I was convinced aliens were monitoring us. As a child, I’d watch the stars for movement, any indication that there was other intelligent life in the universe.
Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem is an engrossing piece of intelligent science fiction that approaches historical, philosophical, and scientific topics with a respectful yet inquisitive approach. Genre fiction tends to follow a formula, but Liu’s characters are not cookie-cutter but complex characters with meaty backstories that intertwine with historical events.
There are odd moments in the story where motivations and actions make no sense. Why the hell would you kill your husband for no good reason, and why am I supposed to continue to like this character?
Yet, the characters remain compelling because they refuse to fit the mould of typical narrative archetypes. The Three Body Problem’s characters are mostly older academics, scientists, and military figures.
The story, the first in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, might not seem so special on the surface. We’ve seen it before: a special scientist must deal with the fallout from the first contact with an extra-terrestrial species. Where The Three Body Problem shines is in the way the story unravels.
The story is presented as a series of mysteries that are explored through virtual reality video games, historical flashbacks to China’s cultural revolution, and in the book's most mind-bending moments, the reader is whisked off to the far away Trisolaran planet and its harsh, unrelenting climate. Liu has an amazing talent for describing immense scientific phenomena.
For some, it will be difficult to slug through the lengthy historical exposition and flashbacks that open the first chunk of the novel. But don’t get me wrong, this is not a flaw in the story.
The series tackles the topic of China’s Cultural Revolution with grace, avoiding repeating political rhetoric for or against the cultural revolution. Instead, the novel takes a very human approach, showing how people survived during one of the country’s most chaotic periods.
The novel was originally published in China in 2008 (translated to English in 2014) and has since developed a rapidly growing fanbase. Though there have been a couple of failed attempts to adapt the series for film and television in China, Netflix announced in September 2020 that they are producing an adaptation for the series (The Three Body Problem and its two sequels, The Dark Forest and Death’s End).
Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are set to write and produce the series, a move that would have been a sure financial bet a few years back, but considering fan blow-back on Game of Thrones Season 8, it is hard to say how genre fans will react to the series.
The Three Body Problem was the first Chinese novel to win the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novel and has drawn worldwide attention to Chinese Science Fiction. Readers have drawn comparisons between the Earth-Alien relations in the series and Chinese-US relations in real life, but author Liu Cixin has resisted all attempts to politicize the series saying, “The whole point is to escape the real world!”
When I first watched the 1996 film Contact, starring Jodie Foster, I was captivated by the realistic and nuanced depiction of first contact. The Three Body Problem tackles these existential topics with just as much dignity, and if you have any interest in good genre fiction, check it out before the show hits the web.