The 3 Body Problem // Cixin Liu [Thoughts + Spoilers]

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Plot: The Cultural Revolution is laid out for 50 pages and characters that no one knows nor cares about die/suffer. The only one left standing is a woman who will eventually sell out humans to aliens living in the Alpha Centauri System [off-camera]. In modern times, a scientist/nanotech engineer[?] called Wang forgets his family so he can focus on a video game called The Three Body Problem. It’s not a hard game, not as hard as the original Mega Man, and he quickly comes across the alien plot to take over Earth. Luckily, it will take 400 years for the aliens to arrive. Unluckily, they’ve invented nine dimensional protons that fly to Earth and do their best Stasi impression, which in effect limits humans to doing nothing scientifically for the next 400 years, which in turn will allow the aliens to land on Earth and do what?

Subplot: Disregarding the blurb on the back of the cover, 100 odd pages are dedicated to flashbacks of the traitor scientist figuring out how to send a signal to aliens without telling us that’s what she’s doing even though we know that’s what she’s doing cos we’ve read the blurb on the back cover.

Subplot: Wang’s wife asks for a divorce.


The above summary of the plot may come across as negative, but I enjoyed about half of this book, especially the parts focused on the video game and the three body aliens themselves.

However, it takes a long while to get there.

The biggest problem is definitely the opening 50 pages or so. If you’re gonna write a sci-fi book that starts with some historical context, at least write it well. Or organise it well. Or make it involving, either emotionally or concept-wise. What Liu has done is write a succession of scenes that involve characters we don’t get to know at all and then kill them off.

The father of the main female scientist? We’re introduced to him on the stage, being interrogated by students and then, when they don’t like his answers, beaten to death with a belt. He seems like an interesting guy but that’s based solely on his act of defiance in this scene…we know nothing else about him.

The sister of the main female scientist? Slaughtered at the start before we know who she is, and when I did discover who she was I just said ‘oh.’

A friend of the main female scientist who kills herself while wearing make-up and western clothes.

There is no tension.

I took this book out three times and the first two times I couldn’t get past the opening chapter. I renewed it five times, that’s twelve weeks of not getting through the first 30 pages. That’s not the sign of a great book.

Maybe the problem was I’d read Chandler before it?

It’s hard for any book to follow Chandler, the way he writes is so smooth and creative…and Liu is not alone here, I also failed to get very far with Roadside Picnic, Nine Fox Gambit, Sarah Canary, Dancers at the End of Time, some others I can’t remember the names of right now…

It’s very rare to come across a book where the writing itself is incredible, where right from the first paragraph you’re given something different, a different kind of voice, instead of third person description or the main character telling you what her grandparents once said to her when she was a baby.

Writers can’t keep doing this indefinitely…can they?

The third time I read it I forced myself through the Cultural Revolution part, and the next few chapters, until I made it to the video game section. This was better, much better, even though I knew from the summary on the back cover what it was all about.

In fact, if they’d changed the blurb on the back, this book could’ve truly soared. Not that it’s bad, it has its moments, I’d say it’s 67% good, but…

Liu is quite similar to Stephen Baxter.

They both clearly adore science, they love writing out theories and both of them can simplify the science to a level where someone like me who got a ‘D’ in high school can get the gist of it, yet…they don’t have a clue how to write characters.

The only characters who stand out in this book are Da Shi and the traitor scientist. They are the only ones who have a personality, though the traitor is written more as a theme than a real person. I guess that’s why we have the Cultural Revolution stuff at the start, to show how she came to think of humans as worthless. It works, it delineates her character, but because she’s robotic I didn’t really care what happened to her.

Da Shi was distinct cos he didn’t seem to know much or give a shit about science. Also, he’s the only one at the end who has a brain, showing the others how hard it is to wipe out an entire species [assuming you want the planet left intact and habitable]

In contrast, the main character, Wang, forgot his family existed. Had no hobbies. Only ever thought about science. To be fair, he was at the centre of a huge revelation for most of the book, but he was still bland.

This is what happens when virtually all the characters in your book are scientists.

What else?

The video game idea really was excellent…Liu is known for his creativity in concepts…and the way it mixed in Chinese and Western history was well-done.

It’s also a nice change to have the action not set in the US or in the West, though it’s not such a big novelty for me as half of the media I watch is Chinese. If I’m reading sci-fi from anywhere, I want decent characters and a sense of the place. I didn’t really get that here. The Cultural Revolution is sledgehammer stuff, it could’ve been written by anyone. Am I being too negative? Again, maybe it’s going from Chandler to this, or it could be that I read the English version…a lot of translations lose the sense of place as the translator is scared that the reader won’t understand the references…they did this for Gum Yong before, ironically from the Chinese side…little do they know that I have no idea what James Ellroy is going on about half the time, but I know it’s related to Post-WW2 LA and without it his books could’ve been written by someone like me who’s only ever been to LA once.

Note to translators: don’t take out the culture-specific references, you’ll drain the soul out of the book. I think the latest translation of Gum Yong/Condor Heroes learnt the lesson as the translator talked about keeping in the martial arts/historical detail, but I haven’t read it so can’t confirm…

Okay, I might try and read 3 Body Problem in Chinese when my reading level improves. I picked it up in the bookshop and made it through the first page…it wasn’t as dense as I feared, but there are still a lot of science-related words and idioms that I don’t know, so it’d be more of a chore than a pleasure to read it at the moment. Is the original version better? I have a language exchange from Guangdong who said it was a good book, written more for Chinese people, not Westerners…though he did also say that the characters were a bit bland…


The section towards the end where we set up camp with the aliens was interesting as it turns out they’re sociopaths. Also, due to the fact that we went through their history [figuratively] with Wang, we get a good sense as to how they got that way. It’s spectacularly Darwinian, on a macro and micro level, as there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as individualism in their society. Or the one alien who acts like an individual, the one who warns the human traitor not to respond to their message, is quickly punished by the emperor/dictator.

Basically, they’ve died so many times and come so close to extinction that all they think about is how to preserve their civilization as an entity, not how to evolve it socially and politically. I’m getting some vague feeling of pointed critique from Liu here, though I have no idea which country he could possibly be thinking of…

The more I think about it, the cleverer it seems to be…they say nothing’s an accident in writing, but they also say a book can mean a million things, most of them invented…the Alpha Centauri aliens are so different, their history and environment so distinct from ours that maybe it’s not a comparison…or it’s a shaded comparison…

Hang on, the aliens are spying on human scientific developments…and are planning to take over our planet…with a dictatorship at the helm, a social system that demands sacrifice to the race as a whole…

It’s amazing this ever got published…in any country, ha!

Note: Most countries are dictatorships, some more subtle than others. Terry Nation said that. Then emigrated to Eris.

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