The Three-Body Problem
by Liu Cixin
The story takes place in flash-forwards, backwards, and the present time. Below is a chronological plotline.
During the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie, an astrophysics graduate from Tsinghua University, witnesses her father beaten to death during a struggle session by Red Guards from Tsinghua High School supported by Ye's mother and younger sister. Ye is officially branded a traitor and is forced to join a labor brigade in Inner Mongolia, where she befriends a government journalist who enlists Ye's help in transcribing a letter to the government detailing policy suggestions based on the book Silent Spring, which she read. However, Ye is betrayed by the journalist and sentenced to prison after the letter is viewed as seditious by the government. In prison, she is recruited by Yang Weining and Lei Zhicheng, two military physicists working under Red Coast, a secret Chinese initiative to use high powered radio waves to damage spy satellites, who require Ye's skills in physics. Ye discovers the possibility of amplifying outgoing radio waves by using micro-wave cavities within the sun and sends an interstellar message. Eight years later, by now in a loveless marriage with Yang, Ye receives a message from a concerned alien pacifist from the planet Trisolaris, warning her not to respond or else the inhabitants of Trisolaris will locate and invade Earth. The alien proceeds to describe Trisolaris's environmental conditions and societal history. Ye, who is disillusioned by the political chaos and has come to despise humankind, responds anyway, inviting them to come to Earth to settle its problems. Ye murders her husband, Yang, along with Lei to keep the alien message a secret.
Some time later, with the closing of the Cultural Revolution and Ye's return to Tsinghua as a professor, Ye encounters Mike Evans, the son of the CEO of the world's largest oil company, who is also a radical environmentalist and antispecist. Seeing that Evans is also direly angry at humanity, Ye confides to him the events at Red Coast. Evans uses his financial power to hire men and purchase a giant ship, which he converts into a mobile colony and listening post. Upon receiving messages from Trisolaris, thereby validating Ye's story, Evans announces the creation of the militant and semi-secret Earth-Trisolaris Organization (ETO) as a fifth column for Trisolaris and appoints Ye as the leader. According to the messages, the Trisolaran invasion force has departed, but will not reach Earth for 450 years. The society attracts numerous scientists, minor government officials, and other educated people who are disappointed with world affairs. They go on to assemble a private army and even to build small nuclear weapons. However, Evans retains control of most resources and starts to alter and withhold alien messages from Ye and others. Furthermore, the society splits into factions, with the Adventists (led by Evans) seeking complete destruction of humanity by the Trisolarans, and the Redemptionists (led by Shen Yufei) seeking to help the Trisolarans to find a computational solution to the three-body problem, which plagues their home planet. A third, smaller faction, the Survivors, intend to help the Trisolarans in exchange for their own descendants' lives while the rest of humanity dies.
In the present day, Wang Miao, a nanotechnology professor, is asked to work with Shi Qiang, a cunning detective, to investigate the mysterious deaths of several scientists. The two of them notice that the world's governments are communicating closely with each other, and have put aside their traditional rivalries to prepare for war. Over the next few days, Wang experiences strange hallucinatory effects. Wang sees people playing a sophisticated virtual-reality video game called Three Body (which was created by the ETO as a recruitment tool) and begins to play himself. The video game portrays a planet whose climate randomly flips between Stable and Chaotic Eras. During Chaotic Eras, the weather oscillates unpredictably between extreme cold and extreme heat, sometimes within minutes. The inhabitants (who are represented as having human bodies) seek ways to predict Chaotic Eras so they can better survive. Unlike humans, they have evolved the special ability to drain themselves of water, turning into a roll of canvas, in order to lie dormant when the Chaotic Eras occur, requiring another person to re-hydrate them. Characters resembling Aristotle, Mozi, Newton, and others try and fail to model the climate as multiple civilizations grow and are wiped out by large-scale disasters. Wang wins acclaim by figuring out how the climate works: (1) the planet Trisolaris has three suns, (2) the suns have different kinds of compositions, and when they are far away from the planet's surface only the core of the sun can penetrate to the surface, appearing in the sky as a flying star, (3) Stable Eras occur when two suns are far away, and Trisolaris orbits the third, (4) Chaotic Eras occur when Trisolaris is pulled by more than one sun, (5) firestorms happen when two or three suns are close to the planet's surface, (6) seeing three flying stars causes intense cold because it means all three suns are far away, and (7) eventually the three suns will line up and Trisolaris will plunge into the nearest one and be consumed. The game shows the Trisolarans building and launching colony ships to invade Earth, believing that the stable orbit will allow unprecedented prosperity and let them escape the destruction of their planet.
Wang is inducted into the ETO, and informs Shi of one of their meetings, leading to a battle between the PLA and the society's soldiers, and the arrest of Ye. The PLA works with the Americans, led by Colonel Stanton, to ambush Evans's ship as it passes through the Panama Canal. The team follows Shi's suggestion of cutting apart the ship and massacring the entire crew using Wang's nano-material filament, to stop them from destroying their data. From the data, some new revelations emerge. For one, the aliens have extremely advanced picotechnology which allows them to create eleven-dimensional supercomputers called sophons which, when viewed in three dimensions, only occupy the volume of a proton. For another, two of these sophons have been laboriously manufactured and sent to Earth, having the power to cause hallucinations, spy on any corner of the Earth, transmit the information gathered to Trisolaris using quantum entanglement, and disrupt all of Earth's particle accelerators. The Trisolarans fear Humanity will develop technology advanced enough to fight off the invasion, and decide that disrupting the accelerators to give random results will paralyze Earth's technological advancement until the Trisolarans arrive. Once several Sophons have arrived they plan to fabricate visual miracles and other hallucinations on a massive scale to make humanity distrust its own scientists. Detecting this via sophons, the Trisolarans beam one final message "You're bugs!" to the eyes of the PLA and cease all communications. Ye, now in custody, is allowed to visit the old Red Coast base, and reflects upon her past choices, noting that humanity from now on will never be the same. Shi Qiang finds Wang Miao and his colleagues in a depressed drinking binge, and sobers them up by driving them to his hometown village in Northeastern China. Shi Qiang reflects on how despite all the advances man has made over pesticides, the simple-minded locust still manages to survive and thrive. With renewed hope, Wang Miao and Shi Qiang return to Beijing to help plan the war against the Trisolarans.