The Three-Body Trilogy by Liu Cixin
August 24, 2020
Note: This review covers only the three book trilogy by Liu Cixin, and not the fourth book, The Redemption of Time by Baoshu. Liu Cixin gave his blessing for the publication of The Redemption of Time but frankly, at this time, I haven't even read it yet so I can't comment on it or its contents.
If you somehow haven't yet heard of the series, I'll give a brief overview of the books before I dive into my own thoughts: Rememberance of Earth's Past or The Three-Body Problem is a science fiction trilogy that mixes both scientific and philosophical speculation. It portrays a universe in which Earth's first contact with an alien civilization divides the world's population into those who welcome the extra-terrestrials and those looking to fight off the invasion. It is considered hard science fiction and it focuses quite heavily on theoretical future technology and physics concepts. However, featured just as heavily (in my opinion) are the themes of moral ambiguity, sociology (including government and its politics), and the justification of violence.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire series and would heavily recommend it to everyone unless they despise science fiction with a passion.
At this point, if you think you're someone who would enjoy a book like this, I suggest you read it first before continuing. This page will always be here, but the experience of discovering the world is something that happens only once.
I must confess, going into it, I knew absolutely nothing about the series. I didn't even read the little blurb on the back of the book nor the one on Goodreads. Somehow the book won the Hugo Award, the Galaxy Award, was nominated for the Nebula Award and passed me without me ever hearing of it. Some fault of it is mine, seeing as I haven't been reading nearly as much as I would've liked in the past few years. I think that going into it blind ultimately helped draw me into the story though. I was able to try and problem-solve alongside the characters when they hit upon a mystery and continuously speculate in my head as I read. Finding out that the book was actually about aliens and space through reading it was much more compelling than if I had just read a blurb explaining the plot.
In an attempt to keep this relatively short, I'll address the trilogy in three parts: what I enjoyed from it, what (little) criticism I have of it, and its political undertones.
There was a lot that I enjoyed about this book. It hit a lot of the ideas that I'm interested in: technology, space, morality etc. I only recently learned the difference between hard and soft science fiction and its made me realize that I am quite the fan of hard science fiction. As a child, Jules Verne was my favourite author, and the wonder I felt when reading his works was the same as when I read The Three-Body Problem. For me, reading science fiction is less about the escapism that comes with reading fantasy. Instead, it gives me a sense of anticipation for the future. Even if the future is portrayed as bleak (as it is in this series), reading about the futuristic technology and the capabilities of the human race later on is exciting to say the least. The world-building is fantastic and believable.
Another aspect of the book I enjoyed a great deal was the moral ambiguity surrouding many of the choices the characters make throughout the story. There are countless examples I could give, both ones that make significant impacts to the story as a whole and those that have next to no impact at all, but serve to make the story that much more believable and engrossing. One such example is when Cheng Xin and AA are looking to escape Earth on their spaceship. They come upon a class of children but are unable to save all of them given that their ship can only hold 3 more people. Cheng Xin is torn, horrified at the idea of having to choose who lives and dies, but AA acts quickly, choosing 3 children based on whoever can answer 3 questions/riddles. AA is quick to defend herself, saying "I gave them a chance. Competition is necessary for survival." There is no clear superior moral choice here- it's just that, a choice.
My one criticism of the series is one that I've seen echoed a few times around the internet: the characters do often fall a little flat. Given that Liu was focusing so heavily on technical and scientific aspects (the books contain a lot of exposition), this is fairly understandable. Liu has apparently said himself that he writes "for a love of science"1 and not of literature. For a reader who is more used to identifying or sympathizing with a character however, it may be hard for them to enjoy the novels as much. Throughout my reading, I often found myself not truly caring about any of the main characters at any given point, whether they ended up dying or living, what their future prospects were like. In another vein, the trilogy always had much bigger cards at stake and it felt quite silly to care about what would happen to a character like Cheng Xin when all of human kind was at risk of being wiped out. So maybe it was all on purpose to show how little one person matters in the grand scheme of things.
The last thing I'll note is the parallel between modern day politics and the plot of the story. It's not hard to see how the relations between Trisolaris and Earth are historically parallel to those between much of the modern world and China. Traditionally, much of the science fiction in China has reflected this idea: China first matching a dominant Western world technologically and then eventually growing to become even more advanced. People believe that The Three-Body Problem is a continuation of this pattern though Liu himself does not like to support this thoery. Regardless, it remains widely discussed and many people consider it to be a given.
Aside from this correlation, there is also mention of real/modern politics within the book. The translated version of the story (this ordering was also intended by Liu Cixin for the original but was changed later) opens with a violent scene set during China's cultural revolution and there can be political implications found in the ideas expressed through the translation from Chinese to English2. Translating the work between these two languages is thus not just about the words themselves, but how they relate to the difference in cultures as well. This only becomes more complicated when taking audiences from different political backgrounds into account. Given how divided China and the Western world seem to be these days, I really view the success of the translation with that much more respect. Ken's work in translating is often a delicate task, but its one that I think he handles well.
Fan, Jiayang. “Liu Cixin's War of the Worlds.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 17 June 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/06/24/liu-cixins-war-of-the-worlds.↩
Alter, Alexandra. “How Chinese Sci-Fi Conquered America.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Dec. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/12/03/magazine/ken-liu-three-body-problem-chinese-science-fiction.html.↩