The Three-Body Problem is science fiction based in China and written by Chinese author Liu Cixin.  Despite being set in a completely different culture, the science focus offers plenty of commonalities. Plus, of course, the fascination with life on other planets. That in itself is a universal (get what I did there?) theme.

As the book starts, the time is the Chinese Cultural Revolution. People are imprisoned for what they know. Not always State secrets, mind you, but intellectual and scientific knowledge too. We meet a young woman whose professor father is brutally murdered before her eyes. She then becomes a suspect and is shipped off to the work camps. Amazingly, her technical knowledge actually gives her a leg up at the camp.

Then Liu moves us to another character in more current or near future China. He’s a nanotechnologist who starts seeing a series of numbers in his photos. He feels an inexplicable sense of doom and reaches out to a fellow scientist for answers. In the process, he somehow ends up playing a video game she’s entranced with. And that video game becomes central to the book’s plot. 

Liu continually moves the story back and forth, introducing a series of characters, but primarily focusing on the first two. The mystery is both inside the video game, in the past, and in the world of present time. And it takes a long time to connect the dots to these events and the possibility of alien life. But the connection is there if you hang tight through some confusion.

My conclusions

Liu is a talented storyteller. He knows how to weave characters and action sequences together with philosophy and science. I listened to this on audio at a time when I wasn’t driving much. So, every day I tried hard to find things to do while listening. I just wanted all the threads to tie together.

That said, this is an intricate and somewhat slow-moving book. I wanted to know what was next. But not because the action or the twists (although there are some) were mind-blowing. But because the whole premise and story intrigued me. As a person in a Western country, my science fiction stories typically center on my own country making first interstellar contact. It was fascinating to see the process from another cultural and political standpoint.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and it shows. The end was more of a middle than a conclusion, which I expected. And I do want to read the second and third books. Stay tuned for more.

I recommend this to hard core science fiction readers, and those open to a complex story with a unique viewpoint.

Pair with Ready Player One for the video game connections or Murder in Dragon City for another unique perspective on China.