If you read one Science Fiction book this year, make it the Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu. It is the first book in the Three Body trilogy, and an exceptional starting point for people interested in reading Chinese genre translations.
I really want to get into a thorough exploration of the work, but that’s going to tread into some spoilery territory, so what I’ll do is start with a brief review up top and then include the longer spoiler review at the bottom. I’ll provide ample warning, so if you haven’t read the Three Body Problem and want to be surprised you’ll get plenty of warning.
The non-spoiler review
The Three Body Problem starts with a gut-punch and never lets up from there. And that’s part of what makes this book so exceptional. Chinese fiction, especially, has a different pace and structure from western fiction. As a result, translations of Chinese novels often have issues with pace.
This is not the case here. Ken Liu has tread a very masterful line between preserving the cadence of speech and the structure of the story on one hand, while providing a book that flows correctly in English. If you’re familiar with works translated from Chinese it will still feel like a translation – but it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, easily on a par with the Shapiro translation of Outlaw of the Marsh, which has long been my gold standard. In fact, Liu’s translation likely exceeds even that one.
The impeccably paced story starts in the throes of one of the most tumultuous periods of the Cultural Revolution, before jumping to the near future. It introduces us to a world populated by scientists an soldiers, plutocrats and police. One scientist, Wang Miao, is recruited to investigate an unusual rash of suicides among theoretical physicists. The extra-governmental cabal that recruits him hints darkly that these deaths are part of an ongoing secret war.
As Wang digs deeper into the mystery his whole world begins to fall apart. And then there is that tantalizing video game…
Exploring topics including cycles of history, chaos and order, the lasting impact of violence on the psyche of survivors, string theory and first contact, it would be an understatement to say that the Three Body Problem is an ambitious book. However it is not a book in which ambition outstrips ability, and Liu Cixin manages to keep several thematic balls in the air with apparent ease, deftly tying the suggestion that, “other than Stable Eras, all times are Chaotic Eras,” both to mathematical problems in chaotic systems and to politics.
Madeline Ashby recently discussed how she would like to do away with the idea that there is a binary division between hard and soft SF. I think The Three Body Problem provides a valuable example for why she’s right. This story is a scientifically rigorous story about scientists. And that’s effectively the operating definition for the hardest of the hard SF. And yet this is also a story which is entirely driven by the internal lives of its protagonists (and antagonists), and one which is much more interested in the impact of a cultural movement on the world than the direct impact on technology. These are both hallmarks of soft SF. And being constrained by neither of these binary positions it’s a better novel.
A few characters stand out: Wang Miao is an interesting protagonist – at times sharp witted and incisive, at other times retreating and confused. We’re invited to empathize with his sense of awe with the circumstances he’s thrust into, his vulnerability in the face of something much bigger than himself, while still being able to understand why he is the central figure for much of the story.
Ye Wenjie is another example of a beautifully complex character. Sometimes a kindly grandmother, other times a stubborn intellectual, always somebody struggling with the remnants of post-traumatic stress that was never allowed to heal, she is the thread that connects the disparate times and themes of the book most closely and is wonderfully rendered.
Shi (Da Shi) Qiang would have been the hero of a lesser work. This morally suspect disgraced soldier and failing cop is a man whose main failing seems to be a total inability to keep his mouth shut. And yet his bluff charm, easy humour and impish ingenuity make him lovable, even when it becomes clear he’s pretty much a total psychopath. Positioning him as a foil to the cerebral Wang Miao helps to establish this story as happening in the world – and gives the story enough dirt under its nails to remove it from what might otherwise seem an ivory tower parlour mystery.
This is about all I can say without venturing into spoiler territory.
So be forewarned.
If you haven’t read the book and want to avoid spoilers turn back now.
The spoiler review
Chaotic systems and cyclical systems
Compare the Trisolarian statement that, “other than Stable Eras, all times are Chaotic Eras” with the thesis of the first Chinese novel, “a kingdom long united must divide, a kingdom long divided must unite,” and we can see a through-line in the idea of history as a cyclical process.
And yet, where Luo Guanzhong saw destiny and inevitability, Liu Cixin instead invites chaos and unpredictability. While it is true that history cycles between periods of relative stability and harmony, and periods of conflict, he proposes, we cannot know when such a period will end, or even the form the conflict will take.
The factional divides within the ETO mirror the previous factional divides in the Red Guard so closely. Both are born of idealism. Both invite the disaffected. Both fall first into fanaticism and then into nihilism and both are ultimately most vulnerable to internal divisions brought about by their own fanaticism.
What lends an air of cyclicality to this is the way in which Ye Wenjie is so effectively demonstrated as a victim of the Cultural Revolution. She watches her father be murdered for refusing to compromise his principles. She watches her mother morph into something she can barely recognize in order to survive. This is a relationship she is never able (or even particularly motivated) to recover. She learns second-hand of her sister’s death but we, as the audience, are given the opportunity to witness this otherwise disconnected event in almost lurid detail: the passion of the believer and the ultimate futility of her death presented in language more poetic than the rest of the book.
