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Literature / The Three-Body Problem

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Engage in physics at your own risk.

If I destroy you, what business is it of yours?

The Three-Body Problem (三体) is a science fiction novel by Chinese author Liu Cixin. First serialized in 2006, it was published as a novel in 2008, and quickly became one of the most popular science fiction novels in China. An English translation by Ken Liu was published in 2014 and also became a breakout success, garnering a Nebula nomination in 2014 and winning the 2015 Best Novel Hugo. There are two sequels, The Dark Forest (黑暗森林) and Death's End (死神永生). Collectively, they are known as the Remembrance of Earth's Past (地球往事) trilogy, though readers usually refer to the entire trilogy with the name of the first book. The second book has been translated and published in 2015, and the third translation has been published in 2016. A film adaptation of the first book is currently in Development Hell.


In modern day China, Wang Miao is facing a problem: all the foremost physicists in his speciality, nanomaterials, are committing suicide, leaving behind extremely cryptic suicide notes. He's assigned to join a mysterious secret society that may have some answers, but keeps getting distracted by a revolutionary new MMORPG called "Three Body"... and also by the mysterious numbers that appear only in his vision, counting down to a date about fifty days away.

Many years into the past, Ye Wenjie is having a problem: though a brilliant physicist, she was branded a political dissident back during the Cultural Revolution, and was exiled to a lonely military station called Red Coast. However, Red Coast harbors goals far beyond the scopes of the earth, and Ye's personal struggles will have lasting impacts on the fate of the whole world...


See also Ball Lightning, a pseudo-prequel to the series also written by Liu Cixin.


