A covert military project. A secret war revealed as the worst fight that humanity has ever faced. Baffling mysteries. A series of ultra-science weapons, each more powerful and fantastic than the last, including one technology described as more important than nuclear bombs. Aliens that may be saviors, or invaders, or both. All this and more feature in Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, the first book in a science fiction trilogy that is wildly popular in China (read a firsthand account of the series’ fame) and is now finally making its way into English.
Let’s take a look at the science that the story is built upon. Spoilers ahead for those haven’t yet read The Three-Body Problem.
The story’s plot ultimately revolves around humanity’s first contact with aliens. The strange biology of the aliens is cleverly thought out—only two details of what they are like on the inside and outside are sketched out, really, the most prominent being that they can dry themselves out and roll up like paper to ride out the unpredictable extremes of heat and cold that their planet suffers through, but these details read as perfectly natural consequences of the world they live on, and are enough to give a sense of how bizarre life has been like for these extraterrestrials for the whole of their history.
In the end, the biology of the aliens, and the entire reason why they want to contact Earth, relates directly to the concept that gives the novel its title, the three-body problem. It does not sound like much—can you predict how three objects will orbit each other in a repeating pattern? However, the problem, first recognized by Isaac Newton, has bedeviled scientists for more than 300 years. As a character in the novel notes, “the three-body system is a chaotic system. Tiny perturbations can be endlessly amplified. Its patterns of movement essentially cannot be mathematically predicted.” It is only quite recently that researchers discovered more than three families of solutions to it.
The consequences of the three-body problem on the aliens, and thus on humanity, ultimately fuel the story’s plot, making it a fitting title for the book. Errors regarding the three-body problem literally doom entire civilizations in the novel; the implications of a three-body system literally rip a planet apart. It is refreshing and satisfying to read an old-school kind of science fiction novel that rests on the strength of such a powerful idea.
Remarkably, science not only drives plot in the story, but also character development. The novel opens with the kind of tragedy that was all too real in China during the madness of the Cultural Revolution—a scientist being beaten to death in public for believing in scientific ideas such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the big bang theory because of their so-called counter-revolutionary nature, a brutal scene that combines the inquisition of Galileo with the trial of Joan of Arc. The main character Ye Wenjie is a daughter of this scientist, and it’s no understatement to say that her experiences as a scientist herself—the cruelty and the betrayals she endures—ultimately set the course of human history, in ways I truly did not see coming: a mark of the author’s skill as a writer. Science can be the source of extraordinary drama in both real life as in fiction, and The Three-Body Problem illustrates that perfectly.
There is a lot of flashy science and technology brought up in the novel, as is de rigueur for science fiction. For instance, a fancy weapon the military in the story end up using is an ultra-strong nano-filament known as “Flying Blade.” By stringing this filament across the Panama Canal, Flying Blade cuts an unsuspecting enemy ship apart like a hot knife through butter. Virtual-reality suits consisting of panoramic viewing helmets and tactile feedback suits are also commonplace within the almost-now world of the story.
However, as swanky as the science and technology in the novel could get, I appreciated the book’s subtler details, which depicted scientists actually thinking and acting like scientists. I appreciated how a nanotechnology researcher needed particle physics explained to him because it’s understood that he doesn’t know everything, unlike like a movie scientist. A scene that could fit in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series thrillingly describes the wonder the Ye Wenjie feels at making a scientific discovery—that the sun can serve as an amplifier for space-bound signals directed at possible extraterrestrial life—that ultimately sets the stage for first contact. The breakthrough is a cathartic moment in the book, as well, serving as a victory for Wenjie, who has spent her entire life being mistrusted by her superiors and who lost her family over the very knowledge that she advances. She overcomes these challenges and this confirmation of her worth goes hand in hand with crafting a great leap forward for humanity. To describe how the main character feels after the murder of her father, the author Cixin Liu uses a metaphor firmly rooted in science: “She could no longer feel grief. She was now like a Geiger counter that had been subjected to too much radiation, no longer capable of giving any reaction, noiselessy displaying a reading of zero.”
There are examples of science in the book that are so advanced they seem mystical, as well as scenes of whimsy that read like something out of a Stanislaw Lem novel— gossamer threads and colossal reflective spheres, tetrahedrons, cubes, rings, cones, Moebius strips and other geometric solids popping in and out of existence and filling the sky. I personally doubt whether any such events could actually happen, but at the level of science involved—scales tinier than subatomic particles, engineering involving higher dimensions—who knows what might be possible, and the author does a great job capturing the magical nature of the unknown.
A curious feeling that many Western readers may experience is how the Chinese nature of the novel alone will make it seem like science fiction. Events in Chinese history may seem straight out of an alien world for those unfamiliar with the facts and the culture. For instance, the experiment the main character proposed that set the stage for first contact is almost stopped because it involved aiming a beam of energy at the sun, and Chairman Mao was often compared to the “red sun,” so running the experiment might be seen as an attack on him. Indeed, as the book explains, during the Cultural Revolution, finding political symbolism in everything had reached absurd levels—the term “sunspot” was forbidden because the Chinese term for them literally means “solar black spots,” and black was the color of counter-revolutionaries. Even minor cultural references, such as a man described as “the Thomas Pynchon of China,” create an exotic atmosphere that lends itself well to sci-fi.
The novel is not without its weaknesses: a number of the characters are stock in nature (“the chain-smoking rogue cop,” for example) and while these characters occasionally defy their stereotypes—the cop in question has a Sherlock Holmesian level of perception—they are still underwhelming. A giant conspiracy revolving around the aliens is set up on Earth, one involving famous and influential politicians, scientists, executives, writers, celebrities and so on. However, the conspirators are shown doing a very poor job at hiding themselves, raising the question as to why they are not more secretive and why they were not discovered earlier—for instance, after letting potential recruits know about the existence of aliens in a coffee shop and finding out these candidates might not in fact be good members, the would-be recruits are just allowed to walk away with this world-changing knowledge, apparently without any consequences. Furthermore, a mystery revolves around why a number of scientists killed themselves, but when you find out what happened—the aliens made results from particle accelerator experiments seem nonsensical, and also made them see visions such as flashing numbers—this did not seem enough to drive the scientists to suicide to me.
There are other flaws the novel had as well: the humans and aliens seem to have no trouble translating each other’s messages—a hand-waving kind of explanation is given, and while this problem certainly is not unique in science fiction, it was slightly jarring given how much effort the author gave to the science elsewhere in the book. A bigger issue to me is how an incredibly powerful device is revealed, possessing almost supernatural powers—protons that are etched with circuitry and transformed into artificially intelligent supercomputers, capable of steering themselves, moving at nearly the speed of light, and zapping whatever they hit. However, in this book, this magical technology is basically only used for parlor tricks—to mess with detectors in particle accelerators and to conjure visions in the eyes of scientists—and given that no limits are described for this super-technology, one has to ask whether it could be employed as a super-weapon that could kill or at least blind everyone on Earth.
Despite its faults, The Three-Body Problem is engaging and imaginative. The novel is itself part of a three-body problem, a trilogy, and its attraction is likely strong enough to pull many readers along to explore the rest of this three-body system in the future.
Charles Q. Choi is a science reporter who has written for Scientific American, The New York Times, Wired, Science and Nature, among others. In his spare time, Charles has traveled to all seven continents. Find him on Twitter.