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Book Review

Armageddon in Slow Motion

The Three-Body Problem
by Cixin Liu

Contains: Language, Violence
Recommended age: 16+

Mankind will end in four hundred fifty years, and its opinions about that fact may be largely irrelevant. That is upshot of Cixin Liu’s Hugo-winning The Three-Body Problem, and its sequels, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End. Together, they make for a complicated, high-concept meditation on humanity, politics, speculative science, and the problem of evil. Whether that meditation yields good fruit is another question. While the events in this trilogy involve multiple protagonists, include numerous plot twists, and span hundreds of years, this review will focus primarily on the first novel, The Three-Body Problem.

The story opens in 1967 during the Maoist cultural revolution in China. In a harrowing scene, students driven mad with ideology publicly shame and murder a professor who, though guilty of no tangible crime, they’ve deemed insufficiently zealous. The fallout from this single injustice and its effects upon the after-career and decision-making of his daughter, Ye Wenjie, ultimately help decide the fate of the whole human race. The story then moves to present-day China, where a number of prominent scientists have begun taking their own lives, some leaving behind cryptic messages. Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher, finds himself drawn into a mysterious inner circle composed of scientific and military types from around the world who’ve joined forces against a common threat. The nature of this threat isn’t initially clear, but it seems to involve terrorist groups and irregularities in the laws of physics. Wang Miao begins to experience bizarre hallucinations, meets an older Ye Wenjie who harbors deep secrets, and encounters the computer game Three Body

Three Body’s virtual reality interface sets players in a series of odd scenarios spanning different historical periods. These scenarios feature a world that oscillates between relative calm and planetary cataclysm. The game has the flavor of an intelligence services’ recruiting tool, designed to identify top intellectual talent, and yet also seems directed at solving some real-world problem. I shall leave unmentioned the exact nature of this problem, but no real discussion of this and the subsequent novels’ strengths and weaknesses would be possible without some light spoilers. Read on at your own risk.

As historical threads and characters come together, we come to understand that the Earth is mere centuries away from a full-scale alien invasion. On the human side of the struggle, there are two general camps: those who wish to save mankind from the alien Trisolaran fleet, and those who actually welcome the Trisolarans’ arrival. In a pattern that will come to typify the author’s sociological approach, the latter group is further subdivided into warring factions with contrary philosophies. Making things far more complicated for Earth’s would-be protectors, the Trisolaran invaders have deployed a strategy for disrupting the measurements of physical properties at a quantum level, with the expected outcome of rendering Earth incapable of developing the technology it would need to prepare a defense before their arrival. As Wang and his colleagues do battle against the alien-friendly ETO (Earth-Trisolaris Organization), hoping to gain some edge against the coming invaders, we learn more about the profoundly personal causes of this worldwide crisis.

The Dark Forest picks up shortly after the events of the first novel, and relates mankind’s first major initiative against the Trisolarans. But how do you thwart an enemy who watches your every move? This problem gives rise to the Wallfacer Plan, a program that gives four hand-picked intellectuals the means to execute defensive plans, the details of which may never be communicated. Among these four, our new protagonist Luo Ji seems particularly ill-chosen, and yet he is the only wallfacer whom the Trisolarans fear. His solution, though brilliant and satisfactory in terms of the story, seemed to this reviewer to place the Good in a state of irreconcilable tension with the Necessary; a contradiction that cannot ultimately be sustained—at least if one regards morality as part of the objective order of things. Rather than resolve this tension, the author doubles down in book three. The cynicism this entails bears its full fruit in the finale of Death’s End, wherein, after a promising first half, the reader is treated to the typical materialist-existentialist twaddle about reconciling subjective meaning with objective meaninglessness. Suffice to say, I do not think the author succeeded in squaring this circle.

Before proceeding to analyze what does and doesn’t work in these novels, let me emphasize that the books are not of equal quality. For example, there are portions of The Three-Body Problem with rich characterization, beautiful prose, and excellent suspense, but sections of the last book read like long encyclopedia entries. I would rate the sequels 3.5 and 2.5 stars, respectively. The Dark Forest, though a slow read with far too much exposition in the form of long info-dump conversations, contains several well-executed twists and an ending that is worth a reader’s time-investment. While Death’s End has its bright moments, including a gut-wrenching twist and some fascinating cosmic encounters and technological explorations, its protagonist is so incredibly incompetent and uninteresting as to make the reader himself long for alien armageddon! Perhaps that was the author’s hidden point, though it seems doubtful. Regardless, the conclusion of Death’s End felt plodding, contradictory, and ultimately pointless. Nothing could induce me to read it a second time.

