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The Three-Body Problem (novel)

The Three-Body Problem (novel)

The Three-Body Problem (Chinese: 三体; lit. 'three body') is a story by Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin, the first novel in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy. The series portrays a fictional past, present and future wherein Earth encounters an alien civilization from a nearby system of three Sun-like stars orbiting one another, a representative example of the three-body problem in orbital mechanics.

The story was originally serialized in Science Fiction World in 2006 before it was published as a standalone book in 2008. In 2006, it received the Galaxy Award for Chinese science fiction. In 2012, it was described as one of China's most successful full-length novels of the past two decades. The English translation by Ken Liu was published by Tor Books in 2014. That translation was the first novel by an Asian writer to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel; it was also nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel.

The book has been adapted into other media. In 2015, a Chinese film adaptation of the same name was in production, but it was never released. A Chinese TV series, Three-Body, released in early 2023 to critical success locally. An English language Netflix series adaptation, 3 Body Problem, was released in March 2024.


Liu Cixin was born in Beijing in June 1963. Before beginning his career as an author, he was a senior engineer working at a power plant in Shanxi province. In 1989, he wrote Supernova Era and China 2185, but neither book was published at that time. His first published short story, Whalesong, was published in Science Fiction World in June 1999. The same year, his novel With Her Eyes won the Galaxy Award. In 2000, he wrote The Wandering Earth, which also received the Galaxy Award and was adapted into a film in 2019. When the short story Mountain appeared in January 2006, many readers wrote that they hoped Liu would write a novel. He decided to concentrate on novel-length texts rather than short stories. Outside of Remembrance of Earth's Past, Liu's novels include Supernova Era and Ball Lightning. When not otherwise busy, Liu wrote 3000–5000 words a day; each of his books reportedly took about one year to complete.


During the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie, an astrophysics graduate from Tsinghua University, sees her father get beaten to death during a struggle session by Red Guards from Tsinghua High School. Ye is branded a traitor and is forced to join a labor brigade in Inner Mongolia, and is later sentenced to prison, where 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.

After working with them for some time, she learns that the stated purpose is a front for Red Coast's true intention: the search for extraterrestrial life. Ye discovers the possibility of amplifying outgoing radio waves by using microwave cavities within the Sun and sends an interstellar message to test her theory, but tells no one else. Eight years later, now in a loveless marriage with Yang, Ye receives a message from a concerned alien pacifist from the planet Trisolaris in Alpha Centauri, warning her not to respond or else the inhabitants of Trisolaris will be able to deduce the Solar System's location (based on the time it takes them to receive her response to their messages) and invade Earth. Disillusioned by the political chaos and having come to despise humankind, Ye responds anyway, inviting the Trisolarans to come to Earth to settle its problems. She murders Yang and Lei to keep the alien message secret.

Some time later, with the end of the Cultural Revolution and Ye's return to Tsinghua as a professor, Ye encounters Mike Evans, a hermit and the son of the CEO of the world's largest oil company. Evans is a radical environmentalist and anti-speciesist. Seeing that Evans is direly angry at humanity as well, Ye confides in him and tells him about the events at Red Coast. Evans uses his inherited financial power to hire men and purchases the Judgment Day, a giant ship which he converts into a mobile colony and listening post. Upon receiving messages from Trisolaris, 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 its leader. According to the messages, the Trisolaran invasion fleet has already 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 assemble a private army and build small nuclear weapons. However, Evans retains control of most resources and starts to alter and withhold alien messages from Ye and others. 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 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 suicides of several scientists, including Ye's daughter Yang Dong. 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 hallucinations and meets with Ye. Wang sees people playing a sophisticated virtual reality video game called Three-Body (which is later revealed to have been created by the ETO as a recruitment tool) and begins to play. The 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 portrayed as having human bodies) seek a way to predict Chaotic Eras so they can better survive. Unlike humans, they have evolved the special ability to "dehydrate", turning themselves into a roll of canvas. They do this in order to lie dormant when the Chaotic Eras occur, saving valuable resources that otherwise would have been wasted. A second individual is required to rehydrate their body, as self-rehydration is not possible. Characters resembling historical figures, including Aristotle, Mozi, and Isaac Newton, fail to produce a model for the planet's climate, as multiple civilizations grow and are wiped out by large-scale disasters. It is Wang who ultimately happens upon the insight that explains the climate of Three-Body, and wins the acclaim of the others. The planet is part of a system with three suns, whose distances from the planet and thus their appearance and disappearance in the sky are stochastic and hard to predict. When two suns are far away and Trisolaris orbits the third, the climate enters a Stable Era. When the planet is too close to two suns, the climate is disrupted, causing a Chaotic Era. If it is close to all three suns, a planet-wide firestorm occurs. If all three suns are distant, the planet enters an ice age. Eventually, at a future time impossible to predict, Trisolaris will collide with one of the suns 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. This leads to a battle between the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the society's soldiers, as well as Ye's arrest. The PLA works with the Americans, led by Colonel Stanton, to ambush Judgment Day as it passes through the Panama Canal. To prevent the crew from destroying records of their communications with the Trisolarans, the team follows Shi's suggestion to use Wang's nano-material filament in a fence, which will quickly cut the ship apart and kill everyone aboard but will not damage the computer systems beyond repair. From the Trisolaran communications, several revelations are discovered. The Trisolarans possess advanced picotechnology that allows them to create 11-dimensional supercomputers called "sophons" which, when viewed in three dimensions, occupy the volume of a proton. Two of these sophons have already been laboriously manufactured and sent to Earth. The Trisolarans do not have faster-than-light travel for spacecraft, but they are able to launch individual sophons at a relativistic speed towards Earth where they have the power to cause hallucinations, spy on any location, transmit the information gathered to Trisolaris using quantum entanglement, and disrupt the operation of particle accelerators. The Trisolarans fear humanity will develop technology advanced enough to fight off the invasion by the time the fleet arrives, and have decided that disrupting the accelerators to give random results will paralyze Earth's technological advancement.

