatment. Luo Ji = homophone for logic, Cheng Xin = homophone for genuine heart; the rest of the trilogy focuses on these two characters as the main characters responsible for the direction of a lot of what unfolds, setting up comparisons between the two etc.

- The third book's English title ("Death's End") translated oddly in English (imo). The original title is 死神永生 which I think translates more closely to "Death Lives Eternally" or "The Immortality of Death" (or something along those lines). Apparently the French-translated title is closer to this so... yay French translation.

- If anyone with an intermediate grasp of Chinese, who's read the English translations, has been thinking of reading the original texts... I think they are worth reading. Before reading them I wondered whether they would be difficult to read (given all the scientific terms used) but I've found them pretty readable so far. Sort of like Harry Potter level for the most part.
posted by aielen at 10:14 PM on June 29, 2023 [2 favorites]

Welp, I finally got around to reading this, and I thought it was terrible.

Pages and pages of laughably bad "science" that makes no sense whatsoever but still serves as the central plot. A VR "game" that's more a very slightly interactive movie, and which has absolutely no relation to the purpose it's supposed to be serving in the plot. Radical environmentalists who somehow fail to realize that an alien death fleet isn't likely to be great for the ecology. A device which could easily be used to kill off all life on earth before the alien fleet ever gets there (the aliens plunged their own world into an ice age with it while setting it up) instead being used to confuse particle physicists in the most weirdly convoluted way possible and send a spoooooky countdown (to what?) in the hopes of scaring a guy into stopping some research.

Not a fan.
posted by kyrademon at 9:19 AM on September 20, 2023 [1 favorite]

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