When Cixin Liu opens his novel The Three-Body Problem during the abject years of China’s Cultural Revolution, you realize just how much of Chinese history and myth is already deep into speculative territory for most of us.
The teaching of quantum mechanics is forbidden, the Copenhagen interpretation that posits that external observation leads to the collapse of the quantum wave function is considered “the most brazen expression [of reactionary idealism].” When physicist Ye Zhetai continues to espouse such reactionary ideas, he is killed by four girls during a “struggle session” meant to discover and purge the country of the enemies of the Cultural Revolution.
This is how we meet one of the novel’s main characters, Ye Wenjie, Ye Zhetai’s daughter. Left powerless and alone in a country hostile to her, she develops a deep mistrust towards her fellow humans. That hostility is vindicated further when she is sold out by a friend who was looking for a way to escape a messy situation he’d gotten himself into. Unbeknownst to her, those actions trigger a string of events that will find her influencing the future of human civilization.
In the present day, Wang Miao, a nanotechnology researcher, finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy of which he would rather know nothing about. Prominent physicists have begun killing themselves in alarming numbers, and the word “war” is being thrown around by the military types that have dragged in Wang to be questioned in the hopes of learning more about what is going on. Wang Miao knows nothing, but he soon learns that an organization made of the world’s intellectual elite has been actively trying make the general public fear and doubt the pursuit of scientific research. Not only that, but Wang finds that Yang Dong, a physicist whom Wang briefly met and with whom he became quickly enthralled by, is the most recent suicide victim.
Characters in The Three-Body Problem are lightly developed and it is the scientific ideas, of which there are many, that take central stage instead, perhaps in a not such a positive way. While the initial science is well explained and it never feels like there is any hand-waving to make the science fit the story instead of the other way around, the situation changes course when we reach the later stages of the book.
Different people will have different experiences, but for those, like me, who process what they read by converting it into mental images of what’s happening, there simply isn’t a way to make any sense of a single proton being unfolded into a two-dimensional planet mirror so huge that circuitry lines made out of mesons are etched into it, turning it into a kind of subatomic computer in possession of sentience. And this is only in a two-dimensional plane. The sophon, the name given to this invention, eventually folds itself into multiple higher dimensions until it reaches the eleventh. I won’t even get started on how multiple civilizations are apparently living in the dimensionless reality inside the eleven dimensions of every proton. It ruins any enjoyment that might have been had if I can’t even imagine what it’s actually happening. I’m a physics student and I read through that whole section with barely a hint of understanding.
I would be lying if I didn’t say that the impossible to imagine speculation didn’t ruin what would have otherwise been a fine book for me, but The Three-Body Problem certainly has bigger issues than those. The characters are fairly interchangeable, and I often had to try and remember what each character had previously done because their name didn’t trigger any memory from me. Wang Miao is a largely uninspired and passive main character, and he more than any other character could have used a bit more thinking through. Those problems didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book however. The eleven dimensional mirror and its ilk did.
I am a bit wary of what’s to come in the next two books of the trilogy. The speculative scientific fantasy in which Cixin Liu dabbles in The Three-Body Problem is now deeply rooted in the narrative that will play out in The Dark Forest, the sequel, and yet I still find myself wanting to find out what happens next. Regardless, The Three Body Problem is a book that intends to explore humanity’s own feelings about itself. Do we think of ourselves as a force of evil, or a force for good? It’s still unclear what the book’s ultimate judgment on this question is, but if thinking in eleven dimensions doesn’t make your mind melt and you’re looking for a hard science fiction book to read, then The Three-Body Problem would probably be a good choice for you.
The Three-Body Problem, by Chinese author Cixin Liu, has some wonderfully evocative images and ideas and as well offers up a rare look inside his home country for many of us. It is often, therefore, an interesting book. From my experience though, “interesting” did not translate often enough into “enjoyable,” and the novel ended up being a bit of a slog for me to finish.
The book opens up with a powerfully vivid scene set during the Cultural Revolution as we watch a weary physics professor, Ye Zhetai, being battered by the Red Guards during yet another “Struggle Session”:
Other victims wore tall hats made from bamboo frames, but his was welded from thick steel bars. And the plaque he wore around his neck wasn’t wooden, like the others, but an iron door taken from a laboratory oven. His name was written on the door in striking black letters, and two red diagonals were drawn across them in a large X… His appearance excited the crowd. The shouting of slogans, which had slackened a bit, now picked up with renewed force and drowned out everything else like a resurgent tide.