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. The Trisolarans detect that humanity has made these discoveries via sophons and beam to the eyes of the PLA one final message, "You're bugs!", then cease all communications. Now in custody, Ye 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 finds Wang and his colleagues in a depressed drinking binge, and sobers them up by driving them to his hometown village in Northeastern China. Shi reflects on how despite all the advances humanity has made with pesticides, the simple-minded locust still manages to survive and thrive. With renewed hope, Wang and Shi return to Beijing to help plan the war against the Trisolarans. Now old and weak, Ye Wenjie returns to the top of Radar Peak, once the location of the Red Coast SETI base of operations. As she watches the blood red sun set in the west, she remarks the sight as a "sunset for humanity".

English translation

In 2012, Chinese-American science-fiction author Ken Liu and translator Joel Martinsen were commissioned by the China Educational Publications Import and Export Corporation (CEPIEC) to produce an English translation of The Three-Body Problem, with Liu translating the first and last volumes, and Martinsen translating the second. In 2013, it was announced that the series would be published by Tor in the United States and by Head of Zeus in the United Kingdom.

Liu and Martinsen's translations contain footnotes explaining references to Chinese history that may be unfamiliar to international audiences. There are also some changes in the order of the chapters for the first volume. In the translated version, chapters which take place during the Cultural Revolution appear at the beginning of the novel rather than in the middle, as they were serialized in 2006 and appeared in the 2008 novel. According to the author, these chapters were originally intended as the opening, but were moved by his publishers to avoid attracting the attention of government censors.


Ye family

Ye Zhetai (叶哲泰)
Physicist and professor at Tsinghua University. He is killed at a struggle session during the Cultural Revolution.
Shao Lin (绍琳)
Physicist and wife of Ye Zhetai. She is also one of his accusers at the struggle session that ended his life.
Ye Wenjie (叶文洁)
Astrophysicist and daughter of Ye Zhetai. She is the first person to establish contact with the Trisolarans while working at Red Coast Base. She marries Yang Weining and gives birth to a daughter, Yang Dong. She later becomes the spiritual leader of the ETO and directly influences several key events in the series.
Ye Wenxue (叶文雪)
Ye Wenjie's younger sister, a Tsinghua High School student and a zealous Red Guard. She is killed during factional violence at some point after the collapse of their family.

Red Coast Base

Lei Zhicheng (雷志成)
Political commissar at Red Coast Base. He recruited Ye Wenjie and oversaw her work. She later kills him to keep the secret of the interstellar transmissions.
Yang Weining (杨卫宁)
Chief engineer at Red Coast Base, once a student of Ye Zhetai, later Ye Wenjie's husband and murdered by her as well.


Wang Miao (汪淼)
Nanomaterials researcher and academician from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He is tasked with investigating the ETO as well as the recent spate of suicides among well-known scientists. Wang Miao becomes immersed in the virtual reality game "Three Body", through which he learns about Trisolaris.
Yang Dong (杨冬)
String theorist and daughter of Ye Wenjie and Yang Weining. She commits suicide shortly before the present day events.
Ding Yi (丁仪)
Theoretical physicist and Yang Dong's partner. He was previously featured in Ball Lightning, another of Liu's works.
Shi Qiang (史强)
Police detective and counter-terrorism specialist, nicknamed "Da Shi" (大史; "Big Shi"). He has a crude demeanor but is highly dependable and often demonstrates keen insight.
Chang Weisi (常伟思)
Major-general of the People's Liberation Army.
Shen Yufei (申玉菲)
Chinese-Japanese physicist and member of the Frontiers of Science.
Wei Cheng (魏成)
Math prodigy, recluse, and Shen Yufei's husband. He develops a possible solution to the three-body problem.
Pan Han (潘寒)
Biologist, friend/acquaintance of Shen Yufei and Wei Cheng, and member of the Frontiers of Science.
Sha Ruishan (沙瑞山)
Astronomer, one of Ye Wenjie's students.
Mike Evans (麦克·伊文斯)
Radical environmentalist who supports "pan-species communism", also son of an oil magnate. After meeting Ye Wenjie, he becomes the main source of funding for the ETO.
Colonel Stanton (斯坦顿)
Officer of U.S. Marine Corps, commander of Operation Guzheng.


