Few science-fiction book series over the past decade have been both as commercially successful and critically acclaimed as the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” series by Liu Cixin.
But few books also are as divisive among readers.
The people who love the series – also widely known as the “Three Body Problem” books, after the first one in the series – praise its epic scale, scientific realism, and cultural critiques. Those who pan the series say it’s boring and hard to understand.
And readers are starkly divided between the “love it” and “hate it” camps. I personally don’t know anyone who has a middle-of-road, three-stars-out-of-five opinion on the series.
This post is meant to help you figure out which camp you’ll end up in. Will you find “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” to be a life-changing, mind-expanding experience? Or will you curse the 60 hours you wasted on the series when you could have been re-reading the Expanse novels?
This post is also meant to help the many readers who’ve slogged through the first book and find themselves wondering whether they should move on to the second and third books so they can talk about them at sci-fi nerd parties. Or in case they ever meet President Obama, who reportedly loved the books.
In general, if you’re OK with wading through some dense writing, scientific jargon and a slow-build plot with the promise of a major payoff, you’ll love these books. If you want fast-paced action and familiar sci-fi action tropes, they might not be for you.
Many readers’ appetites change based on their mood, the weather, how much their kids are sleeping, and so on. So also consider your current headspace when deciding whether you want to delve into this series. This may not be the best series if you’re stressed out and overloaded at work, but you might love it if you have a week alone in a mountain cabin with time to think big thoughts.
I suspect another dividing line among readers is the non-Western perspective that these books are written from. The main characters are primarily Chinese, the important Earth-based action happens in China, and the societal and cultural backdrop of the novels is deeply Chinese.
For many readers, exploring such unfamiliar territory is a huge part of these books’ appeal. For others, it can be off-putting and make it hard to feel like you’ve ever found your footing.
Now let’s dive into the series a bit deeper.
The Three Body Problem, serialized in 2006, published in 2008, 399 pages. English translation published in 2014.
In the first book, a secret Chinese government program, launched during the country’s tumultuous cultural revolution, contacts an alien civilization that is growing increasingly desperate to find a habitable alternative to its climactically turbulent planet. A fleet from the civilization – known as the Trisolarans because of the three suns that wreak havoc on their environment – sets off to invade Earth. Some human factions work to help the aliens while others work to protect Earth.
This first novel is where the series ends with a lot of readers, and honestly, I don’t blame them. It’s not the best. It progresses slowly, and since the basic premise of the books is widely known by now, it doesn’t pack any surprises either. You already know there are aliens, and you already know they’re coming to Earth, and the plot about the groups seeking to welcome or oppose them pales in comparison to those two seismic events.
The book does bring you on a tour through China’s cultural revolution and provides interesting commentary on the role of science in society and how people behave in such chaotic times. Though I sympathize with readers who don’t find that to be enough to make this book worth reading.
Under a different set of circumstances, I wouldn’t have finished this book. I was listening to the audiobook, and the only reason I stuck with it was because I was marooned at an airport during a long wait for a flight and I was nearly out of data for the month and didn’t want to burn it downloading a new book.
Looking back on it now, though, the book does provide a solid foundation for the rest of the series and sets the tone of the world nicely.
But at the time, it left me unsure as to whether to continue with the series, and I didn’t pick up the second book for almost three years after finishing the first one.
The Dark Forest, published in 2008, 512 pages, English translation published in 2015.
I can’t remember why I picked up the “Dark Forest.” My best guess is that I’d put the audiobook on hold before I’d even read “Three Body Problem,” and the book became available when I had no other books lined up.
However it happened, I’m thankful it worked out. Because this book is where the series takes off.
In “The Dark Forest,” humanity’s attempts to prepare for the Trisolaran invasion are being foiled by a subatomic spy system that the aliens have sent ahead of their fleet. Because the only information system the probes can’t penetrate is the human mind, the world government gives four men basically unlimited resources to prepare defense strategies that use deceit and cunning to repel the invasion.
The main appeal is that the threats become real and immediate, and humanity starts to fight back. The fighting is more chess match than shooting match, so if you’re looking for a bunch of spaceship battles, this isn’t the place for it. I loved the more cerebral, game-theory nature of the conflict here, and the stakes are so high – literally everyone on Earth – that the tension keeps you engrossed in the story.
The ideas that “Dark Forest” grapples with are fascinating. For example, the book proposes a credible – but chilling as hell – answer to Fermi’s Paradox. That paradox is the question: If there are other advanced civilizations in the galaxy or universe, why haven’t we heard from them? Given the degree of technological advancement that can occur in a timeframe that’s relatively short by cosmic standards, some civilizations should have reached the point where they would have found us and communicated with us or travelled to find us.
I won’t spoil it by giving away too much, but the book answers that question by introducing the field of cosmic sociology and putting forth a few fundamental rules of how societies would interact on an interplanetary level. It’s all fascinating stuff that I’d never thought before and haven’t forgotten since.
There’s also a more heightened personal element and more memorable characters in “The Dark Forest.” The characters are as flawed and weird and believable as they are interesting. Between the strange psychology of some of characters, the nature of the alien technology that’s affecting the Earth, and the ways society has begun to react to the threat, the series starts to take on a trippy vibe that’s fun and distinct. It reminds me of the feeling I got from reading Haruki Murakami for the first time, but in “The Dark Forest,” the effect is produced through entirely different routes.
Death’s End, published in 2010, English version in 2016. 604 pages.
After the ride of “The Dark Forest,” I picked up the third book, “Death’s End,” as soon as it was available, about a month later.
In “Death’s End,” roughly half a century after the major battle between Earth and the Trisolarans, an aerospace engineer who went into hibernation decades earlier awakens into a world where humanity and Trisolaris live in an uneasy peace while humanity flourishes because of an infusion of alien knowledge. However, the engineer doesn’t get to enjoy the new civilization as a potentially cataclysmic attack comes from an unexpected source.
“Death’s End” takes all the great aspects of “The Dark Forest” and cranks them up to ridiculous levels. This book is so wild that I sometimes laughed out loud at how crazy it was.
As an added bonus, the book is action-packed, even by typical sci-fi standards, and the result is one of the best, most engaging, and most mind-expanding books I’ve ever read. The end is hallucinatory and elegiac and gutting and entirely in a class on its own.
This is where the slog of the first book and some of the added setup in the second book really pay off because they make all of the insanity in this book feel believable and even inevitable.
One aspect of sci-fi that sometimes irks me is that books set in a wild future either handwave how that future developed or offer such scant explanations as to make the reader essentially take the whole thing on faith. I usually can set logic aside and enjoy the story, but the whole “just trust me, this is how things are” routine takes something away from the experience and makes it seem artificial and contrived.
“Death’s End” is different. It’s far-out-ness is entirely earned. And the gut punch and mind wipe that it delivers is worth the work you need to do to arrive there.
So to sum up the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” or “Three Body Problem” books: Yes, the first book can be boring, the second one is better, and the third one is amazing. If you embark on the series, don’t skip the first book though, because that would take away from the full effect of the final novel. Also, consider only reading these books if you have the spare mental capacity for some density and the emotional state to ponder the foundations of existence.
Anyone care to offer you own thoughts on the series? I’m curious to hear what others think.