3 Problems with The Three Body Problem

The Three Body Problem

The Three Body Problem is a science-fiction novel written by Liu Cixin. Originally serialised in Science Fiction World in 2006, the novel was subsequently published as a stand-alone Chinese-language version in 2008, with the English-language version (translated by Ken Liu) published by Tor Books in 2014.

However, it is a deeply flawed novel, beset with fundamental (even basic) faults. And yet it continues to be nominated (and even win) awards. It won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best novel, and was nominated for both the 2015 Nebula and Locus Awards.

My question is: WHY? It boggles my mind.

Anyway, here are the three biggest problems with The Three Body Problem.

Spoilers ahead!


In the broadest terms, The Three Body Problem is a story about a young Chinese astrophysicist, Ye Wenjie, who suffers a series of personal tragedies: she witnesses her mother condemn her father to death during the Cultural Revolution; is branded a traitor, and sentenced to work in a labour brigade; forced to join the army and work as a menial technician, on a super-secret spy base. Years later, these miseries become the impetus for her to sell humanity out to aliens, inviting them to save us from ourselves.

That might have been a very compelling plot. It would certainly raise some fundamental questions about retribution and the lengths some are willing to go to achieve it. It could have been a wonderful character study about someone so desperate for vengeance that they are willing to doom all of humanity in the process. Or the futility of revenge, especially upon the dead or those whom themselves were victims of the process. The Three Body Problem might have been any of these things, but it isn’t.

Instead Liu has fallen into old Hollywood tropes. The actual plot is a tired old detective story: scientists across China (and the rest of the world) are committing suicide, and Wang Miao, a nanotech professor (of all things), must find out why.

It’s a hot mess. But it gets worse.

Even that story might have had legs if handled well, but jammed together with Ye’s plot, told as a series of flashbacks, it’s a hot mess. But it gets worse.

Liu has insisted that we empathise with the aliens that Ye summoned to wipe us out. He attempts this initially through a virtual reality game that Wang must constantly play in order to find out why the scientists keep killing themselves.

The game , called Three Body, shows life from the alien point of view, as they battle with the stable and chaotic periods caused by their planet orbiting between three stars (the three bodies in the Three Body Problem).

Wang must solve a series of dilemmas in order to predict the periods allowing the game characters (aliens) to survive. A good deal of the novel is spent within the game world. And by a good deal, I mean far too much.

And yet, it could have been a harrowing experience, as we see whole populations being burnt or frozen to death. It could have been used to create real empathy for the aliens, and understanding why they want to invade Earth and wipe humanity from existence.

Instead, it’s told in such a detached way, almost to the point of indifference. And Wang barely even blinks as all the people in the game keep dying (or are forced to dehydrate).

Of course, coupled with Ye’s plot, and Wang’s detective plot, it just becomes an incomprehensible mess. Instead of focusing on one really good idea and exploring it fully, Liu has attempted to jam three mediocre ideas together in the hope that they form something meaningful and relevant. Unfortunately, none of the stories are handled competently, which is made even worse by the next problem.


Character is king, they say. A poor plot can be saved by brilliant characters.

Just look at something like the Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean novels. Two series, with identical, cookie-cutter-style plots (even the protagonist comments about this at one stage), but filled with brilliant, charming characters that leap off the page, it works.

In comparison, the characters in The Three Body Problem are not kings but paupers, scrounging in the filth at the bottom of the sewers looking for something resembling a personality. With one exception, they are all entirely forgettable. That includes both Ye and Wang.

Wang is so unremarkable that even his wife doesn’t care about him. Wang spends their savings on an expensive virtual-reality suit, and then takes a few days off work to play games using it. Worse, she appears not to even notice when Wang goes out late at night, gets so drunk he passes out, and doesn’t come home until days later.

And speaking of his wife, she’s a doctor, and a mother to a six year old. But she utters not a single complaint (or even query) about his sudden change in behaviour. She just accepts the situation, totally compliant. The character could have been replaced by a houseplant. You know, one of those that don’t require watering or feeding or attention.

Ye is a little more life-like, but she flounders from one contrived situation to the next. Every now and again, she’ll muster enough personality to enact a brief moment of petulance (murder her boss, accidentally-on-purpose kills her husband, dooms the entirety of humankind), but for the most part she acts as though she’s topped to the gills on Valium. Neither caring nor reacting. She barely reacts when her own daughter learns of her betrayal, and kills herself.

The one exception to this mediocrity, is Da Shi. He’s the abrasive detective that recruits Wang Miao and monitors him. However, he’s used sporadically for mostly comedic effect, a side character that can say the unsayable, and do the undoable. I suspect that if he had been the protagonist I would have found the novel far more enjoyable.

With such poor characterisation, there’s not much for the reader to grasp onto. Ultimately we end up reeling, as we try to make sense of the convoluted plot as seen through the eyes of people we don’t care about. It’s an act of futility, which is made worse by the next problem.


Structure is more than just the plot. It is the methodology for how information is delivered to the reader. With regard to The Three Body Problem, that is handled exceedingly poorly.

Da Shi

We keep bouncing back and forth between Ye’s perspective, and Wang’s. In the past, in the present, in the game world. Over and over again.

Good writing, engaging characters and compelling plots can make this transition engrossing, but there’s an absence of all three here. It’s like the author doesn’t know how to relate the ideas in a coherent and palatable fashion, so he just throws stuff at us and hopes we understand what he’s trying to convey.

The worst failure comes in the second and third to last chapters. In a desperate attempt to garner one last gasp of empathy for the aliens (why?), the author gives us two chapters of the story from the alien point-of-view.

This all could have been handled in the game, and given that more relevancy. Instead, the reader is burdened with an information dump provided by characters we neither know nor care for.

It feels like the equivalent of a particularly poor stage magician that after their magic show insists on revealing how all the tricks were performed in an effort to show off how clever he was. It is perhaps an insight into the author’s lack of confidence in his own storytelling ability.


I’m mindful that this is a translated work, and that it can be difficult to determine where the original author’s voice ends, and the translator’s voice begins. There are also cultural issues to consider. But, no matter who made them, all of these faults are fundamental errors

In many respects, The Three Body Problem is a very old-fashioned novel, told in a very old-fashioned way. The ideas are far more important than the characters or even the plot. Even something like Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, feels more modern in terms of character and writing-style, and that’s over fifty years old.

Of course, when you rely on your ideas to carry the story, they need to be particularly original and mind-blowing. None of the ideas or methods in The Three Body Problem are revolutionary. We’ve seen them used before. And the story itself is just an alien-invasion disaster. That has been done much better, and delivered in a far more accessible way.

Three Body Problem is a very old-fashioned novel

As you might have gathered, I did not like this novel. It took me more than a year to trudge through it, and I gave up fifty pages into the sequel. On the other hand, The Netflix series is much better. It solves many of the issues besetting the novel. It actually has interesting characters, for starters.

I believe The Three Body Problem is a missed opportunity. There is enough within it to convey a convincing and capable narrative, but ultimately it’s a failure of writing mastery that dooms the project.

As for answering why it has won so many awards. Another reviewer put it the most succinctly: it was Chinese. It wasn’t like, or told like, any of its competitors, and so that point of difference allowed it to garner all the attention. So, I guess the moral of this story is, you don’t need to be good to win awards, you just need to be different.


I’m skribe. I’m a writer, a film-maker and an actor. While I’m originally from Perth, Australia, I currently reside on a tropical island, the Lion City of Singapore. Fingerprint: 79A1 DC6C D367 8A31 135A 7AFA 940E 4231 D7B9 B15C If you like what you see buy me a coffee.

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