Witness to this event is his daughter Ye Wenjie, and its impact on her will reverberate down the years, affecting not only her life but everyone’s on Earth. We follow her as she is sent out into the countryside and then as she ends up assigned to a super-secret military base on Radar Peak. Not long after we shift POV to Wang Miao, a nano-tech engineer who is brought into a multi-national organization trying to combat a group apparently conspiring with hostile aliens who plan to invade Earth. As part of that investigative process, Wang Miao becomes embroiled in a mysterious online game called “Three-Body,” which involves a succession of civilizations that rise and fall through a series of “Stable” and “Chaotic” eras, each one desperately trying to survive past the point of the prior one.
It was at this point that things started to go a bit off the readerly rails for me. The opening scenes, I thought, were strikingly powerful thanks to a rich sense of character and setting (both in time and place). But once we shift gears to Wang’s story, both aspects turn quite thin. Wang is an extremely passive character, far more acted upon than acting, and we have little sense of him as a real person. For instance, he’s married, has a child, and is working on a huge advance in nano-science. But the wife and child appear in a single scene and are then dropped entirely, not only not coming up in dialogue but also being wholly absent in Wang’s interior monologues (you’d think they’d appear in a thought or two), and we never actually see him working save again in one single scene. Other characters are similarly paper thin, which is especially a loss of opportunity when it comes to a hard-bitten detective, Shi Qiang, who could have been a wonderfully rich character.
The Three-Body game is one of those aforementioned wonderfully evocative moments — the imagery, the desperation, the weight of time that plays behind it all is all effective, and those scenes contain some of the books’ most striking images, such as a 30-million person army acting as a living computer, though I’d say Liu returns a little too often to the game and extends some of the scenes in it a bit too long.
Beyond issues of pacing and poor characterization the exposition is often clunky and goes on too long, and Liu relies too much on having characters tell us what happens or why rather than showing us. And I’ll admit to growing a bit lost and/or weary in several of the very lengthy scientific explanations.
Liu explores a lot of big ideas here — the effect of First Contact, humanity’s devastating impact on the environment, our species’ violence, the way technology is both bane and boon, the role of propaganda, and sharp-eyed questions of society and philosophy, some even coming from the mouths of aliens, as when one of the “Trisolarians “tells a superior:
We have nothing in our lives and spirit except the fight for survival…. To permit the survival of the civilization as a whole, there is almost no respect for the individual…. the most intolerable aspects are the spiritual monotony and dessication… We have no literature, no art, no pursuit of beauty and enjoyment… Is there meaning to such a life?
That’s a deep question to ponder, both in space and here on Earth. I just wish such questions had been surrounded by richer characterization and a defter writing style.
The Three-Body Problem: Particle physics, the rise and fall of civilizations, and alien contact
The Three-Body Problem was first published in China back in 2008 and translated into English in 2014. It got a lot of attention and won the 2015 Hugo Award for best SF novel, as well as being nominated for the 2014 Nebula Award. This is the first win for an Asian author and the first time a translation has won. Cixin Liu’s book has a lot going on and requires your full attention. I actually listened to the book twice to really capture all the details, as this book is bursting with fascinating ideas about the rise and fall of civilizations, virtual-reality gaming, mind-blowing particle physics, the lonely life of scientists and intellectuals, the madness of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and alien contact as well.
This book is impossible to discuss without significant spoilers, so if you are interested in it since it won the Hugo Award, or you like hard-SF alien contact stories, or you just want to see what the most popular Chinese SF book is about, then read no further and get the book. It is well worth your time. A detailed description of the plot (with unavoidable spoilers) has been placed (in invisible ink) at the end of this review.
The Three-Body Problem is split into three main narratives:
1) The backstory of scientist Ye Wenjie, who grew up during the madness of the Cultural Revolution and saw her father killed for his scientific ideas. She ends up grudgingly working at a secret military facility in the 1970s dedicated to making alien contact, but never has trust in humanity after suffering various betrayals.
2) The modern-day story of Wang Miao, a scientist studying nano-fibers, who is dragged into an investigation of a string of mysterious suicides among prominent particle physics researchers. His tale takes up the bulk of the book, and for much of the novel both he and the reader are in the dark as to what is going on. The further he gets involved with the secretive group The Frontiers of Science, the more he realizes that there are numerous conspiracies occurring, all involving scientists, alien contact, and a mysterious game called Three Body.