In Liu's early childhood, when he was three years old his family moved from the Beijing Coal Design Institute to Yangquan in Shanxi, due to his father changing jobs. He also spent a part of his childhood in the countryside around ancestral hometown of Luoshan, Henan. On 25 April 1970, Dong Fang Hong 1—China's first satellite—was launched. Liu remembered the launch as a pivotal event in his life, recalling a deep sense of longing on witnessing it.

Several years later, Liu found a box of books under his bed in Yangquan, which included an anthology of Tolstoy, Moby-Dick, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Silent Spring. Upon beginning to read Journey to the Center of the Earth, his father told him: "It's called science fiction, it's a creative writing based on science". This was his first encounter with the genre, and he later remarked: "My persistence stems from the words of my father." At that time, such books could only be safely read privately by individuals: "I felt like being alone on an island, it is a very lonely state".

Reverence and fear of the universe is one of the main themes of Liu's writing. According to him, as humans we will stand in awe of the scale and depth of the universe. His novels also focus on curiosity about the unknown. Liu says he cannot help thinking about the future world and lifestyle of human beings, and he tries to invoke readers' curiosity with his books. He also believes that humans should be treated as an entirety.


The book structure has been influenced by self-censorship. The initial draft's opening scenes were seen as "too politically charged" by the publisher, and moved deeper into the book, to avoid attracting criticism by Chinese government censors. Several interpretations of the novels and related film adaptations were presented by Ross Douthat of The New York Times in April 2024.


In December 2019, The New York Times cited The Three-Body Problem as having helped to popularize Chinese science fiction internationally, crediting the quality of Ken Liu's English translation, as well as endorsements of the book by George R. R. Martin, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and former U.S. president Barack Obama. George R. R. Martin wrote a blog about the novel, personally expressing its worthiness of the Hugo Award. Obama said the book had "immense" scope, and that it was "fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with United States Congress seem fairly petty".

Kirkus Reviews wrote that "in concept and development, it resembles top-notch Arthur C. Clarke or Larry Niven but with a perspective—plots, mysteries, conspiracies, murders, revelations and all—embedded in a culture and politic dramatically unfamiliar to most readers in the West, conveniently illuminated with footnotes courtesy of translator Liu." Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker also called Liu Cixin "China's Arthur C. Clarke", and similarly observed that in "American science fiction ... humanity's imagined future often looks a lot like America's past. For an American reader, one of the pleasures of reading Liu is that his stories draw on entirely different resources", citing his use of themes relating to Chinese history and politics.

Matthew A. Morrison wrote that the novel could "evoke a response all but unique to the genre: an awe at nature and the universe [which] SF readers call a 'sense of wonder'".

American streaming service Netflix announced in 2020 that Game of Thrones writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss would be adapting the series into a sci-fi TV drama, making it one of the few originally non-English books adapted by Netflix. On the 18 June 2023, Netflix uploaded a teaser for the upcoming release.

Some Chinese scholars found that Western readers appreciated the zero-moral universe depicted in the trilogy, which is considered to promote rationalism. Liu tried to answer the existential dilemma of "where should mankind go from here" through various efforts.

Awards and nominations


Astronomer Ye Wenjie is brought to the military's top-secret Red Coast Project after suffering an attack during the Cultural Revolution. She achieves a significant advancement in the search for extraterrestrial civilization when she uses the Sun as an amplifier to send the first sounds of Earth's civilization into space. Meanwhile, the planet Trisolaris, located four light years distant and dominated by the chaotic orbits of its three suns, experiences ever-recurring destruction and rebirth, thus forcing the planet's inhabitants to flee their home planet. As they prepare their exodus, Ye Wenjie, despairing of humanity's ability to save itself from itself, exposes the coordinates of the Earth to the Trisolarans, completely changing the fates of both worlds.

