The Three-Body Problem | Liu Cixin | 2015 (English edn) | Head of Zeus | 399p | Review copy | Buy the book
In 1967 Ye Wenjie watches her father beaten to death by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Her father was a teacher and scientist and those who threw the punches and kicks that killed him were youngsters, some even his former students. Education, learning and science don’t belong in these dangerous times and so Ye Wenjie, herself an astrophysicist, welcomes her exile to a remote corner of China where she is enlisted in a programme to cut down the trees on a mountain side. But her hunger for the written word finds her out, the state seems determined to destroy her. Ye Wenjie is given one last chance to escape – she must sign her life and future away to Red Coast Base, a top secret facility that transmits signals into space.
Wang Miao is a nanomaterials researcher in present day China. Top of his field, the Beijing police ask him to infiltrate a group of elite scientists, the Frontiers of Science. A number of scientists have committed suicide, the police are none the wiser as to why, no link can be found. But when photography enthusiast Wang develops a roll of film and finds every photo labelled with a time, he understands the unbelievable. There is a countdown underway, one that only he and a few others can see. The answer lies hidden within the secrecy of the Frontiers of Science, the clues revealed in their extraordinary online game Three Body, a game in which Wang immerses himself. Seeking answers and fearing the worst, Wang must seek out the mother of one of the dead scientists for guidance, the elderly Ye Wenjie who has quite a tale to tell.
The Three-Body Problem, winner of this year’s Hugo Award, is a marvellous novel. I’ve been keen to read it since I first heard about it but I was slightly nervous that the solution to its ‘three-body problem’ might be a little hard for me to grasp. I needn’t have worried at all. This is a book rich in ideas, puzzles and theories but each of them is explained in a way that isn’t only accessible but is also absolutely engrossing. Using the medium of the Three Body game, Liu Cixin gives his ideas an added, colourful dimension, that is full of memorable and original (not to mention deliciously quirky) moments – for example, the ability of the characters to lie down on the ground, seep out all their body fluids so that they are completely dehydrated and can be rolled up and stacked in a warehouse, or the disillusioned philosopher who calmly steps into a bubbling cauldron to be cooked. In the world of Three Body chaos reigns supreme, thanks to the three-body problem at its heart. Can Earth’s scientists solve the problem or can they learn to cope with the triumph of chaos?
This isn’t all, though. While The Three-Body Problem pursues an extremely absorbing, and dramatically depicted, puzzle, it is also an apocalyptic novel on a huge scale. Wang is haunted by his countdown, conscious that the universe is flicking like a lightbulb about to go out for good, and he must find out why. It is in this part of the novel that Ye Wenjie comes to the fore. She’s an extraordinary figure – we have to feel sympathy for her but her character has a freezing chill at its heart. The enormity of what she discovers at Red Coast Base dominates her life, her relationships, everything, but, considering what it is that she learns, we can certainly understand why. Wang himself must commit truly terrible acts in the name of mankind’s survival – there is one scene in this novel that haunted me for nights, just as it must have haunted Wang for a lifetime.
The ideas in The Three-Body Problem are vast but they are beautifully expressed and, for this, credit must also go to Ken Liu who has done a fantastic job of translating this masterpiece. The characters are wonderfully portrayed – I particularly enjoyed police detective Da Shi – even those who are passing through. The chapters that focus on the game present a magically realised world that serves as a colourful contrast to the chapters set in the ‘real’ world. The novel invites the reader to look at the world around them and imagine a scenario in which he or she would welcome its destruction or, alternatively, the lengths to which they would go to save it. Wang and Ye Wenjie deal with this problem in their own way.
This review can only touch on the ideas contained in this novel. Much of what happens is revealed in a series of big shocks and twists that I have no intention of spoiling. I loved where The Three Body-Problem took me – it is tense, wondrous and fascinating and I am so ready to read its successor, The Dark Forest, the next in this exciting, original and gobsmacking trilogy.