The Three-Body Problem Trilogy: Analysis

Aditya V
9 min readMay 28, 2024

Spoilers for all three books of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, aka The Three-Body Problem trilogy. Do not read this article if you have not read all three books.

The development of hibernation technology allowed humanity to time travel into the future. There was a fear that this would lead to a collapse in society. On a long enough timescale, the future is likely better than the present. Those who can afford it would choose to get to the better future directly without the burden of having to live through the present.

For much of the trilogy, this collapse doesn’t occur. The future holds the potential doom of humanity, and the present may be all that anyone has.

The conclusion of the trilogy introduces a true hibernation machine — a pocket universe that no one can be forcibly ‘woken’ from. A machine that allows someone to get to a better, ten-dimensional universe. A final game theory problem.

Game Theory

The first book presents a relatively simple game theory scenario. Two alien civilizations have discovered each other. One is technologically superior, but the other will soon surpass it. Trisolaris can attempt to cooperate with Earth, but what if Earth surpasses them and decides to destroy or subjugate them? It is far too great a risk. Trisolaris invades, ushering the two civilizations toward a dark destiny.

Dark Forest generalizes the problem, presenting a solution to the Fermi paradox. For the same reasons that Trisolaris must invade Earth, all civilizations must be silent, ruthless killers.

Death’s End presents the final game theory problem. Will you give up your pocket universe and possibly allow a new universe to come to life that you will never see? Or will you hope that enough of the other pocket universe inhabitants do so, allowing you to enter the new universe? Or perhaps you believe that the universe is doomed because most pocket-universe inhabitants are self-preserving (the same assumption that underpins the Dark Forest theory) — so you may as well spend your remaining days in comfort in your considerably safer pocket universe. It’s not hard to see what choice is most ‘rational’, and what outcome is most likely.

An even darker interpretation — each time the universe is successfully reborn, the civilizations that populate it at the very beginning (time travelers from the previous universe) are the ones who made the selfish choice. Each universe is thus progressively darker than the last, through a perverse natural selection at the universal time-scale. Eventually a critical threshold of darkness is breached, and a universe dies permanently. Death’s end.

Individualism and Collectivism

The era for humanity’s degenerate freedom is over. If you want to survive here, you must relearn collectivism and retrieve the dignity of your race!
Sophon

We never learn what Trisolarans look like. They are largely portrayed as a homogenous race. While many human beings act against the interests of humanity, only one Trisolaran is shown to do so (with his fruitless warning to Ye Wenjie to “NOT ANSWER!!”). This is very intentional, and points to a central theme of the trilogy.

Trisolarans reproduce through a merging of opposite sexes followed by a division into 3–5 ‘children’. The book itself remarks upon this being an important difference between the two civilizations. All offspring are semi-mature and retain some of the memories and personality traits of their ‘parents’.

One could speculate that this reproductive paradigm drives cooperation and convergent thinking in Trisolarans. At a societal scale, this would manifest in collectivism — all actions favor the greater good. This is reinforced by their inability to lie — if you dissent from the group, the group will know about it, and you won’t be dissenting for very long.

In contrast, humanity has strains of both collectivism and individualism. Singer, the alien exterminator, expresses some surprise that humanity has the cleansing gene but not the hiding gene. But this is because the two actions were made by different individuals (Luo Ji and Ye Wenjie), which shouldn’t be an unlikely possibility. Unless we are to believe that the typical alien civilization is far more homogenous than humanity, and that individualistic, heterogenous species are uncommon.

The trilogy opens with a revolution in which large swathes of humanity have collectively lost their minds, and are bullying independent thinkers into submission. The heroes of Dark Forest are independent thinkers. Luo Gi, the man who alone figures out the Dark Forest theorem and executes a plan to achieve Dark Forest deterrence. Zhang Beihai, whose inscrutability is repeatedly remarked upon by other humans, who determines that the Solar System is doomed and unilaterally resolves to preserve a seed of human civilization. Dark Forest is a story about the triumph of individualism.

Death’s End brings more nuance to the picture. Trisolarans learn to deceive from humans—a powerful weapon indeed — and enact a plan to soften up humanity so they would choose a weak Swordholder.

Humanity chooses Cheng Xin, and though she is an ‘individual’, she represents a collective choice by humans — the wrong one. This is partly because Cheng Xin represents a compromise between two extreme factions — one that wants to see Trisolarans subjugated, and another that wants to put Luo Ji on trial for mundicide and believes his actions were unjustified.

Beyond the Solar System, an excommunicated strain of humanity pulls the trigger on Trisolaris. This decision is made by a vote among the crew of Blue Space, not by a unilateral individualistic decision. But the crew unlike Solar System humans is actually united, and is able to make decisions of ‘extreme rationality’.

Trisolarans and humans both survive to the end of the universe, but they do so by influencing each other. Trisolarans learn to deceive and — I speculate — develop some heterogeneity. Humans learn to align themselves to the survival maxim, developing some homogeneity.

Perhaps without this deadly conflict between the two civilizations and the painful lessons that were born from it, both would have succumbed to their fatal weaknesses and died out when met with stronger adversaries.

Masculinity and Femininity

Most men from the Common Era tried to, consciously or otherwise, feminize their appearance and personality to adjust to the new feminine society.

A rather overt duality in Death’s End is gender. Humanity becomes soft and feminine, favoring ‘soft’ decision-making that in turn invites harsher times. The harsher times require the resurgence of masculinity.

The stereotypes are problematic and heavy-handed. But the clumsiness notwithstanding, it would be reductive to say that the author presents one side of the duality as inherently superior to the other.

