How to Read the 3 Body Problem Novel Series in Order

Our guide to the 'unfilmable' sci-fi story, now that it's been adapted into a Netflix show
Published: 5 April 2024

If you don’t remember the mathematical expression that governs the motion of three celestial bodies in a vacuum, fear not. Netflix has spent over $160 million to help you out. To make that completely clear: the streaming supergiant has spent $20 million (£16 million) per episode to make 3 Body Problem, an alien-invasion epic of such sweeping complexity that it makes the Big Bang theory read like a nursery rhyme. That makes it the streamer’s most expensive scripted series ever.


Based on the Remembrance of Earth’s Past novels by Chinese author Liu Cixin, the show covers a phantasmagoria of spacey theories and concepts—both real and imagined—from the “Wow! Signal” to the Fermi Paradox, Rare Earth Theory to Dark Forest Theory.

Do you need a degree in astrophysics to enjoy the show? Of course not. Still, an elementary understanding of some of these ideas will improve the journey. This is where Liu Cixin’s books come in, carefully explaining abstruse science concepts in clear language, many of which Netflix can only touch on lest it overloads our screentime-addled attention spans.

But the Remembrance of Earth’s Past is more than just a string of theories. It’s also a rollicking tale of cosmic intrigue, human resilience, and angry aliens. It’s a narrative that spans centuries and galaxies, intertwining a rich constellation of characters as they pinball about through time and space.

The story is not just about survival against extra-terrestrial forces. It's also about the philosophical and ethical questions that come with the advancement of civilisation. It challenges viewers to consider what it means to be human in the face of the unknown and the lengths to which we will go to protect our world and our species.


Which is all to say, really: it’s a load of alien-invading fun.

There are five books set in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past universe, three of which were penned chronologically from 2006, with a prequel and a sequel later written to fluff out the franchise.

But how should you read them, and when?

1. Ball Lightning (2004)

This is not part of the original trilogy that shot Liu to fame two years later. So it should be seen as more of an antipasto to the main course. But it’s nonetheless a tasty introduction to the Three Body Problem universe, minus the aliens.

It follows Chen, who, after witnessing his parents’ death by ball lightning, dedicates his life to unravelling this phenomenon. What that is, exactly, is best left to the book to explain in detail but suffice to say it’s a rare and unexplained phenomenon where small electrical fireballs burst like bullets out of thunderstorms and then explode. They’ve been known to kill people.

Chen’s research leads him to Lin Yun, a brilliant physicist with unorthodox theories about the nature of ball lightning. As they embark on a perilous quest for knowledge, they uncover secrets that challenge fundamental understandings of physics and reality itself. It’s a gripping narrative that weaves together science, intrigue, and human emotion in a thrilling exploration of the unknown.

2. The Three-Body Problem (2006)

The serious business begins. It opens during China's Cultural Revolution, where astrophysics student Ye Wenjie witnesses her father's death and loses faith in humanity. After a stint in prison, she is recruited by a secret military project tasked with uncovering extraterrestrial life. She sends a beacon into outerspace... and unwittingly invites aliens to Earth.

Meanwhile, nanotech expert Wang Miao is drawn into a mysterious VR game mirroring the chaotic climate of a three-sun alien world. Turns out the game and the secret military project are linked, revealing a desperate alien civilization planning to invade Earth. It soon gets out. And as humanity wrestles with this threat, Ye Wenjie becomes a leader for those who welcome the alien takeover, fracturing society and forcing humanity into a tug-of-war for its own future.

3. The Dark Forest (2008)

The second book of the trilogy digs into two key alien-related theories: the Fermi Paradox and Dark Forest theory. The first asks: if we exist, so too must aliens… so where the hell are they? The second says we should hope we never find them.

Dark Forest theory, in other words, argues that – in a universe where civilizations don't know each other's intentions – the safest bet is to lurk in the shadows like hunters in a forest, ready to strike first against potential threats.

But back to the story, and humanity faces annihilation. Four centuries separate Earth from the arrival of a ruthless alien armada, the Trisolarans, fleeing their dying sun. But Earth's fightback is crippled by sophisticated alien probes, sophons, that monitor every move and stifle technological advancement.

In a desperate bid for survival, Earth creates the Wallfacers - a clandestine group with access to any resource imaginable. Their mission: devise humanity's secret defence strategy. Luo Ji, a brilliant but unorthodox sociologist, is thrust into this world after a near-fatal encounter. As he delves deeper, he uncovers a terrifying cosmic truth - the Dark Forest theory - that rewrites the rules of interstellar relations and forces humanity to make unthinkable choices in the face of an unforgiving universe.

4. Death's End (2010)

Decades after the precarious truce with the Trisolarans, humanity enjoys a golden age fuelled by alien technology. Yet, a chilling truth lurks beneath the surface. Cheng Xin, an idealistic engineer from Earth's pre-invasion past, awakens from hibernation to a world transformed. She's thrust into a new role as a Wallfacer. However, whispers of a devastating Trisolaran weapon, capable of destroying entire solar systems, threaten the fragile peace.

Meanwhile, a historical anomaly from Earth's past resurfaces, hinting at a mysterious force that could rewrite the course of the Trisolaran invasion. As humanity grapples with existential threats and internal factions with conflicting agendas, Cheng Xin must find a way to ensure humanity's survival in a universe where cosmic deterrence hangs by a thread.

5. The Redemption of Time (2011)

If Ball Lightening was the antipasto, this is the complimentary limoncello that comes with the bill.

Liu didn’t actually write this instalment. It began as a work of fanfiction by the (now acclaimed) sci-fi writer Baoshu. But its reimagining of Liu’s world, fresh with new characters and ideas, proved so popular that the original trilogy’s publisher picked it up and published it in 2011, with Liu’s permission.

It revives a number of characters from the series, including Yun Tianming, a controversial and lightly drawn figure from Death's End. Presumed dead, he awakens in a distant future where humanity is facing existential threats from advanced civilizations. He discovers that he has been resurrected by an enigmatic alien entity known as the "Sophon" and is tasked with uncovering the truth behind humanity's past and its place in the universe.

As Yun Tianming navigates this unfamiliar future, he encounters familiar faces from the original trilogy, such as Ye Wenjie and Cheng Xin, and grapples with complex moral and philosophical questions. The novel delves into themes of redemption, identity, and the consequences of humanity's actions across time and space.

Fans of Liu can probably live without it, but if you’ve completed the series and need an extra fix, Redemption of Time will scratch that itch.

Originally published on Esquire UK

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