At its essence the plot of Cixin Liu’s “The Three-Body Problem” is simple: A group of intellectuals on Earth – who established the Earth-Trisolaris Organisation – has lost faith in human society, and has hence made contact with aliens of the Trisolaran civilisation to colonise Earth. The author himself explained in the postscript that “extraterrestrial intelligence will be the greatest source of uncertainty for humanity’s future [because] the appearance of extraterrestrial intelligence will force humanity to confront an Other”, and while the concept is not new the novel emphasises technical specificity and the many conflicts within humanity, instead of a convenient assumption of unity against technically superior overlords from Trisolaris.
And it is the two threads of technical and scientific specificity as well as the allusions to Chinese culture and history which add science-fiction depth. I did not necessarily understand the physics or astrophysics – the three-body problem itself, the supercomputers used, and the characteristics of outer space, for instance, even if Liu has his characters use props, simple visualisations, or simplified explanations – though collectively the attention to detail adds richness and realism. There is a virtual-reality (VR) game running in parallel with the main story, the different research projects foreshadow and serve relevant objectives for missions, and “the deep structure of matter [as] the foundation of the foundations of all other sciences”, and each feature falls into place nicely, ahead of the imminent invasion. In particular I thought the depiction of how the central processing unit of a computer works, simulated by ancient human beings in the VR game, was very creative.
While this first thread creates believability of Trisolarans and the advancements in the Earth of the future – and especially appeal to those familiar with the sciences and their possibilities – it is the allusions and background which set the context for “The Three-Body Problem”. The novel moves from the period of Cultural Revolution in China to eventual reformation and modernisation, and the themes within the periods and through the transition give the characters and their motivations greater clarity. Astrophysicist Ye Wenjie takes centre stage with her recruitment to the top-secret “Red Coast Base”, and through her experiences the reader learns of the persecution, the suffering, and ultimately the difficulty of rehabilitation.
The clever use of flashbacks, interrogations, and transmission communication, moreover, allows for the movement across different time periods and even planetary locations. And since this is setting up for two more books of the trilogy, this book ends on a more defiant – not helpless – tone, which is likely to leave the reader hooked. In its final message to Earth, Trisolaris described those on Earth as “bugs”, and it is police detective Shi Qiang who reminds his comrades that all is not lost – yet.