  Any good piece of fiction should explore the depths of its characters’ humanity, and force them to grapple with the consequences of their choices. While The Three-Body Problem has several viewpoint characters, Ye Wenjie, daughter of the slain professor, is certainly the most compelling. Her father’s murder—almost a symbolic crucifixion—and the problem of mindless social evil that it confronts her with, shapes Ye’s entire career, and contributes to a series of decisions that are understandable, even as they are inexcusable. The author does a fantastic job drawing out the relationship between individual choices and the social—sometimes cosmic—states of affairs. Many of the supporting characters are also well-developed, particularly in the first two novels. Cixin Liu does a good job balancing greater and lesser characters, and threading subplots back into the main plot. Sometimes he’s a masterful plotter. There are moments in the trilogy when the choice of a single moment, or the presence or absence of some virtue, alter the world definitively for better or worse. Liu is at his best when he connects small humans to cosmic outcomes, but he’s not consistent here. 

In the course of the three novels, particularly the third, there are too many moments that pit the Good against the Real, as if the former were an unworkable, romantic ideal. “The Dark Forest Rule,” Zhang Beihai’s assassinations, Yun Tianming’s medical suicide, Thomas Wade’s consequentialist initiatives, and many other plot details begin to suggest that what actually works is rarely what human morality suggests. This tendency of the author’s to treat moral or spiritual considerations as counterintuitively at odds with political realism begins to erode the very moral fabric that initially gave weight to the greater conflict. The answer to mindless evil cannot be more of the same. Feeling this tension, and perhaps not wishing to confront or resolve it, Cixin Liu splits the difference in the character of Cheng Xin, the protagonist of Death’s End. Cheng lacks either the tortured defeatism of Ye Wenjie, or the self-serving pragmatism of Luo Ji. Instead, she is a bobble-headed romantic, superficially embodying humanity’s “nice qualities,” and for that very reason, utterly useless against any real threat. Does the author want us to despise Cheng’s ineffectual naivete or admire her romantic optimism? Apparently the latter, because he pulls another, more interesting character out the mothballs near the end of book three to vindicate her choices. But I digress.

What makes the original novel worth reading is the creative way that the author, himself a Chinese national, frames the related problems of evil and meaninglessness, and their impact on the individual person. By having the main characters contend with various kinds of depersonalized evil in the forms of destructive ideology, attacks on the laws of physics, and an enemy whose face is never directly seen, Cixin Liu reproduces the classic three-body physics problem in narrative form. In this case, the three entities are the personal, societal, and cosmic layers of human experience. This structure is carried through all three novels, but plays especially well in the first. The trouble I have with the story is that it raises problems that it cannot solve, and so ultimately fails to deliver on the promises it makes to the reader. The solution to the three-body problem—physical, metaphysical, and narrational, I mean—is continually kicked down the road, and ends in a narrative whimper; the standard gobbledygook about my meaning and my truth, against a backdrop of objective destruction. How can morality, let alone narrative, have any meaning or structure in such a universe? The author seems to insist that it doesn’t, and that it does.

Yet because of its limitations and contradictions, The Three-Body Problem is good reading for the right audience. Books like this can have the unintended effect of inoculating their audiences against inadequacies in the author’s worldview. After all, it is one thing to argue in the abstract against materialism, atheism, relativism, and so forth, but it’s another to see their failure in narrative form. Anyone with the requisite skill can write an entertaining yarn; the literary equivalent of candy or potato chips. But anyone who sets out, as Cixin Liu did, to write a meaningful book, must bring the story to a meaning-ful resolution. Liu certainly wanted to write such a story, and, through its characters and their choices, he frames questions of sufficient weight to produce one. Sadly, his cosmic Darwinism does not permit any satisfying answer, and for the same reasons, it cannot yield a satisfactory conclusion to the narrative. In light of the above, and in recognition of the quality of much of the writing and the originality of its concept, I recommend The Three-Body Problem for well-formed and discerning science fiction readers. 

Please note: the above review makes no recommendation about the recent Netflix adaptation of the first book, which the reviewer has not seen.

About the Reviewer

Joe Breslin

Fifth Grade Homeroom

The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.

-Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Joe Breslin teaches writing, and other homeroom subjects at the Heights School. In 2022, he published Other Minds: 13 Tales of Wonder and Sorrow. His next collection of speculative fiction, Hearts Uncanny, will be released late summer of 2024. Samples of his fiction and his essays can be found at

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