Ye Wenjie astrophysics doctorate and daughter of a Qinghua University physicist, was forced to watch her father publicly humiliated at a struggle session in the Cultural Revolution, which ended in him being beaten to death. Her mother, also a professor at Qinhua, had long ago bent with the political wind, but her father maintained the veracity of verified scientific truth, regardless of how politically false it might be considered. Wenjie was assigned to a logging task force in the remote countryside of Inner Mongolia, where the government slowly stripped the land of the trees, and in doing so, stripped the land of its fertility. Wenjie met a journalist there, who let her read a copy of Silent Spring, but when he was caught with it, he told them that the book was hers. A high-level cadre offered Wenjie a opportunity to be mostly rehabilitated if she would co-sign a statement that her father was anti-revolutionary. She refused, and the cadre threw a bucket of water on Wenjie and left her in the cold, unheated room overnight, causing her to almost die of cold exposure.

There was a large radio antenna high on the peak of a nearby mountain, that (as Wenjie found out later) was developed by the military for frying enemy satellites with large bursts of microwaves. Knowing her background as an astrophysicist, they invited Wenjie to join them. There was a cost, though—once she walked through the door to the base she would almost certainly be unable to leave, because of her knowledge of military secrets. Wenjie accepted at once. She was given low-level technical duties for a long time, then as they began to trust her, she was slowly given more. It turned out that the antenna had a more secret mission: listen for alien communication.

Wenjie discovered that the models of the sun that people had been using were incorrect, and that signals aimed at a boundary layer would be amplified by a cascade from that layer. She sent a test message to the sun, and was able to confirm that the amplification did work. Around this time, one of the officers, Yang Weining, who had liked Wenjie from the beginning began pursuing her romantically. Her heart was too dead to kindle the fires of love, but he was nice, and she married him. About four years later, while Wenjie was monitoring the meaningless noise coming from the stars, the system alerted of a message coming in that matched the system’s native encoding! It was a reply to the test message, and it was a very clear warning not to reply. The receiving civilization was looking to expand to a new star system, but at present it only knew the direction of the signal and not the distance—and there were millions of stars in that direction. A reply would guarantee that an invasion force would be sent. The message concluding with a history of the civilization. At this point Wenjie was so disillusioned with humanity that she sent a brief reply welcoming the invasion and offering to help, because humanity had lost its ability to solve its problems.

The senior officer, himself technical, had hidden code in the system that recorded a copy of any message sent and received in a private location. He noticed the received message, and confronted Wenjie, although he did not know about the reply because she had not used the regular system functions to send it. She agreed to say nothing about her message. Shortly afterwards she created a fault in the circuitry, and since the cause was usually a ground cable off the side of the cliff, the commander (who was diligent in leading from the front) went down the cliff with a rope. Her husband went down, too, on the same rope, despite her request for him to use a different rope. There would be no other chance, so she cut the rope, killing the commander (whom she intended to kill) and her husband.

The universities opened again, and the villagers, knowing that Wenjie was a scientist, hiked up the mountain to ask her questions, which she answered. It turned out that she was pregnant, but lost a lot of blood giving birth to a girl Yang Dong, and the villagers took care of her for a year or so. It was her first time to experience kindness from people. The Cultural Revolution ended, and Wenjie eventually was invited back to Qinghua University. She took her daughter to Wenjie’s mother, who had said the right things and then married a high-level cadre who was in disgrace at the time, knowing that the young revolutionaries had no idea how to govern, so they would need to old cadres back. She was right. After their visit, the cadre icily told Wenjie that she was welcome to visit with her daughter under the condition that they not talk about the past, about Wenjie’s mother’s role in the death of her father. He admitted that he was simply passing a message from his wife. Wenjie never returned. She also met up with the three women who had killed her father, now disgraced revolutionaries who had no future (not because of the killing, but because of Cultural Revolution politics). She wanted to hear them repent, but they defended themselves and cast themselves as victims.

Later, when visiting the countryside in search of a good place to build a radio astronomy receiver, she met an American named Mike Evans, who was planting trees (on his own initiative and cost) to save a bird species. She went back some years later and the villagers were harvesting the trees for money, and Evans was disillusioned at the nature of humanity. She told him about the transmission she received and her message. By this time, Evans’ billionaire father had died, leaving him much of the money. Evans formed an organization, the ETO, to help the invasion, and appointed Wenjie as the general. He built a large ship with a radio telescope and sent and received many messages from the aliens. The group eventually developed factions, one which wanted the aliens to conquer to bring humanity to its senses, and the other, Evans’ faction, to destroy humanity completely.

Evans’ built a computer game, called Three Body, which was a complex 3D simulation of the aliens’ history. The aliens, Trisolarians, lived in the Alpha Centauri system, a system with three stars. The complex movement of the planet and stars meant that there were two kinds of eras on Trisolaris: Stable Eras, where a sun rose and set regularly and the world was not too hot or too cold, and Chaotic Eras, where everything was irregular. The Trisolarians could dehydrate themselves, to survive through the Chaotic Eras, but it was difficult to build a civilization because the length and timing of a Stable Era was unpredictable. Mispredicting the beginning or end of a Stable Era could cause the death of a civilization if the Chaotic Era was too extreme and the people could not dehydrate in time.

In the present (really some time in the future), the major nations of Earth were collaborating militarily against some unknown threat, but it had to be serious, otherwise why would the U.S. army be working with the Chinese army? Highly regarded scientists were killing themselves, and Professor Wang Miao, who supervised nanoparticle research, was invited to join the National Academy of Sciences to figure out why. There was a very annoying police officer, Shi Qiang, nicknamed Da Shi, who was very cocky, and Wang Miao eventually agreed to do it just to prove him wrong.