While we only get to see the ‘feminine’ choice and its disastrous consequences, it’s not obvious that this choice led to the worst possible outcome. There’s a version of the story where Wade gets Cheng Xin’s support to pursue light-speed tech at all costs, and promptly brings Solar System humans to a speedier extinction through an internal war. Similarly, Cheng pressing the broadcast button when Trisolaris attacked may have led to aliens discovering Earth sooner, especially if the signal came from one of Earth’s broadcast stations.

Moreover, Cheng Xin’s ‘femininity’ instinct is essential for the continuity of the universe. The final choice she makes to give up the pocket universe may have been the most high-stakes one of all, and she makes the right one. All that said, the unnuanced view of gender in the third book is difficult to redeem.

Choice and Destiny

In our personality studies, your degree of deterrence hovered around ten percent, like a worm wriggling on the ground. Luo Ji’s degree of deterrence was always around ninety percent, like a fearsome cobra poised to strike. But Wade — He had no curve at all. No matter what the other environmental parameters were, his degree of deterrence stayed at one hundred percent! […] We’d have to compromise… However, we knew that humanity would choose you.

Cheng Xin can be a frustrating protagonist — she makes all the wrong choices, and fails to learn from them.

But the truth of the matter is revealed by Sophon — humanity chose Cheng to become the Swordholder, and she was the only innocent in all of this. It was humanity that failed. It was humanity again that failed in choosing not to pursue near-light-speed travel technology. As mentioned earlier, her choice to ask Wade to stand down may well have delayed humanity’s demise rather than hastened it.

This is underscored toward the end of the book. Cheng Xin and Yun Tianming hope to find love in one another. AA is quickly besotted with Guan Yifan.

Fate intervenes, and AA is paired with Yun Tianming, while Cheng Xin ends up with Guan Yifan. And both couples, despite not getting who they would have chosen, are perfectly content with who destiny has chosen for them.

Certain outcomes are inevitable, and rarely do the choices of an individual matter. The Solar System’s fate was sealed the day Ye Wenjie sent out that broadcast, or perhaps even earlier, when Trisolaris began searching the stars for a new home.

Fiction and Reality

Wang Miao plays a video game that turns out to be a retelling of the history of the Trisolaran civilization. Luo Ji concocts a fantasy woman in a fantasy location, only to eventually find them in truth. His story has become real, and now he must protect it. Yun Tianming writes an allegorical story that ends up mirroring Cheng Xin’s journey.

Every main character in the trilogy interacts with a story in a powerful, intimate way that shapes the way they think about reality.

In the first and third book, stories don’t just affect the main character, but also directly alter the course of human civilization (for better or for worse). In The Three-Body Problem, the game is the recruitment tool for the ETO. In Death’s End, Trisolaran stories are instrumental in dismantling humanity’s hostility, resulting in the choice of a weak Swordholder.

The message? Stories are powerful, and a well-crafted story can destroy or save humanity, or a human being.

Chaos and Stability

Book 3 mirrors Book 1, in that it is humanity that goes through Chaotic and Stable Eras once they make extraterrestrial contact. Indeed, the sections are named ‘Eras’ — as in Broadcast Era, Post-Deterrence Era , etc. — and this is not a coincidence. Like Trisolarans, humans spend the Stable Eras attempting to predict what the next Chaotic Era would look like and when it would occur. Like Trisolarans, they repeatedly fail to do so and suffer the consequences. And as with Trisolaris, the answer turns out to be simple, but not easy — the star system is compromised, and leaving is the only option. One cannot find stability in a system that is at the mercy of chaos.

Criticisms

The Three-Body Problem trilogy is a thematically dense story with a brilliant exploration of sci-fi concepts. To achieve this, character and plot logic are sacrificed at the altar of themes and ideas. This may be a reasonable tradeoff — the books do what they set out to do very well. But it’s worth briefly summarizing some things I couldn’t quite look past:

  1. It beggars belief that not a single human being besides Luo Ji would have come up with the Dark Forest hypothesis in over two hundred years. With the discovery of an alien civilization at a nearby star system, the logical next question would be — where are the rest of them? This question would be asked by millions of thinkers the day Trisolaris was discovered, and an hour into the exploration of the question, the Dark Forest hypothesis would have emerged as one of the most convincing possibilities.
  2. In Dark Forest, Earth invents ships that can speed up to 15% of light speed while Trisolarans are still ostensibly stuck at 1% light speed. This is absurd for two reasons. The lesser reason is that it is implausible that Earth would dramatically overshoot Trisolaris in one technology while being so far behind in so many others. The more damning issue is that Trisolaris should be able to replicate all Earth technology — nothing is hidden from the Sophons. Trisolaris could have built a new handful of ships and sent them to Earth. These would overshoot the original fleet and reach Earth in decades. In general, Dark Forest is a mess of a story, with the other Wallfacers being comically inept and almost entirely narratively irrelevant. The book has held up under scrutiny purely by the strength of its stirring last act.
  3. Related to #1, humanity in this trilogy is just not terribly bright. Many obvious solutions are hand-waved away. For instance, that only a handful of ships ultimately leave the Solar System despite having the technology to do so for decades is absurd. Yes, the books put up many explanations for why Escapism was always disallowed, but I find none of them particularly convincing. These weaknesses likely emerge from the author working backward from a powerful climax and being willing to cut all sorts of corners to get there (which also explains the weaknesses of Dark Forest). I have to wonder if the books could have been more polished if the author had been given more time to write them (the three books were released over a four year time span).

Conclusion

The greatest sci-fi novels provoke thoughts and questions. The Three-Body Problem trilogy achieves that stupendously well. For all its flaws, it is a masterful, layered work of fiction and a bold exploration of how humanity might evolve. But most of all, it has some very cool sci-fi ideas.

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