The Three Body Problem

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The Three-Body Problem

Cixin Liu

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award in 2015, which is one of the world’s most prestigious awards for science fiction and fantasy. This was the first time that a Chinese writer had won the prize, which seems to show both the increased ability of readers to be able to access works from around the world and, also, the science fiction community’s willingness to embrace the best fiction wherever it comes from and reject the continuation of the right-leaning militaristic and mostly non-inclusive works preferred by the so-called Sad and Rabid Puppies movements. Having said which, it is also true that Liu has abided by many of the tropes widely employed in science fiction, including starting with the first book of a trilogy rather than providing a stand-alone novel.

At its heart, this is a first contact book, with much of the action centring on an exchange of messages with an unknown presence on the (relatively) nearby star of Alpha Centauri. That civilisation was fashioned under very difficult conditions, that of the eponymous three bodies, which are the suns around which the home plane revolves and the gravitational interactions between stars and world. It is well-known from a computational perspective that such a system must be unstable but here it is shown – through an immersive online simulation and game in which the protagonists participate –what kinds of societal impacts living in such a system might have and, therefore, what kind of people might evolve as aa result. It is rare, indeed, for those people to enjoy any extended Goldilocks period (i.e. neither too hot nor too cold) and most people can only survive by being totally dehydrated and stacked with others in the form of a flat, leathery shell. It is not really offering too much of a spoiler to observe that these conditions have had some negative impacts on social relations.

It is not difficult to see why this has become so successful a book because it contains many fascinating elements, from the first contact tension to the rise and fall of civilisations over extended periods of time. There is also, for the most part, some mystery about the relationship between the various elements that becomes clearer at the end of the book, when what are presumably the conditions for the action of the second book are established. The book itself is readable and enjoyable, although the prose (nicely translated by Ken Liu) is not very poetic but is serviceable enough, as also are the characters, who do the job required of them without ever really convincing that they are actual live human beings. However, that is of course traditionally the case with science fiction and can be ignored. I look forward with anticipation to reading the second and third volumes.

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