She suffers betrayal at the hands of a would-be friend because he is in a position to avoid punishment for daring to have a differing opinion by casting the blame on her. Her refuge is effective a prison overseen by the military – and by the time she arrives there, almost dead, she is more than willing to sign away any vestige of freedom in exchange for nothing more than security.
And so her decision that humanity is incapable of governing itself, and the extreme action she takes to ensure that the Trisolarians are able to discover the location of the earth are understandable as a person in the depths of powerful post-traumatic stress. The world stabilizes around her, but she doesn’t even notice because she’s so wrapped in her own pain.
And yet, the organization that grows out of her actions, the one she becomes the titular commander of (even if not so much in actual function) rapidly falls into the same factional in-fighting and extremism that informed the cultural revolution.
Out of her desire to save humanity from the destruction of its own Chaotic Eras, she sows the seeds for the collapse of the next Stable Era.
Wang Miao, on the other hand, is very much a product of stable times. When we first meet him, he tells a gang of police and generals to get lost, secure that his position of relative wealth and prestige is sufficient to protect him. And it works – they have to plead with him to come to a meeting with them. They can’t just compel cooperation from Wang like previous government forces did from Ye. Furthermore, though he might have been old enough to remember at least the end of the Cultural Revolution, we never learn much at all about what he was doing at that time. It’s the Deng era of opening up and stability that define his experience.
It’s unsurprising he’s reluctant to involve himself in a shadowy conflict when he’s got such a pleasant bourgeois life.
This makes his shock when the world starts twisting into something far weirder all the more intense and poignant.
While Ye, unable to recognize the arrival of peace, and unwilling to accept that the world has stabilized makes a terrible and portentous decision because she can’t accept peace, it is ultimately the idea that the world is descending into chaos that Wang struggles with most.
By the time he’s willingly stringing his monofilament lines across the Panama Canal, watching unflinchingly as it slices a sailor into several pieces, we realize how tenuous our sense of comfort is – how any time the world might descend into chaos.
Shi Qiang presents one final view of how people relate to chaos and stability. He’s not broken by chaos like Ye, nor must he learn to adapt like Wang. Rather he thrives off chaos.
This “demon” laughs, teases and boozes his way through situations that leave the people around him reeling. It’s Shi who sees something fishy in the “miracles” sent to confound Wang, Shi who suggests using Wang’s monofilament to take the Adventist base and he expresses no remorse either at the deaths of all the Adventists, or of the limited civilian casualties the plan will cause. He even suggests attacking during the day to minimize the risk that sleeping Adventists might survive.
When the Trisolarians send their final message to Earth, declaring everyone there insects, Ye goes to watch the sun set on Humanity in the place where she doomed it. Wang descends into depression. And Qiang leads his allies to a town afflicted by locusts.
He points out that the locusts might be as beneath humans as the humans appear to be beneath Trisolarians. But the locusts still thrive, despite everything humanity does. Even though humans never had to deal with the madness of living on a planet in a trinary star system, adapting is something we’re adept at. Shi Qiang invites chaos. It’s his constant ally.
Science in the Three Body Problem
There are a few interesting branches of science discussed or extrapolated from in the Three Body Problem. Since it is science fiction I figured I should at least touch on them.
The Three Body Problem
The titular problem is a classical physics dilemma. While two bodies act on each other in a predictable fashion, they move toward each other unless acted upon by an outside force, introducing a third body causes the system to become chaotic.
The near impossibility of the task occupies much of the Three Body game segments of the story – as Wang learns the history of the Trisolarian attempt to chart the behavior of their solar system sufficiently to be able to survive its Chaotic Eras and maximize its Stable Eras.
There’s also multiple instances of factions divided into threes within the book: Battle Command, the ETO and the Trisolarians for example, or within the ETO, the Adventists, Redemptionists and Survivalists. These allow this classical problem to both serve as a metaphor for the conflicts of disparate groups, and to be reflected by the chaotic actions of the various factions.
A solar antenna
I’m not certain how fantastical this is. But Liu’s description of Ye Wenjie using the sun as a supermassive antenna for trans-solar transmission is really cool. It made me want to learn more.
I’m still not entirely sold on string theory. It remains resistant to experimental verification and isn’t parsimonious. That said, the Trisolarian plot depends on unfolding protons from 11 dimensional string theoretical complexity into 2 dimensions in order to create proton-sized artificial intelligences. This leads to one of the most beautifully abstract areas of the text, which I loved every moment.
These things are starting to exist in the real world. How long before we get Wang Miao’s weaponized version?
The Three Body Problem is a tour de force of speculative fiction. It fluctuates frequently between wonder, humour and despair. Ultimately this is a story about how people break, and it breaks its protagonists beautifully. And yet, for all their brokenness it ends on a bitter note of hope.
This, when you consider the scope of Chinese fiction over the last 500 years, positions the story beautifully in the context of its antecedents.
If you regularly read translated SF you’ve probably already put the Three Body Problem on your to-read list.
If you don’t, this book is a perfect place to start, beautifully written and beautifully translated.