The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

I’m not sure how I stumbled on The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu and translated by Ken Liu. I saw it on Goodreads but it also came up on an email list serve, I believe. Somehow multiple mentions pinged my brain and I decided to pick it up to see what all the fuss was about. I was able to get a copy from the library and set out to read what I hoped was the first in a promising series.

Quick Verdict: Alas, I was not as wowed by this as others. Perhaps because I don’t read a lot of science fiction or find complex science hurts my head.

I was mostly interested in the connection to the Cultural Revolution in China and it was this part that kept me going for most of the book. It starts right off with the brutal reality of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960’s. I wanted to see how the characters impacted by these events were involved in the story forty years later. And I enjoyed this thread.

I liked the characters, despite some awkwardness from translation and cultural differences, and the set-up of the game as connection to an alien species, but it moved a little slow in parts. Whenever it delved into the physics and science aspects, I started to tune out. I’m not what you would call a math and science guy… :-) But I did enjoy trying to figure out how it all connected to some degree.

Towards the end it again got a little too nerdy on the physics and I think that colored my experience with the whole book. The impending doom or apocalypse that seemed to be imminent at one point just kinda fizzled out with descriptions of the various factions on earth, alien dialog and science experiments.

Not sure I will keep reading the series as the next book is 500+ pages and I rarely take a chance on books that big unless they offer an expected payoff.

I am an outlier it seems. See below. As always, your mileage may vary…

In concept and development, it resembles top-notch Arthur C. Clarke or Larry Niven but with a perspective—plots, mysteries, conspiracies, murders, revelations and all—embedded in a culture and politic dramatically unfamiliar to most readers in the West, conveniently illuminated with footnotes courtesy of translator Liu.Remarkable, revelatory and not to be missed.


Cixin Liu clearly loves golden-age SF authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke; accordingly, The Three-Body Problem turns a boilerplate, first-contact concept into something absolutely mind-unfolding. While in the virtual world of Three Body, Miao confronts philosophical conundrums that border on the psychedelic, all while remaining scientifically rigorous. The way the book’s alien race seeks to assert its presence on Earth is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

This is hard SF, full of lovingly lengthy passages of technical exposition about everything from quantum mechanics to artificial intelligence. But Cixin Liu supports all of that braintwisting theory with empathetic characters and a strong action-thriller backbone. That’s a lot to set up, and The Three-Body Problem flounders somewhat until it finds its footing. The story begins slowly despite its many chronological leaps forward, and it takes a while to untangle exactly who or what the focal points of the plot are supposed to be. Once it’s up and running, though, it’s gripping.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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