The Three-Body Problem


My wife had been bugging me for ages to read this book, arguably China’s best known science-fiction work for the moment. Written by Liu Cixin, it was first serialized in a magazine some years back. Of course I had to first wait for it to be translated to English and for it to be released at affordable paperback prices. In the meantime, the book went on to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel last year, though it was amidst the chaos created by the Raid Puppies and the Sad Puppies. The version that I eventually got was on Google Play Books. Note that this write-up will be full of spoilers as it will difficult to say much about it otherwise.

A true science-fiction epic, The Three-Body Problem unfolds across a number of different time periods and from the perspective of different characters. In the present, nanomaterials expert Wang Miao is alarmed when he is warned by some unknown entity with seemingly miraculous powers not to proceed with further work in his field. While investigating this phenomenon, he learns that there have been a spate of suicides in the scientific community with the only clues of the cause being that the scientists felt that there is no point in living as science has ended. Wang is further led to play an online game which takes place on a strange world which is beset by an extremely harsh and unpredictable solar cycle. He also finds that the affair is connected with Ye Wenjie, an astrophysics professor whose father’s death during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s caused her to become extremely bitter about humanity. After being brought to work in a top secret government project to contact extraterrestrial civilizations, she actually managed to transmit and receive messages from the Trisolaran world based in the Alpha Centauri system. She learns that the Trisolarans are hostile and due to her conviction that human civilization needs to be purified, founds an organization to help them conquer Earth.

There’s no doubt that all this makes for a rollicking good read. The sequence in which Wang works with the street smart police detective Shi Qiang to uncover the conspiracy has all the makings of a good noir. The opening of the novel which details the travails of Ye Wenjie’s family is a surprisingly serious and somber account of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. The extensive scenes that take place within the virtual reality of the video game entail the characters taking on the personas of the great thinkers and philosophers of both western and eastern traditions. Not only is it a neat way of telling the story of the Trisolaran civilization from a human perspective, it’s also reminiscent of the alternative history sub-genre that is a fine tradition of science-fiction in the west. Reading this novel, I was often reminded of the style of Neal Stephenson in how Liu combines subjects that are intellectually interesting and cutting edge ideas in science with slick and entertaining action. I was delighted to discover that the dramatis personæ which prefaces the novel, required no doubt as non-Chinese readers may find the Chinese names confusing, are filled with physicists, mathematicians and engineers, exactly the type of heroes one should find in good modern science-fiction.

Unfortunately the whole doesn’t gel together as neatly as I would have liked and I suspect that this is at least partly attributable to the fact that it was originally published as a serial making it easier to have the inconsistencies waived over. One of the key driving mysteries of the novel is why famous scientists are committing suicide in unprecedented numbers. The real explanation, which comes only near the very end of the novel, is that the Trisolarans have been deliberately messing around with the results of their experiments, leading them to lose faith in science. I don’t know about you but that sounds like a pretty dumb reason to commit suicide to me. It’s even worse if you remember that one of the suicides was Yang Dong, Ye Wenjie’s daughter. It is this death that connects Wang Miao with Ye in the first place and it’s also why the reader isn’t suspicious of Ye’s motivations. Yet in the end we find out that Ye was the original instigator of the Trisolaran conspiracy after all. Are we to believe that Ye cared so little for her daughter that she allowed her to commit suicide for what is essentially a cruel trick on the part of the Trisolarans?

Similar problems abound elsewhere in the novel. The scenes in the Three Body game lead the readers to sympathize with the awful plight of the Trisolarans, which is fine as that is indeed part of the plan. But then we later learn that despite the fact that their civilization is periodically reset every once in a while, they have still advanced their technology to an astonishing degree. Not only are they able to build a substantial fleet of interstellar warships which with to invade the Earth, albeit ones travelling at sub-light speeds, but the final reveal of their Sophont technology essentially amounts to femtometre-scale materials engineering. This should give them a ridiculous amount of computing power. Even if the Three Body Problem has no closed form analytic solution, it should still be easily possible to create models of the interactions of their three suns that good enough for practical predictions. More to the point, with the level of technology that they possess, they should be able to more or less ignore whatever their suns are doing. They could harden their civilization to withstand whatever environmental conditions their suns can throw at them or simply run away to somewhere safer. Who cares about solar energy when you can manipulate fundamental particles to that level?

A more serious problem is that the novel lacks any kind of unifying theme, except for the banal one that humans who hope for aliens to save them from themselves are pretty dumb.  In fact, despite their weirdly different physiology and the uniqueness of the environment they evolved in, the Trisolarans turn out to be psychologically fairly similar to humans after all. It very much feels like that author are just packing in whatever ideas and technologies that he thinks is cool and fun to play around with without any regard to whether or not they make sense in a shared context. This means that it’s a plot-driven novel that is a lot of fun to read but it doesn’t open your mind to new insights like great science-fiction should. Also, I found myself very annoyed by a quirk of the author’s writing, something that I’ve also noted in other pieces of Chinese online fiction: whenever the scene involves an attractive young woman, the writing turns stupid. The author feels like he needs to stop for a moment and describe exactly how that woman is attractive, billowing hair, slender waist, white skin and so forth and yet he would never think to do that for male characters or even female characters that the author doesn’t consider to be attractive. It’s infuriatingly poor writing but thankfully it’s most endemic at the beginning.

All that said, given how weak the line-up was, I still think The Three Body Problem deserved its Hugo win last year. It’s decent science-fiction and is solidly entertaining but if this is the best that China has to offer that I have to say that I’m disappointed.

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