The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem


Liu Cixin

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The Three-Body Problem Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Liu Cixin

The trauma of the Cultural Revolution, which serves as a backdrop for the events of The Three-Body Problem, was something Cixin Liu experienced firsthand. As a toddler, Liu’s father—who had fought on the communist side in the Chinese Civil War—was fired from his job for the mere fact that his brother was anti-communist. The family relocated to the city of Yangquan, where Liu lived in fear of the near-constant violence outside his door. In search of a more peaceful existence for their child, Liu’s parents sent him to live with his grandparents in Henan province. Once in Henan, Liu developed interests in space travel and weapons technology, crafting homemade gunpowder and reading up on complex astronomical theory. He started writing science fiction stories in high school, a practice he continued through college and his first job as a computer engineer at a power plant. After coming to prominence with his short story The Wandering Earth, Liu turned his attention to longer projects, including the serialized story that would later become The Three-Body Problem. Today, he is the most famous science fiction writer in China. He is also the first Asian writer to win the prestigious Hugo award, a feat he achieved in 2015 when the English translation of The Three-Body Problem was published.  
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Historical Context of The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem, which spans the 1960s to the early 2000s, is in many ways shaped by the traumatic events of China’s Cultural Revolution. In 1966, China’s leader Mao Zedong launched the Revolution in a bid to retain his power in the country’s communist government. Mao and his allies urged legions of young fighters known as the Red Guards to violently shame and attack the “four olds”: old ideas, old habits, old customs, and old cultures. Because academics were seen as the keepers of many such “old” belief systems, they were among the Red Guards’ primary targets. As the violence escalated, China transformed into a quasi-military dictatorship, and up to two million lives were lost. Beginning in 1971, restrictions began to ease, though the Cultural Revolution only officially ended when Mao died in 1976. By the 1980s, China had effectively shed its communist past, embracing capitalism and economic expansion.

Other Books Related to The Three-Body Problem

Though Liu’s introduction to the power of speculative fiction was Jules Verne’s classic Journey to the Center of the Earth, as an adult he cites writers George Orwell and Arthur C. Clarke as major influences. Orwell, whose most famous work is 1984, similarly explores the relationship between politics and technology; Clarke, who helped to pen the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, is another science fiction writer who focuses heavily on space exploration. Moreover, in addition to these largely Western influences, Liu’s work can be seen to continue a long tradition of Chinese science fiction. Like Liang Qichao, a prominent Chinese writer in the early 20th century, Liu’s work firmly centers China as the hub of scientific thought and invention.
Key Facts about The Three-Body Problem
  • Full Title: The Three-Body Problem
  • When Written: 2006
  • Where Written: Yangquan, China
  • When Published: 2009
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Science Fiction
  • Setting: Beijing, China
  • Climax: Having made contact with alien life, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie decides to knowingly betray the human race by inviting the aliens to Earth.
  • Antagonist: The extraterrestrials of planet Trisolaris
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Three-Body Problem

Three-Body, Three Books. The Three-Body Problem is the first book in a trilogy known as Remembrance of Earth’s Past. The second book (The Dark Forest) follows the United Nations’ response to the threat of alien invasion, while the third book (Death’s End) tracks the effort to send a person into space as a diplomat.

Multiple Choices. The novel is so popular that it has become mandatory reading for seventh graders in China. But when Liu was asked to fill out a middle school multiple-choice quiz about the themes and meanings of his own book, he got every single one of them wrong. By way of explanation, Liu explained that he does not try to communicate political or moral messages with his work—he’s “just trying to tell a good story.”