The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

Science fiction isn’t really my thing but The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu came highly recommended by one of my favourite finance writers, Ben Hunt, so I thought I’d expand my reading horizon. I read Three-Body Problem while on a recent winter break in sunny Mozambique. The unfamiliar nature was a particularly welcome distraction from real life.


I enjoyed looking at the world through a different lens, trying to relate to the complex characters and putting all the puzzle pieces together. The main character, Ye Wenjie, was scarred by an extreme personal experience during the Chinese Cultural Revolution but one can imagine many people in modern societies feeling estranged from the direction taken by broader society. Ye takes the extreme action to ask an extra-terrestrial society to reform human society from its undesirable path without considering the merits of the foreign society.

The concept relates well to many modern societies that are battling with their identity, trying to reform and improve. Social commentators are dime a dozen and all sorts of fanciful solutions are suggested to politicians. Yet many aren’t entirely sure what type of society their new ideas could create. Will the reformed society really be better than the current one? Has the underlying societal issue been properly diagnosed? Often blame gets directed towards a scapegoat rather than really identifying the root cause. Frequently the solutions offered create numerous unintended consequences, which risk the solutions being worse than the initial issue.

The author, Cixin Liu, notes clearly in the post-script that he’s trying to challenge the naïve assumption that extra-terrestrial intelligence should be treated with kindness and warmth. Throughout the history of the earth, groups of people have gone to war over their differences, yet there is a sentimentalism directed towards potential unknown lifeforms in space. Once again, this relates well to human behaviour on planet earth and identity politics. In the internet age, people can quickly and strongly identify with a person or group of people without properly considering the potential implications of their ideas if they actually had to come into close proximity with each other. We almost cling to the surface level feeling that a group of people create, without interrogating the underlying principles.

I love the idea that estranged intellectuals are drawn towards this computer game called The Three-Body Game. The designers of the game took the exact opposite approach to normal games, which provide a sensory overload through revealing as much information as possible. By contrast, The Three-Body game compresses the information content to disguise a complex reality below the surface. One can imagine many intelligent but confused individuals in modern society being drawn into a similar online game where they are bound together by their similarities without truly identifying their differences. I’m not a gamer but wouldn’t be surprised if there are great real-life references here. I often feel that so many of our mundane real-life experiences disguise much more complex realities below the surface. An angry taxi driver in the traffic, a frustrated lady in a shopping queue, a joyous child playing with a dog, a teen bellowing the latest tunes… These observations can be beautiful metaphors for societal challenges or joys.

The book touches on all sorts of interesting contrasts and complexities in human interactions. For example, survival in the tough conditions on TriSolaris, where the extra-terrestrials live, necessitates extreme authoritarianism. Freer societies which foster rich cultural legacies can be fragile to tough conditions. The fragility remains beautiful though, allowing love, literature, art and enjoyment. Conversely, these softer more emotive joys can create a degree of resilience against tough conditions, if harnessed positively. For example, a group of people can rise up together against oppression and use the softer arts of love, culture and literature to bind them together as they struggle towards their goal.

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