The `Three-Body Problem’ Books: Worth It or Nah?

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.

Two Sci-Fi Giants Take on Climate Change

There was a curious coincidence in recent years, when two of science fiction’s top authors released books with major similarities roughly within 12 months of each other.

The books – “The Ministry for the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson and “Termination Shock” by Neal Stephenson – both revolve around the issue of how humanity might address worsening climate change. They both have a global scope, feature a diverse cast of characters, and include around rogue actors unilaterally attempting to geoengineer temperatures down by spraying sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere.

Despite the surface similarities, the books are wildly different. “Termination Shock” is an entertaining, manic romp with diversions into topics as varied as falconry, the economics of sulfur, and the Sikh gatka fighting style.

“The Ministry for the Future” is a sober drama driven by realistic characters working diligently to redirect the titanic global political and economic system in a direction that allows humanity to survive the centuries ahead. The book takes its own deep dives into topics like the global central banking system and the legal rights of future generations, though they’re more central to the plot than Stephenson’s digressions.

The bottom line: If you want action and a more propulsive read, try “Termination Shock,” by Neal Stephenson. If you want a more realistic and emotionally compelling treatment, read “The Ministry for the Future,” by Kim Stanley Robinson.

If you’re still not decided, here’s more about the books to help you choose.


by Neal Stephenson, 720 pages, published Oct. 27, 2021

“Termination Shock” follows Frederike Mathilde Louisa Saskia, an imagined queen of the Netherlands, as she travels to Texas to meet with oil billionaire T.R. Schmidt and tour a facility he’s built to launch rockets that will inject hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere. He built the plant in Mexico to help cool the planet and protect his and his friends’ property investments on the low-lying Texas coast. A Texas oil billionaire stepping up to save the planet? Even if the motives are selfish? Sounds great, right?

Not surprisingly, the plan has its detractors, including the entire country of India, which expects that Schmidt’s plan will disrupt the monsoon that it relies on for much of its annual rainfall. That part of the plot ensnares Deep Singh, a Canadian who has become internet famous for fighting the Chinese in hand-to-hand combat on a disputed area of the countries’ border.

Also involved in the plot is Rufus Grant, a half-black, half-Comanche former soldier who now makes a living exterminating feral hogs.

The characters are generally interesting, though they share a Stephensonian brand of cleverness that makes them less realistic, and the plot has lots of action and explosions and gun fights and natural disasters. It’s often funny, sometimes dry in its digressions, sometimes unbelievable, but sometimes completely believable in its portrayal of how humans may act with less-than-altruistic motives and the unintended consequences that can result from poorly conceived actions.

If that all sounds a bit wild and scattered, it’s because it is. It all comes together at the end, and it does make for an enjoyable read, but much of the plot is spectacle for spectacle’s stake.


by Kim Stanley Robinson, 578 pages, published Oct. 6, 2020

“The Ministry for the Future” follows Mary Murphy, a former Irish diplomat who’s selected to lead a new UN organization (the one the book is named after) that works on behalf of future generations, who’ve recently gained legal status.

Mary is goaded to work faster by Frank May, an American aid worker who was the sole survivor of a deadly heat wave in India. Partly because of Frank’s prodding, Mary encourages her co-worker Badim to set up a “black wing” for the ministry to do non-legal work that would help their cause, but that she can’t know about so she can disavow its actions.

While the book features peripheral subplots like the Children of Kali, a terrorist organization that shoots down private jets and kidnaps billionaires as revenge for the heat wave, it most closely follows Mary and her attempts to revamp the entire global economy using mechanisms including the courts and national central banks.

Stanley also mixes in other genres, including first-person monologues from inanimate objects, to enliven the text. Even with those flourishes, the book reads like almost like non-fiction, and comes across as a well-thought-out blueprint for humanity’s best-case scenario over the coming decades.  


Beyond the varied stylistic approaches, “The Ministry for the Future” and “Termination Shock” have major substantive, philosophical differences.

Stephenson’s book subscribes to the “Great Man” theory of history, where individual actors (usually men — even in this book the Queen of the Netherlands is basically a passenger to the male characters’ actions) change the world through their own determination, force of will, and disregard for the approval or understanding of others. You can see this in the profile of oil magnate T.R. Schmidt and Sikh warrior Deep Singh.

The book also belies a sympathy for ruggedly individual billionaires of the type that loom so large culturally and societally right now. Stephenson seems to have an affection for their ability to say “Fuck it” and do whatever they want, dithering governments be damned.  

To me, that added a disturbing bleakness to the story. For anyone who’s not a billionaire, all you can do is sit back and hope one of the people who actually matters has an attack of conscience and decides to save the world.

There’s a chance Stephenson is right. Governments may be unsuited to the task of heading off climate change, and our only hope may be some plutocrat who has enough resources to reshape the global atmosphere. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that knowledge. Just say “screw it” and try to keep myself entertained while praying some fat cat decides to put out the fire?

I still had the bad aftertaste of this book a month later when I read “The Ministry for the Future,” and I suspect that’s part of why Robinson’s book affected me so deeply.

Where Stephenson’s heroes are billionaires and mercenaries, Robinson’s heroes are scientists and bureaucrats. Their battlegrounds are conferences and courtrooms. Their weapons are persistence, intelligence, innovation, and persuasion.

I understand that this setup may sound boring to some readers. A friend of mine described this book as “speculative non-fiction,” and the label is apt. It’s deeply researched and proceeds methodically and realistically. That didn’t make it boring to me, though.

There are real, personal dramas involved. The stakes – the fate of the world – are high. Seeing a well-thought-out, best-case scenario for the next few decades was compelling, and I couldn’t stay away from this book for long while I was reading it.

In that way, I’d recommend reading the books as a pair, starting with “Termination Shock” and ending with “The Ministry for the Future.” The first will reveal the ego and nihilism that got our climate into this mess, and the second will show how to roll up our sleeves and get ourselves out of it.