  • Abusive Precursors: Ancient aliens have used weapons which, among other things, have lowered the speed of light universally and reduced the universe from 10 to 3 dimensions. They continue to do so.
  • Aliens are Bastards: The Trisolarans' history bred everything out of their culture except the desperate need to survive at all costs... though there seem to be individual exceptions.
    • By the third book, they have mastered human deception by feeding humans false science to hamper humanity's technological boom, embracing their culture only to deceive and enslave them later, and refusing to give them the means to escape dark forest strike.
    • It's not just the Trisolarans. In the third book it's revealed that casual annihilation of any intelligent race that is discovered is entirely routine; they don't care about the damage their weapons do to the fabric of reality; and the universe is effectively a war ruin as a result of billions of years of conflict and the damage wrought by those weapons. The grand unifying universal sociology theory is built upon this rule.
  • Alien Invasion: Already launched, and due in about 450 years.
    • They have mastered lightspeed travel in the third book and can reach Earth in a few years, but invasion is narrowly averted by the dark forest broadcast.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Yang Dong's strange detached look and hyper-rational behavior is something that made her attractive in story, but also hard to approach. Considering the nigh-unintelligible, almost disturbing sketches she made on her childhood notebook, it's likely that she had some kind of savant syndrome or autism.
  • And You Thought It Was a Game: "Three Body" is a covert recruitment tool for the ETO.
  • Apocalypse How: The author wrote an article discussing apocalypses in the series and their absence in Chinese literature in general.
    • From the first book: The present Trisolaran civilisation is the latest in over two hundred, each of which was wiped out after a Planetary Extinction (minimum) caused by the planet's chaotic orbit. Special note goes to number 191, which is destroyed when the planet gets ripped apart by tidal forces after passing close to the suns; the smaller fragment eventually becomes a moon of the larger fragment. Eleven other planets in the system have already fallen into the suns, and given time Trisolaris will fall in as well.
    • From the second book: The "Great Ravine" that occurred off-screen during the Crisis Era is a planetary Societal Disruption, with over half the Earth's population dying out over the course of half a century due to wars, famine and general lack of resources.
    • From the third book: The end of (most) life on earth is narrowly averted when the Trisolarans call off their invasion just in time for humanity not to have to eat itself, but Trisolaris is destroyed shortly afterwards. Then later played straight on a 'Total Extinction' scale when the Solar System is converted to two dimensions. The universe itself is implied to be on the way to a universal, metaphysical annihilation if galactic warfare is allowed to continue.
  • Artistic License – Astronomy: The Alpha Centauri system, where Trisolaris is located, is portrayed as three stars orbiting each other in chaotic, unpredictable ways. In fact, it consists of a stable binary pair of stars orbited at a great distance by a red dwarf star.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Inverted. Due to dimensional warfare, the universe will keep being reduced to lower dimensions. So higher civilizations must be able to project themselves to lower dimensions to survive.
  • Binary Suns: Trisolaris has three suns (hence the name) and orbits them in an unpredictable pattern: sometimes it's orbiting one particular star and has a stable climate (a Stable Era) and sometimes it's orbiting all three at once and has a wildly unstable climate (a Chaotic Era). The transition between one orbit and another can be traumatic due to the gravitational pull and proximity to the suns, and it's not unheard of for such transitions to completely destroy Trisolaran civilization in the process, leaving the survivors to rebuild.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: Downplayed; Trisolarans only appear in one scene in the first book and are never given a complete description, but we know a handful of details: they can mummify themselves at will to enter a state of suspended animation, they communicate through flashes of light (and have no real barrier between thinking something and saying it), and reproduce by fusing together and then splitting into several new Trisolarans, which inherit some memories from their parents.
  • Boring, but Practical: Photoids, projectiles used to carry out dark forest strikes. It's very destructive and also very cheap and boring because it's just a bullet thrown at (near-)lightspeed, which gives it enough power to tear apart a star. note 
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Singer's role in the Solar System's destruction, reinforcing the hypothesis that most dark forest strikes are economical and mundane.
  • The Chessmaster: The Wallfacers are explicitly intended to be this. Only Luo Ji succeeds. Also Zhang Beihai who, along with his father, predicts the future development of human society under sophon lockdown and successfully executes a centuries long plot to ensure that at least some humans escape. Tianming presumably also qualifies given the steps he'd have had to take for his plan to work.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: The book has strong parallels with the cosmic horror genre by putting humans in a universe where everyone is an enemy, and every enemy is magnitudes upon magnitudes more powerful than they could ever become.
