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The Three-Body Problem was a much-ballyhooed novel several years back. Tor Books published Ken Liu’s English translation in 2014. The book won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015 and was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel. I starting reading it without knowing anything about the story other than that there were some portions of the novel set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
The novel has several distinct settings. The first is the present day, where nanomaterials expert Wang Miao is investigating a mysterious countdown timer. The second follows the young scientist Ye Wenjie and her trials during the Cultural Revolution. The third is inside a video game called Three Body that Wang Miao plays.
The most engaging parts of the novel were the flashbacks to the Cultural Revolution and Ye Wenjie’s time at a top-secret military base called “Red Coast Base.” Ye was a political outcast who still managed to find engaging work at Red Coast Base, though she did not know its true purpose for many years.
The Three Body video game was also interesting. The players became members of an alien civilization whose planet orbited three suns. The unpredictability of their orbits (the titular three-body problem) caused chaotic eras of extreme heat or cold, when civilization would break down. The players had to figure out the nature of their world and how to survive in it.
The least interesting part of the novel was the actual framing story, where Wang Miao and police detective Shi Qiang try to unravel a conspiracy perpetrated by eco-terrorists.
The execution of the novel felt very uneven. It was like several different novels written by different authors, and connected by a bad thriller for a framing story. The Trisolaran world was imaginative and part of the grand sci-fi tradition of the Big Idea. Ye Menjie’s narrative was wonderfully wrought and full of characterization. However, the whole of the novel was not cohesive enough to promote the main plot, which relied heavily on some deus ex machina technologies.
What Makes it Epic Grit:
- Adventure and Wonder: There was discovery and contact with an advanced alien civilization that is completely foreign to humans.
- Believable Characters: The Cultural Revolution narrative had more nuanced characters. The rest felt paper thin.
- Real Consequences: The sections set in the Cultural Revolution described the tough consequences and conditions that many had to endure. The parts set in the present were a corny thriller.
- Epic in Scope: A possible alien invasion of Earth? Yup.
- Subverts “Good versus Evil” Tropes: Not really.
- Different Perspectives: Some. Ye Menjie’s narrative brought to life a perspective of the Cultural Revolution that is still a rarity. The Three Body game also gave some great insight into the Trisolaran society.
Meh. The Ye Menjie narrative was engrossing, but increasingly unbelievable. The Trisolaran simulations were an interesting concept, but also not totally believable. The rest was just a messy thriller. I enjoyed parts of it enough, but I doubt I’ll read the other two books in the series.