From my earliest memory of stories, I’ve loved science fiction; however, I admit I’ve had only a small exposure to non-Western examples of the genre. Liu Cixin’s 2015 Hugo winner The Three-Body Problem offered an imagined future with different cultural roots. The result is an intriguing (if imperfectly executed) novel with exquisite historical resonance.
The Three-Body Problem weaves a near-future storyline with narrative underpinnings that occur in the mid-20th century. During China’s cultural revolution, scientist Ye Wenjie escapes persecution by agreeing to work on a top-secret project. Decades later, several prominent intellectuals mysteriously commit suicide and authorities recruit researcher Wang Miao to infiltrate a cabal of scientists linked to the deaths. The investigation leads Miao to an esoteric virtual reality game called “Three Body” (a reference to a famous conundrum in classical mechanics that involves calculating the movement of three objects such as planets). Solving the game’s puzzles unlocks keys to the mystery and reveals the import of Wenjie’s work years ago.
Significant portions of the story takes place within the game, a surreal world of anachronism, fantasy, and theoretical physics. These segments ascend to the same tropospheric plane of nerdiness as Cryptonomicon, but with less story holding them together. Flashes of brilliance appear within the game sequences—I particularly enjoyed an illustration of how computers function, demonstrated by thousands of soldiers raising flags in a binary pattern—but I found myself skimming some of the denser portions in search of the next salient plot point.
Stronger characters would probably have mitigated the issue of plot tempo, but their development is minimal. Wenjie is an interesting protagonist, but she figures prominently only in the historical part of the narrative. In the contemporary thread, Wang Miao is an amiable but unremarkable sci-fi standard: the naive scientist pulled into a vast conspiracy. The most promising character to me was “Big” Shi, a crude but savvy cop investigating the killings. His Chandler-esque presence adds needed humor and flair.
Despite weaknesses in story craft, this book presents an interesting premise and—for readers like me without a strong physics background—valuable exposure to some fundamental concepts. Translator (and sci-fi author in his own right) Ken Liu handles the prose with a masterful touch and provides useful footnotes on Chinese culture. For readers willing to invest some mental effort, The Three-Body Problem offers myriad rewards.