  • Crapsack World: Trisolaris, with its extremely unpredictable environment. The second and third book reveal that the whole universe is also this.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: In order to make a statement, Earth deploys thousands of powerful warships to engage the first small Trisolaran probe which enters our Solar System. Unfortunately for Earth, the probe easily destroys the entire fleet in a matter of hours while taking no damage; the only Earth ships that survive were nowhere near there.
  • Cute and Psycho: Sophon by the third book, depending on the situation.
  • Death World: Due to its chaotic orbit around three suns, Trisolaris is a nasty place. When it orbits any one sun, it goes into a Stable Era, during which conditions are actually pretty mild. However, the rest of the time it's being kicked around like a football during Chaotic Eras, where it alternates between broiling heat and freezing cold with absolutely no rhyme or reason at all. On particularly close or distant passes, temperatures may melt rock or drop to near absolute zero. Sometimes, the three suns align in a straight line with Trisolaris at one end, causing everything on the surface to literally fall into the nearest sun. Due to the eponymous three-body problem, all of this happens completely at random, and cannot be predicted at all. The only reason anything lives there at all is that native life adapted to dehydrate indefinitely and then come back when conditions got better.
  • Flat World: The Solar System by the third book, reduced to 2D (which kills everyone in it). Also the eventual fate of the universe due to dimensional warfare.
  • Four Is Death: Inverted in book two, where four "Wallfacers" are tasked with formulating the strategy to defeat Trisolaris. The fourth, Luo Ji, is the only one who succeeds.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Officer "Big" Shi.
  • Good Is Impotent: The Returners, they seek to return the universe to its original state before being damaged by the endless warfare. They broadcast a message in every possible language encouraging people to return mass from their pocket universes to the greater universe to avoid its mass going below some lower threshold that will prevent it from collapsing into a new singularity. Whether they succeed is left open.
  • Good with Numbers: Wei Cheng is a child genius and mathematics who has special talent in dealing with numbers, which helps him to solve the three-body problem later.
  • The Great Politics Mess-Up: The Dark Forest, originally published in 2008, has a meeting 20 Minutes into the Future between a former American secretary of defense and an aged Islamic fundamentalist hiding out in Afghanistan who is clearly intended to be — but not named as — Osama bin Laden. The English translation of the book didn't appear until 2015, meaning that the mess-up was baked into it from the start.
    • The second book also has Hugo Chavez's successor as being a highly competent and popular leader who turned Venezuela into the most powerful state in South America.
  • Happy Ending Override: Book two ends with the war between Earth and Trisolaris coming to an end, and Luo Ji expressing hope that "one day, bright light will illuminate the dark forest". Come book three, the war is back on, Earth and Trisolaris are both destroyed, and it's likely the entire universe will be ripped apart by dimensional warfare in time. Damn.
  • Hero of Another Story: In book 3 Tianming's capture and assimilation into Trisolaran society ultimately commanding sufficient authority and resources that he can order the construction of a pocket universe to gift to his unrequited love could have been a book in itself, but is completely elided.
  • Hit So Hard, the Calendar Felt It: The events of The Three-Body Problem trigger the start of the "Crisis Era". Death's End reveals this to be the first of several times the calendar gets reset.
  • Hobbes Was Right: Reality is a war of all against all on a universal scale due to difficulty of communication and inability for trust to be established between races game theory requires a civilisation to wipe out any other intelligent life it discovers. Any race that rejects this reasoning is destroyed by others who accept it.
  • Homeworld Evacuation: Trisolaris is expected to be destroyed for good within a thousand years, hence their need to colonize a world outside its solar system. The fleet they're sending to invade Earth doubles as The Ark.
  • Hopeless War: Earth versus Trisolaris is widely expected to be this, given the Trisolarans much greater technology, which humanity can't hope to match thanks to the sophon block. The point is really driven home in book two when Earth's entire space fleet is wiped out by a single two-meter Trisolaran probe, nine more of which will arrive within three years, followed by a thousand warships in another two centuries.
  • Human Popsicle: Hibernation technology features prominently in both sequels, allowing people to step decades or even centuries into the future. It was originally developed to allow people with terminal diseases to sleep until a cure was discovered.
  • Humans Advance Swiftly: The Trisolarans estimate that in the five centuries it will take them to reach Earth four light-years away, Earth will have far surpassed Trisolaran technology and will easily crush the invasion force... unless Trisolaris can halt Earth's scientific progress.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Played with. Her experiences during the Cultural Revolution are the cause of Wenjie's nihilism and other experiences of human destructiveness are why many members of the ETO believe humanity deserves to be destroyed. However, in the end it turns out that humans are too soft and sentimental to survive in a harsh universe.
  • Humans Need Aliens: Both main ETO factions, for different reasons. The Redemptionists believe humanity can't be trusted to rule itself, and should be subservient to Trisolaran rulers; the Adventists believe that humans have mismanaged the planet we should be lucky to have and deserve to be annihilated.