When anomalies begin to disrupt the ability of earth's scientists to conduct fundamental research, nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao plays the mysterious online game "Three-Body Problem" and starts to explore the nature of the game's world. Wang Miao meets the Earth secret organisation ETO, created in reaction to the impending arrival of Trisolarans, while attending a player meeting. "Operations Guzheng" allows the Operations Centre to partially defeat the Redemptionists and the Adventists, impairing human science and other fields of thought. It also reveals that the Trisolarans have launched their invasion of Earth in search of a stable place to live. The end of humanity draws near as the huge Trisolaran fleet approaches Earth after using supertechnology to lock down Earth's fundamental science.

The subsequent books in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy are:

  • The Dark Forest (2008). English translation by Joel Martinsen published by Tor Books in 2015

Following the Trisolarans' use of technology to lock down Earth science and launch a huge space fleet straight into the solar system, human beings also create a huge space fleet to react to the unprecedented Earth civilization crisis, while the PDC uses the fatal flaw in the Trisolarans' logic to create the "Wallfacer Plan".  Sociology professor Luo Ji is unexpectedly selected as one of the four "wallfacers" to launch a secret counteroffensive against the Trisolarans. The Trisolarians respond by deploying "wallbreakers" chosen by Earth's betrayers to make up for the Trisolarians' inability to see through human tactics.

In the fight for survival, Luo eventually recognised his responsibilities from escaping and hedonism at first and devised a strategy to fight the invasion of Trisolaris civilization. Luo Ji also confirmed the Dark Forest Rule, which states that any civilization that reveals its location will be wiped out. With this discovery, he threatened to reveal the Trisolaris' position coordinates to the whole universe, temporarily delaying the Trisolaran's invasion of the solar system and establishing a precarious strategic balance between Earth and the Trisolaris.

  • Death's End (2010). English translation by Ken Liu published by Tor Books in 2016

Using the life of human Cheng Xin on Earth as its main line, this book continues human history after the establishment of deterrents in the second work, Dark Forest, and further reveals the truth of the Dark Forest predicament in the cosmos. Humanity's first glimpse of the truth of the dark universe came from the fight with the Trisolaran civilization, which made Earth's civilization shiver in the dark night like a scared child. They believe they have discovered the key to survival, but in fact, they are far from qualified for an interstellar fight.

On the cosmic battlefield, the attack in the Dark Forest that has threatened the survival of two civilizations is simply a minor episode. As the techniques and weapons of war have far outpaced human imagination and the day of witnessing the battlefield is the day of extermination, no one has ever seen a real interstellar war, and it is impossible to see one. Although the solar system does not survive in the book, Cheng Xin and Guan Yifan from the Starship civilization manage to keep the flame of human civilization in the solar system.



  • The Three-Body Problem is a postponed Chinese science fiction 3D film directed by Fanfan Zhang and starring Feng Shaofeng and Zhang Jingchu. Filming began, but it was never completed or released.


  • A serialized digital comic adaptation has been published by Tencent Comics since 2019.


  • The audiobook adaptation of the Three Body Problem was produced by Macmillan in 2014 and narrated by Luke Daniels. It was released again in 2023 and narrated by Rosalind Chao, who starred in Netflix's TV adaptation.
  • The chapters of the Three Body Problem were featured in the serialized podcast Stories From Among the Stars produced by Tor Books and Macmillan in July 2021.
  • All 3 books of the Three-Body Problem have been adapted into a 100-episode Mandarin radio drama on Ximalaya.


  • The Three-Body Problem is a Chinese science fiction animated series produced by Bilibili, The Three-Body Universe and YHKT Entertainment, and aired on Bilibili from December 10, 2022, to March 25, 2023.
  • The Three-Body Problem in Minecraft is a fan-made (later officially-sanctioned) animated adaptation of the series, directed by Shenyou (Zhenyi Li). It was initially animated entirely as an amateur Minecraft machinima, with a low budget and production quality for its first season in 2014. According to Xu Yao, the CEO of The Three-Body Universe, Shenyou chose this medium out of the minimal budget, as Minecraft allows its players to design environments with ease and does not require animation. The machinima format, after the first season's first few episodes, was later converted into Minecraft-styled computer animation due to the show's success.


  • A Chinese TV adaptation produced by Tencent Video premiered on 16 January 2023. In 2024, NBC aired the Chinese series on Peacock, its streaming service, premiering on 10 February.
  • An American TV series based on the book was released by Netflix on 21 March 2024, with David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and Alexander Woo writing and executive producing.
  • An award-winning documentary series titled Rendezvous with the Future, which explores the science behind Liu Cixin's science fiction, was produced by BBC Studios and released by Bilibili where it has been watched by more than 75 million people in China. The first episode covers many ideas featured in The Three-Body Problem such as messaging extraterrestrial civilisations and the possibility of a gravitational wave transmitter. An international version of the series has not yet been released.



External links

  • Official website of Ken Liu
  • The Three Body Problem title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database

Text submitted to CC-BY-SA license. Source: The Three-Body Problem (novel) by Wikipedia (Historical)