Book Review: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

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Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

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As someone who is only trying to get into sci-fi this year, I know my limitations well and I would never have picked up this critically acclaimed award winning book by my own volition. But one of my book clubs chose this as our May BOTM and I decided I should atleast give it a try. And after finishing it, I’m both blown away by it and also a bit sad, so let me try to articulate my thoughts.

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It has not been easy to maintain focus for long periods of time on a book during this pandemic. Part of why I have been gravitating towards more short fiction these days, but when I committed to this book, I wanted to see it through. For someone who almost always finishes any sized book in just a few days, this one took me almost 20 days to read. While one part of the issue was the external circumstances, the other was the subject matter of the book itself. I found the idea of first contact with extra terrestrials very fascinating and there were some chapters which completely held my interest, but I couldn’t sustain that for the whole book.

The translation of this book is excellent and it never had that choppy feeling that can sometimes occur in translations. And however it might have been in the original, the book never felt difficult to read (which was how I thought it would be for me). Even the story being told in two timelines felt very easy to follow. I especially found the chapters during the Cultural revolution very fascinating, because I’m not much aware of Chinese history and it felt like a very honest look at the struggles and lives of the people of the time, on both sides of the civil war. The book is also extremely science heavy, and while I could understand what was going on in the context of the story, I could not tell you a single thing about the physics that was discussed. There were paragraphs and chapters devoted to physics discussions, most of them going over my head.

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What really impressed me and what I feel is the soul of the book is the philosophical questions it asks. We have a group of humans who are fed up of humanity because we are destroying nature and environment without a care; we have another group which still cherishes humanity and wants to do anything to survive. And the author discusses both their POVs without clearly judging any of them, because they all have their valid points to make. And then there is the important question of what will happen if we do make contact with extra terrestrials – should we expect them to be a higher evolved intelligence than us and hope to learn from them?? Is it even possible to coexist with an advanced civilization? And why do we humans who can’t coexist with the people who live in other countries, who wage wars constantly and perpetuate mass killings of people, expect an outside civilization to be benevolent and grant us knowledge? These are some very interesting questions to ponder on and I know I’ll be thinking about them for a while.

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I was initially intimidated when I saw the cast of characters at the beginning, but I quickly understood who were the main influencers in the story and was able to follow along. However, being used to first person POVs, this third person narrative felt very distant and I couldn’t connect to anyone. Even when I could objectively understand that something bad was gonna happen, I wasn’t emotionally attached to any of them to care enough. Also, except one main protagonist, there are hardly any female characters around which I thought was a real miss; and among the ones who were present, I felt that none of them were shown in any good light.

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In the end, this is a book that definitely deserves all the prestige bestowed on it because of the concepts and philosophies it discusses, in a mostly accessible manner. It is more of an introspective book than an action packed alien invasion adventure novel, so you should keep that in mind before deciding to pick it up. If you are someone who is new to sci-fi like me, I would suggest reading more science fiction novels before venturing into this series. But if you are a science/physics nerd, then this would probably feel like home. I still haven’t decided if I want to continue with the series, but we shall see.

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

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  1. I want to read this one, but I’ve definitely been waiting to be in the right head space for it. Your description reminds me a lot about my experience reading Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. Really interesting concept (the world is going to be destroyed in two years by falling debris, how do we survive) but SO MUCH PHYSICS. My brain felt like mush by the end.

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    1. Haha .. I totally get what you mean. My brain was kinda mush with all the overworking it had to do to understand all the concepts lol 😂😂😂 but I also had never read something like this before, so it was a very unique experience.

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  2. Glad you enjoyed it! If you continue with it, just know that the second book can be difficult to get through. It’s really fantastic and has the most amazing ideas–plus more of the philosophical exploration–but it’s hard. There’s a huge chunk in the middle where you may wonder what the heck you’re even reading. But the payoff to me was worth it.

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    1. Ya.. I’ve been told the second is worth reading but the third isn’t. And this one itself took me a long time to read, so I’ll probably need to wait a while before I decide to pick up the second. But thanks so much for the insight 😊😊

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        1. Unfortunately it’s a trilogy… and I don’t even know if I’ll read the second. But I’ve heard it’s even better but the third is worse, and doesn’t even need to be read… so I can’t decide if I wanna continue 😬😬😬

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  3. Great review!
    I really want to read this one, but the main reason that I haven’t yet is because I’m afraid it is too ‘advanced’ sci-fi haha!

    (www.evelynreads.com)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Evelyn… and yes, I would have never read it if not for the book club. The physics is just way too complex for me 😬😬😬 but I did end up enjoying it and I can’t believe it myself 😂😂😂

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  4. My take was different, and only three stars: an overlong Exposition to the trilogy digging to deep. Especially the games with their motivation of people weren’t convincing at all.
    But I liked the insights into Chinese history and culture and the strong protagonist.

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    1. From what I’ve seen of your reviews, you are definitely a strict one but I’m very generous with my ratings. I think the exposition helped me understand atleast some part of the world, otherwise I would have been more confused than I already was. On the other hand, I didn’t feel much for the protagonist or any other characters.
      But I agree, the history and cultural representation was very insightful and I loved all the questions the book raises.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Okay maybe not strict, just have higher standards. 3 stars for me too signified “I liked it” but I guess what makes us like a book also is a spectrum and your 3 star and my 4 might mean the same. It’s all very subjective and it’s fascinating to see the different perspectives about the same book.

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          1. There really is lots of variety even in normed stars („I like it“ etc). It’s always good to learn each other just bit better.
            And I‘ve learned to tolerate other ratings. Without having to adapt my own rating to others. That might sound trivial, but I‘ve noticed that this is a huge issue for a lot bloggers.

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          2. It’s always a bit difficult to read low rated reviews for my favorite books but I’ve learnt to understand them too, unless I find the criticism to be not done in good faith or with bad understanding, in which case I just ignore it.
            But sometimes it’s also good to see critical points in book reviews which I may have otherwise missed during my reading and that’s a learning experience I cherish.

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