  • Inscrutable Aliens: The basis of Dark Forest theory. All civilizations in the universe destroy all other civilizations they meet because they can't establish trust. Most likely due to communication difficulty because of the extreme distance, completely different physiology, or maybe it's just not economical to deal with cultural differences and subsequent wars arising from it. The Trisolarans are unique in this regard because their home world is about to fall into a star and they need a new home, so they don't destroy the Earth outright.
  • Insult Backfire: At the end of the first book, the Trisolarans' last message to humanity is a snide "You are bugs!" In the epilogue, the human characters note that humanity has spent its entire history at war with the bugs that infest its crops, and yet those bugs are still around - implying that just because the Trisolarans are more technologically advanced, it doesn't make their victory as certain as they seem to think.
  • Les Collaborateurs: The Earth-Trisolaris Organization is a terrorist group that believes humanity cannot manage its own affairs and deserves to be conquered by Trisolaris. There are two major factions in the ETO: the Redemptionists, who want to set up a Vichy Earth scenario where the Trisolarans rule over a human utopia, and the Adventists, who believe that humanity is wretched beyond repair and should be exterminated.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: And disposable too due to the massive time span of the series.
  • Magical Computer: The sophons, Sufficiently Advanced computers packed into a space the size of a proton.
  • Make an Example of Them: Apparently a key part of Trisolaran culture, though the humans go there too.
  • Modern Stasis: The sophons' purpose is to interfere with human technological development so that they won't be able to halt the Trisolaran invasion when it lands. They do so by detecting particle accelerators and forcing them to give random results so that subatomic physics cannot be discovered.
  • Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: Easily a 5. The work is on par with anything written by Arthur C. Clarke or Carl Sagan; fortunately Liu Cixin's writing and Ken Liu's translation make understanding the quantummy things manageable.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Wenjie's counterpart on Trisolaris, see Schmuck Bait below.
    • One reason that Cheng Xin is so divisive is that she seems to specialise in these.
  • No Kill Like Overkill: The races responsible for Dark Forest strikes don’t care about collateral damage or preserving inhabitable planets when they wipe out a race. The basic attack seen twice in the books involves blowing up a star. When that isn’t guaranteed to be effective they escalate to weapons that remove a spatial dimension utterly annihilating everything in the vicinity (and, eventually, the universe).
  • No-Paper Future: Inverted during Death's End when the Earth Civilization Museum stores information by carving characters onto Pluto in order to have it last for geographical eons.
  • Not So Different: The passages describing Ye Wenjie's receiving the first message from Trisolaris and her Trisolaran counterpart's first detection of her message are virtually identical.
  • Puny Earthlings: The Trisolarans view humans as this.
    • Strangely, averted by Singer from a greater civilization who sees humanity as greater threat despite being not very advanced technologically. He put a little bit of extra measure to destroy the Solar System instead of using the cheapest photoid projectile.
  • Ramming Always Works: In book two, Earth's entire fleet is wiped out by a two-meter long Trisolaran probe which destroys each ship by ramming them one at a time. Turns out they'd figured out how to use the strong atomic force to make their technology indestructable.
  • Razor Floss: The nanofilament, as spectacularly demonstrated with the Judgement Day.
  • Ring World Planet: Many of these types of cities are built behind the shadows of the solar system's gas giants during the Bunker Era to protect against a Dark Forest strike.
  • Schmuck Bait: An inverted version. The message Wenjie receives from the Trisolaran Red Coast equivalent is a sincere warning; however, she's sufficiently disgusted with humanity that she deliberately ignores the warning anyway.
  • Science-Fiction Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Strongly averted; the sheer distances involved in space travel, and the impossibility of communicating easily across the void, form the basis of the dark forest theory.
  • Shout-Out: The alien perfection of the monoliths from the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey is explicitly referenced when the Droplets are introduced close-up.
  • Sinister Surveillance: The sophons.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: The first book is very cynical, the second book drives it all the way into despair-inducing dog-eat-dog hopelessness on a cosmic scale, and the third book takes the scale up even higher by turning the book into a hard-science Cosmic Horror Story where all hope in the universe is gone.
  • Small, Secluded World: Universe 647, the gift universe from Yun Tianming that Cheng Xin and Guan Yifan spend some time in toward the end of the book.
  • Standard Sci-Fi Fleet: Earth builds a very impressive one in book two, consisting of two thousand ships armed with gamma-ray lasers and railguns, and capable of reaching ten percent of light-speed. Unfortunately, Trisolaran technology is Made of Indestructium, and the whole fleet is destroyed by a single probe.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Though not exactly lovers, Cheng Xin and Yun Tianming. After learning that it was Yun Tianming that had bought the star for her, she rushes to see him only for her to find that his brain had already been removed. Later, when they talk long distance, they promise to meet each other at that star. Much later, when she hears from 艾 AA that Yun has arrived in her solar system, she tries to reach him only to be stuck in the rupture of a death line.
