A Beautiful Cocktail of Physics, Quantum Mechanics, Mathematics, and History!
The Three-Body Problem is a breath of fresh air in the now stagnant landscape of science fiction. A large majority of modern sci-fi stories contain plotlines and twists that have become predictable or banal; this is because they merely repeat or recycle already established ideas. Written by Cixin Liu, the novel uses its premise, China, as the focal point to tell a story that is both unique and fascinating. From the perspective of a reader new to Asian writers and translated texts, I think this book perfectly combines philosophy, science, and conspiracy theories in equal proportions to create a euphoric heaviness that will weigh down on your mind and conscience for at least a few days; making you wonder what is, what could be, and what was.
The plot is set in China during the 1960s and initially follows a girl as she witnesses her father getting beaten to death amid a Cultural Revolution transpiring in the mainland. Then the story later takes a leap and follows a man named Wang Miao who discovers a string of suicides committed by Chinese intellectuals. On the request of the police, he gets involved in these cases to try to figure out why these great scientific minds are ending their own lives. Eventually, they assume that it has something to do with the Three-Body Problem, a game that was becoming widely popular amongst the public. Wang then takes it upon himself to go through the game and uncover the truth behind it. The rest of the story revolves around solving the mysteries surrounding this game.
This book is the first of a trilogy and takes inspiration from Sir Isaac Newton's gravitational problem of three bodies published in his book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Liu has taken this idea and exceptionally turned it into a compelling story that is equally fast-paced in its conversations as it is in its character development. He goes into excruciating detail with the world he creates and develops the plot meticulously; as he subtly drops clues throughout the story. There are some twists that anyone can see coming from a mile away but every once in a while, the author throws some curveballs that are so off-kilter that they are guaranteed to leave even the most experienced readers wondering how he was able to pull it off. Despite each book in the series being 300 pages or so, the sheer volume of information makes the experience seem like an eternity. Liu has brilliantly integrated concepts of orbital physics and used them to explain things like interstellar travel, alien life forms, and gravity while consistently reinforcing the sheer improbability of finding a solution for the Three-Body Problem.
While the theory was proposed by Newton, the three-body problem has bewildered scientists for over 300 years. As described in the novel itself, "The three-body system is a chaotic system, one in which tiny perturbations can be endlessly amplified. Its patterns of movement essentially cannot be mathematically predicted". With ample use of his literary license, the author uses this theorem as a plot device to create more opportunities for the narrative to branch out. Being the crux of the plot, the problem not only becomes the driving force of the overarching narrative but also the characters themselves. Science as a whole is the catalyst behind character development throughout the story, with accurate depictions of scientists thinking and acting like they should whenever made relevant.
That being said, there are graphic depictions of violence and gore, as expected during the time of the Cultural Revolution in China. Besides mentions of suicides, homicides, and genocide, there are several elements of this story that may make it a heavy read for some; hence caution is advised before picking it up. I personally felt that the author is not the best at describing the emotions, feelings, or thought processes of characters. The backstories of a lot of side characters are also left unexplained. Most of the character-writing is sacrificed for the sake of convenience to the plot with the author using vague metaphors to cover up any discrepancies.
Even though the book has some flaws, the beauty of how science is depicted in it far outweighs all its shortcomings. All in all, this book is well worth your time and I’d definitely recommend it. It blew my mind the first time I read it and I’m looking forward to continuing the series and seeing what happens next.