The Three Body Problem


Cixin Liu


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

May 18, 2016

he Three Body Problem is probably the worst Hugo Award winning novel I have read. It is just awful. To call the characters cardboard cutouts would be an insult to cardboard. The complete lack of depth or characterization of the figures in this novel (I am not if there is anyone who can be called a protagonist) suggests that a better title would have been The Three Dimensional Problem. The plot (such as it is) is lame, and the science is terrible. The novel has no redeeming qualities. I had vaguely heard that there was a controversy at the Hugo Awards in the past year, and now I understand what the uproar must have been about. There must have been better novels than Three Body Problem published in 2015.

For the sake of story, I am willing to overlook some logical inconsistencies in a story, accept lucky coincidences, or overlook the bending of scientific rules. After all, I read novels because I want to enjoy a good story. But if there are too many bad ideas, eventually the willing suspension of disbelief collapses, and at that point the novel is ruined for me. Three Body Problem overwhelmed my willing suspension of disbelief. The characters (including the TriSolarians) did not act in ways that were plausible, and I found that reading further grew more and more difficult. I nearly quit altogether, but did manage to limp to the non-ending where the book simply ends, the story is continued in the next book of the trilogy.

The next paragraphs describe a few of the considerable plot holes in the Three Body Problem. **Massive spoilers** are here. Do not read further if you wish to read the book.

The TriSolarian listener at post 1379 hears the Earth broadcast, decodes it, and transmits back a warning message: "Do not answer! Do not answer!" But why does the listener at post 1379 have access to a transmitter powerful enough to broadcast back to earth? Why would Trisolarians have even built a transmitter? Their original intent is not to contact other aliens.

The listener at post 1379 says: "We (the TriSolarians) have no literature, no art, no pursuit of beauty and enjoyment. We can not even speak of love..." This is a ridiculous statement. If the TriSolarians have no concept of art, beauty or love, they would not have words to describe such things. They would have no understanding of such concepts, nor would they lament that they did not possess them. Imagine a human saying: "We humans do not measure up to dolphin civilization, because we have no concept of sonar symphonies, flipper dances or deep water acoustic poetry". Ridiculous.

Why do the TriSolarians even want to invade earth? The flora and fauna would not be compatible with the TriSolarian environment, and the native microbes might be deadly. (Think War of the Worlds). Settling a sterile world like Mars, and customizing it to their liking would make a lot more sense.

The humans discover the TriSolarian schemes because they capture the files on the ship the Judgement Day. But why would the TriSolarians be so incredibly foolish as to transmit their plans to any earthling, even if the earthling claimed to be a TriSolarian ally?

Why did only the antenna on the Judgement Day ship receive the messages from the TriSolarians? There should have been lots of earth based antennas capable of capturing the messages. Each message sent by the TriSolarians must be repeated in case the Sun is between Earth and Alpha Centauri when the message is received, or in case the Judgement Day antenna is on the wrong side of the earth when the message arrives at Earth orbit.

I was puzzled how Mike Evans made contact with the TriSolarians. After building the Judgement Day ship / second Red Coast base, it should take eight years to send and receive any message from Alpha Centauri, even if they replied immediately. But the books says: "Three more years passed. Evans seemed to have disappeared...One winter, Ye received an invitation..." Ye's invitation is to visit Mike Evan's second Red Coast base. But how could Evan have made contact in less than eight years? Maybe this is a translation error.

The TriSolarian invasion fleet departs without knowing its destination - it just heads out in the direction that the original message came from. This makes no sense at all - the stars are not fixed in location with respect to each other. Instead, each solar system orbits around the center of the galaxy at its own pace on its own trajectory. The stars that were aligned when the original message was received will be no where near each other in 450 years. For space travel to be successful, you must target a single particular destination, and then aim your ships for the point where the destination will be when you arrive. Otherwise, your starships will just traverse the vast emptiness between solar systems.

The TriSolarian fleet will take 450 years to reach the closest star, our sun. But because "... the fleet must pass through two interstellar dust belts. It's very likely that only half of the ships will reach the Earth's solar system, while the rest will perish along the way." If traveling 4 light years to the nearest star results in the likely destruction of half the TriSolarian fleet, then I presume traveling another 4 light would result in another 50% destruction of the remaining ships; at that rate of failure, a journey of just 28 light years would result in less than 1% of the fleet surviving. How many solar systems were in the direct line of the original vector that the TriSolarian fleet started upon?

Rather than building an invasion fleet which is certain to suffer devastating losses en route to invade a planet teeming with life forms that the TriSolarians will not be able to live with, why not instead construct new habitats in stable orbits around their home star system? If they can build a fleet, then the TriSolarians can certainly hollow out some asteroids and build big rotating structures with an environment that is ideal for their form of life.

At one point the TriSolarian consul warns that Earthlings will be a formidable opponent: "To get from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age took a few thousand Earth years. But to go from the Industrial Age to the Atomic Age took only 200 Earth years. Thereafter, in only a few Earth decades, they entered the Information Age. This civilization possesses the terrifying ability to accelerate their progress." And yet just a few chapters later, the TriSolarians are taunting the humans, sending them the pointless message "You are all bugs."

Why do the TriSolarians mock the humans? Because the TriSolarian (Alpha Centauri) civilization has an awesome weapon called a sophon. A sophon is a single proton that has been unfolded from nine of its eleven dimensions, revealing astonishing complexity. The unfolded proton apparently can then be programmed to be a super intelligent machine. The nine dimensions are then folded back up into a single proton and fired at the Earth via a particle accelerator. Somehow, these incredible sophons have the ability listen to all human conversation (they speak Chinese), read Chinese, and print messages on human retinas (which will scare the human scientists so that they stop working on basic science.) The sophons led to an enormous number of questions for me: How does the sophon/proton slow down from light speed once it reaches the earth? How does a single proton sense its environment so that it can find the molecules of the particle accelerators it is meant to disrupt? How does a proton, from the atomic level, identify which humans are the crucial scientists who must be frightened by flashing a countdown on their retinas? How does a proton propel itself all around the earth to listen to human plans? Why not instruct the sophons to blind all of humanity? Blinding everyone collapse our civilization and would certainly disrupt the humans ability to do advanced science.

There are other plot points which I found bewildering or illogical. The original TriSolarian planet is ripped in half, it is split into a moon and a new smaller planet, all life on the original planet is extinguished in this cataclysm. Yet just 9 million years later life has restarted and evolved again - and the new TriSolarians apparently have evolved into their same form, and rebuilt their civilization, and apparently retained the memory of all of their civilizations that preceded this one? How is this possible?

I am puzzled how a book with such a ridiculous plot could have won the Hugo Award. I will not read the next two installments. I predict that humanity beats the TriSolarians by learning how to unfold all eleven dimensions of a proton (instead of just nine, which is all the TriSolarians are capable of achieving.) and then using the 11 dimensional protons, humans defeat the puny TriSolarians. How silly and disappointing.