The Three-Body Problem

The Three Body Problem

Title: The Three-Body Problem (original title: 三体)
Author: Liu Cixin (English translation: Ken Liu)
Publication date: 2008 (English translation: 2014)
Country/culture: China


For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)


The Three-Body ProblemWhat’s it about?

During the Cultural Revolution a young woman, Ye Wenjie, witnesses the death of her father at the hands of the Red Guards. She later finds herself involved with a top secret physics research project, and makes a decision that will have significant repercussions. Decades later, a nanotech engineer becomes involved with a bizarre science cult, centred around an immersive online game; and we find out more about what Ye has started and the threat the human race is now facing.

What did I find out?

As I started this book, I’d just begun to think about applying for a postgraduate course. After years of messing around with different creative projects – some of which have seen progress, some of which have stalled – I found myself keen to settle down with one project in particular, devoting my spare hours to it. The question was: would I sustain this focus or would I soon get distracted?

What I discovered as I read The Three-Body Problem was that the idea of adopting a specialism was hugely appealing to me. Most of the main characters in the book are scientists, astrophysicists in particular, and their knowledge, gained from many years of dedication to what outsiders would deem impossibly fiddly detail, is hard won and much treasured. I found myself craving such knowledge (albeit not in physics) and overwhelmed with a desire to nurture its pursuit.

Perhaps the novel came along at just the right time in my life, as I was inclining towards a certain course of action, or maybe it caused an idea to take root that might not have developed otherwise. Whatever the cause and effect, it has helped me form a plan to strive for excellence in a given field: I will apply for that course.

What do I now see differently?

Again I find myself drawn to consider the differences between plot-driven/genre novels and literary fiction. This book is set squarely in the genre of sci-fi, and has a rollicking storyline – yet it seems to address the kind of deep questions that would usually be found in more literary works. The meaning of life; how we as humans relate to each other; our responsibilities to society and to the planet – all these issues are fundamental to Liu’s work.

It’s no surprise to discover that this book won the 2015 Hugo Award for best novel. It successfully interweaves a gripping yarn with high-level scientific concepts, inter-generational intrigue and philosophical reflection. Set in China, it nevertheless has a global reach: the characters and their actions are undeniably of their time and place, but are never parochial. It is truly an epic tale.

Perhaps it’s pointless to continue drawing distinctions between literary and genre novels. While there are undoubtedly books that lie at the extreme ends of the spectrum, the ones that I love the most are those that successfully blend elements of the two. The Three-Body Problem is a fantastic example of this – and as such I had no hesitation in giving it five stars on Goodreads: something I don’t do very often.

How will this inspire my writing?

This had a very definite effect on me, and this time it’s nothing to do with my supernatural novel: I’ve actually been inspired to write a book of an entirely different nature. This is one of those projects that is likely to be a lifetime task – a labour of love – that won’t be started (let alone completed) any time soon, maybe never. But it’s something I’ve thought about before, and The Three-Body Problem has now fixed it in my head.

The plan is to write a biography of my grandfather. He had a successful career as an educationalist, being Director of Education in Leicester for many years, but before that, his specialist subject was physics. As a family we don’t seem to have much knowledge of this era of his life, and (as is often the case) we didn’t ask the older generation for details while they were still around to tell us; but I’m not sure this need be a huge impediment. I’m an ex-librarian and have some background in research, and if I’m determined enough I’m sure I’ll find a way.

As I said, this won’t happen any time soon. But it’s been circling my radar for some time, and Liu’s novel may just have been the trigger to get it in my sights once and for all.

A musical interlude

The ‘vibe’ of this song doesn’t suit the bulk of the novel at all; however, as I drew close to the end, it sprang into my head. A great many questions are asked about how we treat each other on Earth, and where we fit into the cosmos generally; this track, therefore, seemed to fit these larger questions perfectly.

I know the most famous version of this song is by Bette Midler, but as a long-time Nanci Griffith fan I’m offering up her version to you today.