After having agreed to help, he started seeing a countdown in his eyes. Even in the photographs he took (but not the ones other people took with his camera). He met with the husband of the most recent suicide, Yang Dong, who requested that he take care of his mother-in-law, Ye Wenjie. He got a phone call from a reclusive scientist who told him that to stop the countdown he needed to stop his research. He did, and it stopped. Then the scientist said that the microwave background radiation of the universe would send him a message on a particular evening. He found a way to look at it, and the microwave radiation left over from the beginning of the universe sent a morse-coded message of the countdown. The scientist told him to play the Three Body game.

He played, and solved the puzzle of the first part of the game, which was that the different eras were caused because the planet had three suns, which the people had not realized. He realized that certain observed patterns were simply the positions of the three stars, and knowing that that there were three stars enabled the patterns to be used to predict the eras. The game advanced him to the second stage, which required his personal information.

Shortly afterwards Wang received an invitation to a player meetup. Da Shi said that he should go. It turned out that the meetup was a way of gauging whether players supported the alien invasion due to their disillusionment with humanity. Wang indicated that he supported the cause, and was invited a the larger meeting of the ETO, where he discovered that Ye Wenjie was not simply the mother-in-law of a colleague. He had sent out the coordinates to Da Shi, who arrived with people from the Chinese army. The ETO threatened back that they had a miniaturized nuclear bomb, a threat which was verified to be true with a density test to see if it had enough uranium in it. Da Shi resolved the situation by faking a letter from the mother of the girl holding the bomb—he had been in the police business a long time, and he had a hunch that a girl like her had mother issues—and shooting the bomb during the letter transfer. This caused the explosives in the bomb to explode, but the shock from the bullet deformed the charge so that it became simply a dirty bomb. Fortunately, in the future, the radiation could be removed in time to prevent sickness and death.

Ye Wenjie was captured, and told everything she knew. She did not know the content of the messages other than the one that she received, because they were heavily guarded on Evans’ boat. Furthermore, attempting to capture the boat would lead them to erase the messages. Da Shi concocted a plan with Wang (which earned him the respect of the American officer and the gift of his box of cigars that Da Shi had cockily taken one of) to use the razor-sharp nanowire that Wang had developed to slice through the boat. The wire was so thin as to be invisible, so they stretched it across the locks of Panama Canal shortly before the ship went through with a spacing of a foot or so between the wires, and drew it taught. This sliced through the ship and the people before they could realize what was happening.

After reading the messages Earth’s true danger became clear. The Trisolarians had perfected a way to unroll a proton, and since a proton is 11-dimensional [according to string theory], it becomes very large when flattened to a two dimensional plane. After difficult trial and error, they succeeded in etching a huge integrated circuit on it, and then rolled it back into 11 dimensions. They created a second one, and sent them both to Earth. Two more were created and quantum entangled, but remained in Trisolaris so that they could be used for instantaneous communication with the two at Earth. These “sophons” were so light that they could be accelerated to light speed and arrive far earlier than the attack fleet. They were so small that they could not be detected by humanity. And they moved quickly, so they could be used to disrupt experiments in basic science (or alter the observations of the microwave background radiation), and so prevent humanity from discovering the information that could lead them to be able to mount an effective defense by the time the fleet arrived 450 years in the future. They could also move through someone’s eye, causing a flash, and by repeated movement, a countdown text.

Trisolaris had gone through more than a hundred civilizations, all of various flavors. The messages showed that the current one, however, was dictatorial and arrogant—even worse than humanity during the Cultural Revolution. They openly saw humanity as bugs, due to the huge technological gulf between them. Da Shi noted that despite humanity’s best efforts, there was still a grasshopper plague in his hometown, and there was still no shortage of bugs in the world.

Ye, having learned the truth, became silent. At the end of her life she requested to climb the mountain where the base had been. She used up the last bit of her strength, to see the sunset there one last time, the sunset of humanity.

The Three Body Problem is not written in chronological order as summarized here. Instead, it flips between Ye’s early life and Wang’s exploration of the mystery of the deaths of the scientists (presumably driven to madness by the countdowns in their eyes), eventually merging after the battle at the ETO. When unrolled this way, the actual plot is fairly simple: disillusioned humanity finds that aliens are not a solution. When rolled up, it because sort of a mystery or thriller. The Three Body game provides an opportunity for philosophy which is somewhat confusing, and an opportunity to show the history of Trisolaris as a sub-story of genre of conquering nature. The sci-fi parts are not unique themselves—an immersive computer simulation has been around since before The Matrix, in Neuromancer, nor is humanity discovering an alien race something new. An alien invasion dates back to the beginning—with H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Even disenchantment with humanity is hardly new—the early sci-fi writers like Bradbury had a dismal view of humanity. But together they form a very engaging whole, and together they create something that is somehow very different.

Although the author in the postscript seems to be fairly optimistic in personal outlook, the book shares the modern artistic Chinese pessimism. Not only does the Cultural Revolution cast its long shadow again, but Earth is now doomed, it just has not arrived for 450 years. There is no option of redemption (although it is a three book series), the only hope offered is that bugs can never be eradicated. Although, perhaps it is better described as a tragedy, saying that humanity is not beyond hope, because there could be something much worse, and that Ye’s conclusions about the nature of man were too pessimistic. Or perhaps—and probably unintended by the author—one could conclude that the book is even more pessimistic, because all life, alien and human, is incredibly selfish and destructive.

Despite being a portrait of the pain humanity inflicts on itself, and of the tragedy of a victim who lost hope, the story is still an engaging quest for answers, and a satisfying arrival at those answers. There is even some faint hope, because although the fleet is on its way and humanity is inconceivably far away from being able to stop it, there are two sequels.

Review: 7