Chinese author Cixin Liu brings us a first-contact story in The Three-Body Problem (TTBP) that is familiar, yet promises a fresh spin on the protagonists’ choices and the outcome. I debated whether or not to call this a review because I’m not going to talk about the writing itself, which I felt was somewhat uneven. BUT, if you’re interested in one humble writer’s impressions of some of the novel’s big ideas, read on. SPOILER ALERT: I will describe big pieces of the story here. You’ve been warned.
First, let’s sketch out the basic story. Set in China’s recent past and moving into the near future, three primary characters with very different personal motivations are faced with preparing for first contact with aliens that are on their way to earth. At times, trying to follow the novel’s physics made my eyes glaze over, but the effort was totally worth it. As a nonscientist, I feel one can best appreciate this novel when one understands the roles of the main characters, so here’s a summary.
The story begins with young astrophysicist Ye Wenjie witnessing the death of her father at the hands of red guards during the Cultural Revolution. She is emotionally broken and is accepts her confinement to a remote radio astronomy station. Used for her research and scientific talents, Ye gradually figures out that the station’s actual purpose is to hunt for signs of alien life in the universe and her research has direct bearing on this activity. Isolated and depressed, her only interest is whether or not her theory of using the sun as an amplifier for transmitting radio messages into the universe will work. After trying her experiment and not receiving any confirmation of its success, she mechanically moves through life until one night when she sees a new pattern in the monitored radio waves. She deciphers a message from space. That message is followed by a warning not to answer the first message. Ye disregards the warning and answers. Continue reading