Book Club Questions: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

This book was quite a different read for me, since I’ve read very little in the way of hard sci-fi, and the amount of crazy physics concepts in this book was a little intense – but in a good way? Maybe??? I definitely enjoyed reading it, even if it made my brain hurt at times. In some ways, its scientific intensity made it challenging for me to come up with discussion questions, but we still managed to spend a long lunch at Tao of Tea in Portland talking about them all! If you are a fan of philosophical questions raised by the existence of alien life, the long-lasting impact of the Cultural Revolution in China, and Very Intense Physics, this is the book for you.

Discussion questions below the cut!

The book initially jumps across various intervals of time – two different points in the Cultural Revolution, and then into the present day with a completely different POV character. Also, the initial half of the book often seems to be introducing various events that have little to do with one another, until the lines are drawn to connect them up later in the novel. Did you enjoy these skips in time, or did you find them jarring? Explain your answer. Why do you think Liu Cixin wrote the book in this fashion? To help come up with an answer, you might think of any other media you’ve experienced that did something similar and compare the two for similarities.

Originally, the book was published beginning with Professor Wang being asked to join the police and army officers at the Battle Command Center, as Liu Cixin was worried the Cultural Revolution content would be sensitive for some readers. Instead, the Cultural Revolution content was delivered via flashback. Ken Liu, after consulting with Liu Cixin, “restored” the text to its intended order. What difference do you think this makes to the book, both in how you experience and how you view the narrative? (You might also consider your answer to the previous question in this context.) Do you have a preference for one over the other?

In an interview about the translation process and the book in general, Ken Liu says:

There are two historical events Liu Cixin could think of that would cause somebody to be so utterly disappointed by human nature that Ye’s willing to trust a higher power from outside to redeem humanity: The Holocaust and the Cultural Revolution. I think another way to read the book is that the Cultural Revolution, in some ways, is an instance of a Chaotic Era. I read the whole Trisolaran cycle of Chaotic Periods and Stable Eras as mirroring our own history. We may not have three suns around which our planet revolves, but almost every major change of our history comes as a result of some unpredictable confluence of events. Who could have predicted the Mongols would tear through Asia? Who could’ve predicted Alexander the Great? No one could have predicted Hitler. History is filled with black spots.

Considering that another “Chaotic Era” could happen at any time – either a natural disaster or a human-made disaster – why do you think we continue to plan for the future as if it will be much like today? Shi seems to represent this “blinders on” attitude toward just continuing to tromp through life one day at a time without worrying where we might be in 10 years. Did you find him frustratingly small-minded or refreshingly basic – or a mixture of the two? Why?

The Trisolaran movement is largely made up of intellectuals or at least those who have had the opportunity for an extensive education. Why do you think this is? Is it only because the video game is quite esoteric, or is there another more fundamental reason? In some ways, these highly educated people making decisions that will likely be extremely destructive to the lesser educated is an interesting reversal of the Cultural Revolution where we began our literary journey. There is always a great deal of debate as to what type of person should be leading a country and making its most crucial decisions. What is your opinion on this issue?

On the topic of intellectuals versus non-intellectuals, the detective Shi Qiang and his down-to-earth perspective on events often feels like a sudden interruption of reality into an academically focused hard sci-fi narrative. Did you side more with Wang Miao’s academic viewpoint or Shi Qiang’s everyman viewpoint? Why?

When Mike Evans’ father is speaking to him about the oil spill, he says, “These are the rules of the game of civilization: The first priority is to guarantee the existence of the human race and their comfortable life. Everything else is secondary.” Evans desires a Pan-Species Communism, a system of living in which all species are considered of equal importance, but turns to supporting the arrival of the Trisolarans when his efforts to save one species of swallows are thwarted, hoping that the Trisolarans will “eliminate human tyranny.” Do you believe Evans’ desire for the arrival of the Trisolarans is an expression of Pan-Species Communism (as he seems to believe) or is it more aligned with his father’s view of civilization? How do you feel about “human tyranny” over other species? How often do you yourself prioritize the human race at the expense of other species?

Sometimes books are more concerned with concepts than they are with characters, and as a result, characters become spokespeople for ideas as opposed to actual human beings. Given that this book has some pretty complex concepts it explores, did you ever feel that was the case here? Why or why not? What do you feel is most important for your interest when reading a novel – concepts, characters, plot, world-building, etc.?

Where do you yourself stand on Ye Wenjie’s decision to send the second message to the Trisolarans? Do you find it horrifying, reasonable, understandable, or some other adjective? If you too had lived through the Cultural Revolution (or another “Chaotic Era” of your choosing), do you think your answer would be different? Why or why not?

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