When you first crack open The Three-Body Problem, there’s a list of characters at the front of the book, implying that it will be a difficult read and you’re going to need to refer back to the list in order to keep track of everybody. However, once I dived in, I discovered that the list of characters wasn’t necessary. We mainly shift between two point-of-view characters, so it isn’t difficult to keep track of who’s who. Also, some of the characters listed barely appear in the book at all, so I don’t know why the list is there at all.
The Three-Body Problem begins in 1967 during China’s Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie watches her father die during the civil unrest in which academics were frequently murdered or committed suicide. Worse, her mother goes crazy and her zealot sister was the one who reported on her father in the first place. Ye Wenjie is understandably pessimistic about human nature and thinks it’s impossible for humans to improve by themselves.
In part 2, we jump to the present day. Wang Miao is a nanotechnology researcher who learns physicists have been committing suicide and scientific institutions have been attacked. The laws of physics themselves seem to no longer apply.
We’re told a biologist he knows proved GMOs cause birth defects and ecological disaster. This is only mentioned as an aside, but I can’t help pointing out that this is utter nonsense. GMOs have been around for decades and hundreds of peer-reviewed studies show that GMOs are safe. You could even say they’re safer than non-GMOs since they’ve been tested more extensively. GMOs are also also better for the environment than organic food which requires tons of manure from methane-producing cows.
Don’t forget that organic farming uses chemicals and radiation to mutate crops, so it’s genetically modified too, it’s just done in a more random way. It doesn’t make any sense to claim random genetic modification is safer than controlled genetic modification. This was only mentioned as an aside, but it’s irksome to find a statement like this in a hard science fiction book which is supposed to be scientifically plausible.
Back in the story, Wang begins playing an immersive video game called Three Body in which the length of the day and the size of the sun is unpredictable. He eventually solves the mystery of why this is, although you’d think he’d figure it out sooner since the name of the game gives it away.
He starts to see a countdown that no one else can see and there’s less than 50 days left. What will happen when it gets down to zero? I liked this bit as it had a horror feel to it. He has no idea what’s causing the countdown. Since he plays a virtual-reality video game, it would be natural for him to think the countdown is the result of him still being in a video game, but he never considers this possibility.
There’s an aside I liked in which he says pseudo-scientists are more afraid of stage magicians than scientists, because scientists are easier to fool. Those familiar with the skeptical movement have heard some variation of this statement before and in fact many figures in the skeptical movement are stage magicians. Just because someone is a scientist, it doesn’t automatically make them a skeptic. There are lots of ways intelligent people can be fooled and them thinking they can’t be fooled only makes them easier marks.
Our two story lines eventually come together when Wang Miao meets Ye Wenjie and learns that she worked on a secret government project trying to contact aliens. He claims that if extraterrestrial intelligence were confirmed, it would cause people to be more divisive. I don’t know why this would be true. Sure, people would disagree about whether to reveal our presence to the aliens, but people will always find something to disagree about. There’s no reason one point of disagreement would be any more divisive than any other.
The Three-Body Problem is a novel of ideas, so there isn’t as much focus on characters. The detective Da Shi had a fun personality, but the rest of the characters were fairly flat, being more a conduit of ideas than actual people. Wang even seems to forget he has a wife and child much of the time. Most of the conversations in the book are infodumps, but they’re interesting infodumps and there are a lot of cool ideas in here.