review: the three-body problem

29 April 2021

book info:

on sale: now

copy from: a friend's personal copy

pages: 399

review written: 29.4.21

originally published: 2006

edition read: Tor Books, China Classics International

title: The Three-Body Problem

author: Cixin Liu, translator: Ken Liu


The Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience the Hugo Award-winning phenomenon from China's most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

(I eliminated the rest of the summary because I read this book not knowing anything about it. I feel like this will make you experience the same confusion I felt, and the same immense amazement I experienced when I realized what was happening.)

- from goodreads

my review:

My friend, who has been learning Chinese for the past year, lent me a copy of this to read with high praise. I am a casual fan of science fiction as I enjoy Star Trek, Ray Bradbury, and Interstellar, so I was thrilled to be able to read more science fiction from a Chinese author, since the majority of my experience has been from Western writers. My friend studied computer science and engineering at the college we went to, and I studied medical sciences and international affairs. I think he must've enjoyed the scientific elements of the book while I may have enjoyed the political dynamics. I studied fundamental physics, calculus, and basic computer science as well, so they served as a good foundation to really enjoying the book. My friend, in his studying of Chinese, has definitely picked up on a lot of cultural aspects which likely enriched his experience. Overall, I feel like there's something for everyone to enjoy.

My first thought upon completing the book minutes ago is this: thank goodness it's science fiction. Now, to the review. It's obvious to me that this book was written by someone from China or Russia. There's quite of bit of communist/socialist propaganda as the book begins during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Naturally, the main characters are all academics and experts in their field, which later turns out to be very intentional. This elevates the prose as there's large chunks of text dedicated to explanation of theories and physics, which are all important for the reader to grasp the "fiction" element of the story. If you're a curious reader,  you'll find these chunks to be very interesting. I typically skim through a lot of fiction stories, jumping over small details for larger plot points. I found myself reading every single word of this book until I kept itching in curiosity at the end and skimmed around the last few pages. Some might find the dense exposition to be tedious to get through and may want to enjoy more fast-paced science fiction. 

An example of what I mean, from page 194: "Have you heard of the Monte Carlo method? Ah, it's a computer algorithm often used for calculating the area of irregular shapes. Specifically, the software puts the figure of interest in a figure of known area, such as a circle, and randomly strikes it with many tiny balls, never targeting the same spot twice. After a large number of balls, the proportion of balls that fall within the irregular shape compared to the total number of balls used to hit the circle will yield the area of the shape. Of course, the smaller the balls used, the more accurate the result. Although the method is simple, it shows how, mathematically, random brute force can overcome precise logic. It's a numerical approach that uses quantity to derive quality." 

What draws us all together is science, which is why I believe this book has had a global appeal from President Barack Obama to George R.R. Martin. Not only does the book encompass Chinese history and science, but it also covers broad scientific history, human development (from early civilization to modern society) in the context of science fiction themes such as intelligent alien life, and psychological themes of anxiety, depression, and more. While I've categorized the book as science fiction, it can be read through an anthropological lens and a psychological lens, which made the book so much more enjoyable for me. To note, these are all fields I have some rudimentary knowledge about, I'm not an expert. 

One part of the book that really made me know this was definitely a Chinese author writing was the small jabs at Westerners. At some point, a Chinese Emperor asks why a Western scientist did not ask the Romans for help, to which the Westerner describes how Rome's river is polluted by vomit from the indulgence of Roman elites, stating "The entire empire has sunk into a quagmire of extravagance." Later, a Chinese national finds a solution to a problem that the Americans could not, and makes a joke about American losses in Vietnam. It is important to note that the author did not glorify the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, so there is not such heavy bias that a non-Chinese reader might not enjoy the book. Knowing that China's ruling party, the CCP, censors creative works to hide criticism of the CCP (from TV shows, movies, to even text messages sent between citizens - for example: any mention of Tiananmen Square is banned. If someone types it out to send in a Chinese social network, the network immediately removes it before it is posted and it could get the user in trouble). I'm sure the author wrote within the constraints of the government under which he lives.

All in all, I found the book to be gripping and deeply interesting, more so like a textbook of sorts rather than a work of literary prose. It was incredibly imaginative. A good part of the story walks our main character through a unique virtual reality videogame, which I found fun to be especially enjoyable. I recommend this to older audiences at the college/university level and above! 

My ratings are from one umbrella to six. Six means above expectations/the best book ever. Five is equivalent to 5/5 ratings.

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