3) The virtual reality game called Three Body, in which players can observe and try to influence the course of an alien civilization in a far-off world that has three suns orbiting in a non-stable configuration. Because of the suns’ irregular behavior, the planet’s civilizations must struggle to advance during brief stable eras before the suns approach or recede and usher in chaotic eras, destroying all life. To survive this, the aliens develop the ability to dehydrate and wait until the next stable era. However, these eras are so unpredictable that 180 civilizations have already been destroyed, but still they try to advance their scientific knowledge in order to solve the Three-Body Problem.
Overall, I thought The Three-Body Problem was chock full of cool ideas about science but I was less interested in the characters, particularly Wang Miao, who is a fairly passive guy who serves to move the story forward. Ye Wenjie is much more complex, and her betrayal of humanity is believable considering what she has suffered. I liked the cynical and profane cop Shi Quang best, as he continually ridicules the milque-toast concerns of Wang Miao and the other scientists who seem very quick to commit suicide when their experimental results go haywire.
Perhaps the most confusing part of the book was the virtual reality game Three Body, as it was unclear about who was controlling the avatars, what the purpose of the game was, who created it, and whether the human participants were actually able to affect the outcome. Moreover, it was hard to believe that anyone would like to play such an esoteric and turgid game. Perhaps these were intended to be mysterious, but I thought it could have been explained better.
The last 100 pages or so from the Trisolarans’ perspective was my favorite part of the book, since it dealt with mind-blowing particle physics and multiple dimensions. It was something of an info-dump, but cleared up so many earlier plot threads that I didn’t mind. Not to mention that the Trisolarans themselves are fascinating and their motivations for invasion are fairly believable, even if I question why they need bother if they have the power to create sophons.
I thought the translation by Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings in his own right, was done well, although it’s basically impossible to judge unless you can also read Chinese fluently and can compare with the original. The writing sounded natural and the lack of embellished language is almost certainly the style of Cixin Liu, considering his interest in particle physics and admiration for Arthur C. Clarke. I imagine it’s a pretty tough novel to translate and I think Ken Liu did it justice. Notably, the second book is translated by Joel Martinsen, so it will be interesting to see what he brings to the story. The third book will be translated by Ken Liu, so that should help with continuity.
The audiobook is narrated by Luke Daniels, and he deserves full credit for handling the Chinese names well (as far as I could tell) and also for giving distinct voices to a number of characters who really wouldn’t have stood out at all otherwise. I noticed that the narrators for the next book are also different, so both translator and narrator are not the same.
The second book, The Dark Forest, was published on Aug 11, 2015. Since The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award this year, expectations will be sky-high. The third and final book Death’s End will be available on April 5, 2016.
I wanted to discuss some of the plot in a way that will spoil it, so if you’re interested in that, begin highlighting here: [begin spoilers] The novel begins with the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, during which time Ye Wenjie’s physicist father is killed for “counter-revolutionary” ideas which basically amount to believing in the science of Western enemies of the revolution. Seeing this, Ye is forever after distrustful of other people, but her scientific ability makes her indispensible at the secret military facility called Red Coast, which initially hides the fact that they are seeking signs of alien life in the stars. One day Ye discovers the long-awaited alien message, but it’s not what was expected: it’s a warning not to respond or humanity will be hunted down and destroyed. Presented with an opportunity to strike back at the Communist authorities who destroyed her father and treated her as a traitor, she fatefully decides to send a message back anyway, essentially saying “humanity is corrupt, so it would benefit from an alien invasion.” She hides this act, but eventually various groups discover the alien contact, which has major repercussions in the modern-day narrative.
Meanwhile, Wang Miao is pressured by Chinese authorities, including a gruff and cynical police officer named Shi Quang, to infiltrate the Frontiers of Science to find out why so many prominent scientists have been committing suicide. He discovers that they have been encountering strange and impossible results in their study of fundamental particles, and when he is suddenly faced with seeing a ghostly countdown showing up in photos he takes but which are visible to nobody else, he starts to doubt his own sanity. Meanwhile, in the course of his investigations, he finds out that many of the scientists are playing the Three Body game, so he also goes down the proverbial rabbit hole to find out what is happening.