  • Story Within a Story: Yun Tianming's three interconnected fairy tales which he tells to Cheng Xin to covertly pass important information to Earth.
  • Subspace Ansible: The sophons on Earth can communicate instantaneously with their counterparts on Trisolaris via quantum entanglement.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Alien: Subverted with the Trisolarans. They do have extremely powerful technology, but they use it to fake feats that are beyond even them in order to make humanity believe they are this. For example, they can't actually switch off the background microwave radiation of the universe at will, but they can make it seem like they can by wrapping the planet in an extremely thin shell and having it act as a filter.
  • Star Killing: Dark forest strikes usually do this by shooting a star with a "photoid," which is essentially just a rock...fired at speeds just under the speed of light, so that its relativistic mass is a fraction of the star's mass. The impact literally blows the star open, spewing its contents onto surrounding planets before the star ultimately collapses. This is what happens to Trisolaris due to the dark forest broadcast.
  • Summon Bigger Fish: Dark Forest broadcast.
  • Stop, or I Shoot Myself!: In book two, Luo Ji manages to scare Trisolaris into calling off their invasion by threatening to kill himself, which would trigger a dead man's switch and send out an improvised dark forest broadcast targeting Trisolaris.
  • Time Skip: A number of times in the sequels, usually when main characters go into hibernation, with the story later skipping to when they wake.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Despite the overwhelming evidence humanity keeps coming up with reasons to reject the Dark Forest interpretation of the universe, can’t quite believe that the Trisolarans really do intend to wipe them out, prohibit attempts to escape from the Solar System and even introduce the death penalty for anyone who tries to develop the technology that would make an escape possible. Ultimately they arrogantly believe, based on only two data points, that they can see a way to survive a photoid strike by hiding behind the gas giants without considering that aliens who have experience destroying civilizations will know all these tricks and, when appropriate, will use weapons that render them ineffective. Cheng Xin is arguably the avatar of this.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Averted in book one; the plan to use monofilament on the Judgement Day is explained in great detail and then goes off without a hitch. Played straight in book two regarding Luo Ji's plan to defeat Trisolaris, which is not revealed until the very end and works perfectly.
    • Then invoked quite explicitly in the sequel; the sophons can eavesdrop on any spoken or written communication anywhere in the world. The four people tasked with resisting the Trisolarans have to put their plans into effect without explaining the meaning of their orders or giving instructions which make their plan obvious, or the Trisolarans will simply counter them. Two of the four fail in relatively short order, the third one has his own goal other than resisting the Trisolarans, and the Trisolarans figure it out anyway. The fourth plan eventually succeeds.
  • Unusual User Interface: "Three Body" only supports interface via haptic (full body force-feedback) suit.
    • A computer made out of 30 million people was made in the game, which the Trisolarans actually did for real.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Ye Wenjie has one at the end of The Three-Body Problem, as she finds out that far from being a morally superior civilization who can save humanity from its own madness, the Trisolarans suffer from many of the same foibles that she hates in humanity and are in many ways even worse.
  • Villain Has a Point: During the Cultural Revolution, countless atrocities were committed to elevate "the common man" above such supposed elitists as academics and intellectuals. This is part of why Ye Wenjie come to despise humanity so much. However, throughout The Three-Body Problem, most of the evils we see come from one manner of "elites" or another, while the one display of human goodness that almost makes Ye Wenjie reconsider her position comes from common, uneducated people in a remote village. Also, it's explicitly noted that intellectuals are the ones who are easiest to convert to selling out their own species to the Trisolarans, while the regular working man tends to resist the notion. The implication seems to be that the Communists' failing was less in their ideals and more in not recognizing that they were, themselves, behaving in an elitist and technocratic way.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Both ETO factions (Redemptionists and Adventists) spend considerable resources hunting each other. The Trisolarans engage in a bit of this as well.
  • Weirdness Coupon: Luo Ji is among the four people tasked with resisting the Trisolaran invasion, and he uses this power to make a series of bizarre demands. The Earth government can't ask him to explain what he is actually trying to accomplish and goes along with it for some time. Eventually they come to believe he actually doesn't have a plan and increasingly restrict what he is allowed to do. Earth is right at first, but Luo Ji's increasing irrelevance means the Trisolarans miss their chance to stop him when he does finally come up with a plan.
  • Year Outside, Hour Inside: The area in the wake of a light-speed jump slows down the speed of light considerably, so anyone within will feel time like this. This is how one can signal to the rest of the universe that a planet/solar system is "safe." Cheng Xin gets trapped in one, spending 12 days in one while millions of years pass outside.

You are bugs!

Alternative Title(s): Three Body Problem


Example of: