The problem with The Three Body Problem

This post is going to be about The Three Body Problem, a novel by Liu Cixin. If you haven’t read it and want to go into it free of spoilers, please don’t read any further.

The novel is incredibly celebrated; it won the Hugo award for best novel in 2015, and was nominated for a Nebula award in the previous year. It’s a great book, and it nearly beat me. I almost gave up on it, despite its many compelling qualities, and it isn’t anything you can fault the writer for. No, my grudge lies with a character in the prologue. Which, if anything, is a compliment.

The book opens with a flashback, set in the turbulence and tragedy of China during the Cultural Revolution. The causal catalysts driving the plot occur here. The character in question is Ye Wenjie. She tragically witnesses the murder of her father, a physicist, who is beaten to death in an overzealous demonstration of students in the Red Guard, in front of a crowd at his University. This, along with the general horror of the Cultural Revolution proves a harrowing and transformative experience for Ye Wenjie, and she loses any faith she might have had in humanity. This loss leads to one of the most monstrous literary betrayals I’ve ever experienced.

Ye Wenjie, through her academic accomplishments prior to the Revolution, eventually finds herself at Red Coast Base; a top-secret Chinese scientific installation created with the express purpose of searching for intelligent life in space. The facility staffing eventually comes to trust her, and she becomes a member of the team scanning the cosmos. This trust proves to be misplaced, because she does find a transmission. The signal originates from a race being torn apart by a three star solar system, named Trisolaris. This race, it turns out, is desperate to escape their system and is hungry to find other life and recolonise their world. This is where I begin to have a problem. She takes it upon herself to respond to the signal without permission or mandate. A pacifist from the Trisolaris race intercepts the signal in an attempt to save humanity from an invasion, by warning against further contact. Ye Wenjie disregards the warning and sends the signal again, subverting the will of that single pacifist, gaining the desperate gaze of a warlike invasive race, and singlehandedly dooms her entire civilisation and future unborn generations to war and annihilation because she no longer feels humanity can be trusted.

The enormity of this decision, and her preposterous presumption in her ability to make it floored me. Any attempt to present her in a sympathetic light, as a calm or intelligent influence following this choice was destroyed in this moment. I wanted to like her, when the story finds her later in the main plot as a mellowed, much older, retired professor, but I just couldn’t get past it; even when the later narrative attempted to suggest her subsequent actions as a force of good. The remaining plot is basically the main protagonist dealing with the fallout of this colossal betrayal.

The rest of the book is great. The story, and how it weaves between the real world and the virtual is interesting and compelling, but I really could not get past the actions that set the course of the story. It’s too horrifying, and all the more so because I could see it happening easily. The presumption to speak for, and settle the future of an entire civilisation is a terrifying prospect, especially when it is done in vengeance or anger. There are more books to the series, but so far I have only read the first. I don’t know where the plot will go, but really, I can’t conceive of my ever getting past that initial betrayal.

It is great science fiction, there is no denying that, and the impact of the plot is visceral, as you can probably tell from my reaction. It is worthy of the praise, and it is rare for me to be so stuck on the actions of a fictional character. The concept and execution of the story as a whole is a masterstroke, I read the rest of the novel in abject disbelief. That can only be a success on the part of Liu Cixin as a storyteller.

I might update this once I’ve read the subsequent novels. I really just needed a receptacle for my thoughts and a place to vent. Now that I’ve written all of this, I’ve definitely come to the conclusion that this book is great. Great, but it is incredibly horrifying.

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