What we’re reading: The Three Body Problem

Liu Cixin’s 2015 Hugo Award Winning Novel The Three-Body Problem, translated from Chinese into English by Ken Liu, is a book that’s so big on ideas and themes you can easily forgive the occasional uninspired dialogue and exposition dumping.

Exiled to a remote radio base during the Cultural Revolution, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie makes contact with an alien civilisation, the Trisolarians, who almost immediately dispatch a fleet on the 400-plus year voyage to Earth.

The best part of the book is the well-thought out science. Consider how much of our science is based on observation of the Sun and the Moon and their effects on the Earth, then imagine how different and more complicated it would be if our solar system had three suns.

Add to this mix the fact that the suns have irregular orbits and as a result destroyed all other planets in the system, and you get a sense of the Trisolarians’ urgency to get off their home world.

I saw Liu speak at Sydney University on 3 November. He was appearing as part of the Sydney Talks program, organised by Sydney University’s Confucius Institute.

The main thesis of his talk, which you can see all over The Three-Body Problem, is the idea that great ‘civilisations’ are usually accompanied by technological leaps that seem inconceivable to the people who lived in the previous era.

MASSIVE crowd at Sydney Uni for Chinese #scifi author Liu Cixin. Biggest question line I’ve ever seen. Basically a rockstar. Questions about environmentalism, censorship and how can young Chinese writers reach broader audiences.

A photo posted by Mark Riboldi (@markriboldi) on

The most obvious example he mentioned is the leap forward in information technology that has accompanied the military and cultural dominance of the United States. Liu argued that China needs to oversee a technological advance, and then marketisation, of global significance to ensure their society continues to advance.

When pressed, he suggested manufacturing and energy production in space. (Space elevators – woohoo!) The auditorium at Sydney Uni was packed to the rafters, around 500 people, most of whom looked to be Chinese university students.

Thankfully there was a translator so the dozen or so non-Chinese speakers could follow most of what went on. Liu got a thunderous applause when he entered the room – like he was a rock star walking on stage.

When question time began people clambered over each other to get to the microphone. The end of the session sparked a mad rush of students to the stage for autographs and selfies with their idol.

It was quite amazing and heartening to see a science fiction writer treated like this by young people. Even more so were the depth of the questions the audience asked – absent were the ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ that so often trigger a yawn-fest at Australian writers’ events – the young Chinese-speaking fans asked questions about censorship, democracy vs authoritarianism, how young Chinese writers can find new audiences, environmentalism vs economic progress and more.

His answers were diplomatic. Liu is obviously conscious of being under the watchful gaze of Beijing, and encouraged readers to make their own interpretations of what he is writing about.

When asked what system of government was better, he said that more liberal societies tend to see more scientific innovation, whereas more centrally controlled ones are able to direct and exploit resources more effectively.  

The Three-Body Problem is the first of a trilogy, with the third book yet to be translated into English. With a series of films in the pipeline (which Liu advised people to not get their hopes too high about) this is definitely a series of books to read immediately. You’ll definitely have plenty of conversation material.

Want to read more? Check out Thomas’ review of ‘The Three Body Problem’ from April and the sequel, The Dark Forest.