3 Sentence Summary
In Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie attracts the attention of a dying alien civilization, triggering an impending invasion. Amidst Earth’s preparations, factions form with differing agendas. Set during China’s Cultural Revolution, this epic science fiction novel delves into humanity, morality, and the enigmatic depths of the universe.
Summary Read Time: Less than 6 minutes
Actual Book Length: 399
First Published in: 2006
The Three-Body Problem happens to be the first book in the epic science fiction trilogy “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” by Cixin Liu. The trilogy has been translated in English by Ken Liu.
Below is the detailed yet quick The Three-Body Problem summary:
Amidst the tumultuous Chinese Cultural Revolution, college student Ye Wenjie witnesses her world disintegrate. Her father, the renowned theoretical physics professor Ye Zhetai, tragically succumbs to his persecutors, including her own mother, Shao Lin, for his supposed anti-Communist views. Subsequently, Ye Wenjie finds herself consigned to a Mongolian labor camp, chopping down trees. There she befriends Bai Mulin, a reporter who opens her eyes to the devastating environmental impacts of their actions.
In an attempt to save the environment, they pen a letter to the government. Unfortunately, their noble intentions backfire, provoking the ire of the government. A terrified Bai shifts the blame onto Ye. In a surprising turn of events, Ye is transferred to a peculiar location, Radar Peak, the home to Red Coast military base, named after its towering antenna. Here, she meets scientist Yang Weining, a former student of her father’s. He offers her a chance to avoid punishment by working as a researcher at the base, with the caveat of never leaving.
The narrative leaps forward four decades, introducing us to Wang Miao, an expert in the emerging field of nanomaterials. Wang receives an invitation to join a mysterious group, the Frontiers of Science, and is shortly summoned to China’s Battle Command Center. Here, he discovers a global coalition preparing to face an enigmatic threat, indicated by a recent string of scientist suicides. Coerced by abrasive police officer Shi Qiang, and shaken by the self-inflicted death of respected physicist Yang Dong, Wang reluctantly agrees to infiltrate the Frontiers as a mole.
Wang is then haunted by a bizarre countdown behind his eyelids. Initially dismissed as hallucinations, he eventually accepts their reality but is puzzled about their significance. In his quest for answers, he visits Shen Yufei, his link to the Frontiers. He encounters Shen immersed in a virtual reality game, ‘Three-Body’, and meets her husband, Wei Cheng. Shen cryptically advises Wang to halt his work on nanomaterials in order to cease the confounding countdown.
The game propels players through diverse historical periods, from China’s Warring States to Medieval Europe, with an erratic solar system. With eras categorized as Stable or Chaotic based on the sun’s predictability, the goal is to anticipate the sun’s trajectory by understanding the game’s celestial layout.
Returning to reality, Wang navigates his quest for truth, befriending Shi Qiang and eventually crossing paths with Yang Dong’s mother, Ye Wenjie. Ye, revealing her part in Red Coast Base’s attempts to connect with extraterrestrial life, leaves Wang underwhelmed when she asserts that the project, failing to establish contact, was disbanded.
Venturing back into ‘Three-Body,’ Wang employs his knowledge of celestial bodies and deduces that the game’s planet is under the influence of three suns. The unpredictable gravity from each sun presents the infamous ‘three-body problem.’ His real-world pursuits then lead him to Wei Cheng, who shares his accidental discovery of a solution to the three-body problem. But a foreboding threat from environmentalist Pan Han casts a shadow over Wei’s achievement, culminating in the murder of Shen.
Amid these real-world events, Wang persists in the virtual world of ‘Three-Body’. He uncovers that the planet, now known as Trisolaris, teeters on the brink of obliteration due to its unstable suns. Consequently, the Trisolarans have set out to abandon their doomed planet in a desperate quest for a new galactic home.
Prodded by Shi, Wang joins a series of gatherings with other Three-Body players, where he stumbles upon a startling revelation. Trisolaris, the game’s world, is real, and its inhabitants are headed towards Earth. The shock intensifies when he learns that Ye Wenjie heads an entity known as the Earth-Trisolaris Organization (ETO), with a motive to facilitate the extraterrestrial invasion. The ETO stands divided between the Adventists, who seek humanity’s annihilation, and the Redemptionists, who envision a collaborative new world.
Ye unfolds her past at Red Coast, confessing her clandestine dispatch of a space message and the surprising response she received from a Trisolaran pacifist identified as listener 1379. Despite being warned about the potential invasion, Ye responded, her loyalty to humanity having waned after her father’s murder. She narrates her association with Mike Evans, a powerful American, leading to the formation of ETO. Recently, however, Evans sequestered himself with exclusive Trisolaran communication aboard a vessel called Judgment Day.
Shi’s proposal, endorsing an interception of Evans’s ship at the Panama canal, is approved by the Battle Command Center generals. The plan—Operation Guzheng—envisions taking control using a net woven from Wang’s nanomaterials. The mission succeeds, and the generals uncover the magnitude of the Trisolaran threat. It’s an invasion planned for 450 years hence, alongside a scientific stagnation strategy involving sophons, super-intelligent protons capable of blocking Earth’s particle accelerators and triggering theoretical chaos.
Just when despair seems to overwhelm Wang, Shi introduces him to a simple, yet powerful metaphor. It’s a locust-infested town, resilient despite technologically superior human adversaries. Bolstered by this analogy, Wang feels a renewed determination to forge ahead in his work.