“The Three-Body Problem”, by Liu Cixin

“The Three-Body Problem” is a Science Fiction novel by Chinese author Liu Cixin. It is probably one of the most complicated books I have ever had to review. And the thing is I have to start at the end. Because it’s at the end of the book when you actually make a proper idea of what it’s about..

This entire story feels sort of like an introduction for the bigger picture, and the problem with that is that it’s extremely confusing. It ends up being about an alien invasion, but starts out with the Chinese Cultural Revolution and other political stuff, plus some scientists in a secret Chinese base that specializes in deep space telemetry and any things similar.

It’s a book that does not actually have a conventional structure according to the main elements of plot.

According to Freytag’s Pyramid, the elements of dramatic structure are the below:

  1. Exposition: The storyteller sets the scene and the character’s background.
  2. Inciting Incident: The character reacts to something that has happened, and it starts a chain reaction of events.
  3. Rising Action: The story builds. There is often a complication, which means the problem the character tried to solve gets more complex.
  4. Climax: The story reaches the point of greatest tension between the protagonist and antagonist (or if there is only one main character, the darkness or lightness of that character appears to take control).
  5. Falling Action: The story shifts to action that happens as a result of the climax, which can also contain a reversal(when the character shows how they are changed by events of the climax).
  6. Resolution: The character solves the problem or conflict.
  7. Denouement: French for “the ending,” the denouement is often happy if it’s a comedy, and dark and sad if it’s a tragedy.

However, in “The Three-Body Problem” we barely have an exposition, the Inciting Incident is non-existent – there is literally no Inciting Incident, characters just do stuff apparently (but not quite) at random – the action never rises, as there is no build-up to anything. There is sort of a Climax when you realize it’s about aliens, but there is no Falling Action and the Resolution and Denouement are completely absent. The story ends abruptly with no conclusion.

While I understand it’s part of a three volume story, and the action will probably continue in the next book, they are all advertised as standalone books, so they should respect the structure and plot elements individually, in my opinion.

The story itself and the theme is very interesting once you get the big picture, but due to the lacking in structure and presentation, you get the big picture very late. I tried to read this book (started in June 2020) and dropped it three times before chapter 11. I resumed three days ago and finished it (Nov 2021), read it as fast as I could. It gets better towards the second part, but the first part is extremely hard to read and to understand, due to not keeping focus on a stable element and introducing many flashback elements, as the story goes back and forth in time. I tried reading it in both English and Romanian, going back and forth as I thought maybe it’s the translation of the Romanian edition that makes it confusing, but no, it was the book itself.

I have read a lot of Science Fiction literature before, and a lot of Chinese literature before, however I had never read Chinese Science Fiction and I am not sure this is the book to start reading Chinese Science Fiction with. I will be searching for alternatives, just to see other points of view and try other authors, maybe it’s just something that doesn’t click with me in Liu Cixin’s style. I am considering reading the other two volumes, rather for seeing how the story unfolds and hoping for a conclusion, but it’s not something I’d like to do right now.