The Three Body game itself is supposedly a massive multi-player online game, but each time Wang plays it he only encounters a few other avatars, mainly famous scientists from the past like Isaac Newton, John Von Neumann, and Albert Einstein. These scientists are trying to use their theories to solve the Three Body Problem that plagues the kingdom of the game, and each time they come up with a solution, another chaotic era wipes out the kingdom and civilization again.
This part of the story occupies a lot of the book, but it is also the most unclearly described and least believable. It’s hard to see how any but the most scientific-minded players could become so interested in coming up with solutions to save the kingdom, there are hardly any other players, and it’s not clear who is controlling them. The rise and fall of the kingdoms is more of a metaphor for the rise and fall of civilizations and societies that mankind has undergone (in fact, some Chinese readers apparently have seen a parallel with the rise and fall of Internet companies in the cut-throat business world of today).
We then shift back to the story of Wang, as he discovers a group called the Adventists who, if I understood this correctly, sympathize with the aliens and welcome their invasion of earth as saviors to cure corrupt humanity. The government officials who contacted Wang are trying to combat this group of pro-alien, anti-humanity fanatics. The Adventists have apparently gotten hold of much more data from the aliens, and have formed a quasi-cult dedicated to welcoming them. Much later in the book, we learn that Ye Wenjie is allied with them, and is probably the source of this info, though it wasn’t entirely clear to me. Meanwhile, there is also the rise of various anti-scientific and environmental terrorist groups that seem determined to undermine scientific progress. This also was fairly muddled, and I wouldn’t blame the translation but rather the author instead. When the military group finally makes a decisive move against the Adventists, it’s not entirely clear what’s at stake.
Finally, The Three-Body Problem switches perspective to the aliens themselves, and this is where the book got really interesting, and where Cixin Liu’s debt to his favorite author (Arthur C. Clarke) becomes most clear. The aliens are called Trisolarans, after the three suns of their system, and the game Three Body essentially describes their history. The book never spells out the relationship, but I think that the only possible way that the Three Body game could mirror Trisolaran society so closely is if the aliens had shared this information with humans, who then designed the game to introduce the Three Body Problem, either to crowd-source possible solutions to it, or to build sympathy among humans for the Trisolaran plight, as they continually struggle to survive every chaotic cycle.
As it turns out, the Trisolarans have been seeking for generations a way to either solve their Three Body Problem or to find another planetary system to escape to, so when they receive the initial signal from Red Coast, the first Trisolaran monitor realizes that if humans establish contact they will be tracked down and conquered. This is a nice parallel story to Ye Wenjie, who betrays humanity in favor of the aliens. So once the Trisolarans receive the message of Ye, they pinpoint the location of Earth and quickly assemble an invasion fleet. The reader might wonder why they are so aggressive, but the book suggests that the brutal conditions the Trisolarans have faced throughout their history precludes any form of cooperation in favor of conquest, that old chestnut of lebensraum used by the Nazis to justify their invasions.
The Trisolarans are not content just to send an invasion fleet, so instead they devote their resources to particle physics, namely unfolding protons to two dimensions in order to create a planet-sized mirror upon which they etch micro-circuitry using the strong nuclear force and mesons to conduct data. They then shrink this down to three dimensions and make a new construct called a sohpon, which is essentially a massive computer shrunk to the size of a proton, which can then be sent across space at the speed of light and is used to infiltrate the particle physics accelerators used by the researchers back on Earth. These sophons are then used to create all kinds of impossible experimental results to confound Earth’s scientists and drive them to suicide. I couldn’t help thinking that if the Trisolarans can manipulate multiple dimensions and create such powerful devices, why would they waste their time harassing scientists when they could simply infiltrate and destroy any technological device on Earth? It seems so implausible, but since The Three-Body Problem is a trilogy, I imagine dedicated readers will find out more as the story progresses.
Basically the novel ends with the military group foiling the Adventists plans, but the Trisolarans send a simple message to all of humanity that states bluntly, “You’re bugs.” As in, we’re coming to kick your ass and you can’t do anything to retaliate. However, it will take 450 years for the alien invasion fleet to arrive at Earth, which gives humanity quite a time span to prepare a defense. Strategically, if I were an alien invasion fleet I would probably have told Earth “We come in peace” to keep them complacent, but I guess the Trisolarans would prefer the intimidation route instead. But as we all know from many SF books and movies from War of the Worlds to Independence Day, humans are pretty feisty and won’t go down without a fight. Still, the aliens have infiltrated the Earth with these sophons which gives them a big advantage. [END SPOILERS]