Review: The Three-Body Problem

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Review: The Three-Body Problem

Ye opened the resulting document, and, for the first time, a human read a message from another world.

The content was not what anyone had imagined. It was a warning repeated three times.

Do not answer!

Do not answer!!

Do not answer!!!

The term “Hard Science Fiction” refers to any story where the science used is more than just a futuristic setting or a MacGuffin for the characters to chase after. Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire are two examples of this genre; the reader has to be able to grasp at least a little bit of concepts like man-made worlds or artificial intelligence in order to keep up. The way technology in these stories affects the main characters, or an entire civilization, is essential to the plot.

In Cixin Liu’s newly-translated masterpiece The Three-Body Problem, the story begins in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and ends in the present day with humanity’s realization that a war with an alien species scheduled to start in four centuries may already be lost.  It’s hard science fiction, and the science that the reader is expected to understand is theoretical physics. Brace yourselves, this one gets really deep.

Translator Ken Liu (The Grace of Kings and the award-winning short story The Paper Menagerie) had his work cut out for him to translate this. The average American reader has probably heard of the Cultural Revolution, but might not have the understanding that a native Chinese reader would of a time when their country was caught up in an anti-Western fervor. An entire generation was asked to sacrifice themselves to war and to stamp out anything that might be tainted by Capitalism. The movement practically shredded the country and destroyed millions of lives as the Red Guards (some of them children as young as fourteen) arrested, tortured, and executed anyone who was branded an enemy of the state. And “enemy of the state” could include someone as innocent as a college professor who’s introductory physics classes taught relativity (a “dangerous” theory, spread by reactionary Western academic authorities). Ken Liu manages to do a balancing act by faithfully translating the original words, while including enough exposition so that English-speaking readers can get an idea of an experience that would cause someone to give up on the human race.

I’ve mentioned in other reviews that books can suffer if the author does too much “tell” and not enough” show”. That could be a problem for some readers of this book; there is a lot of tell going on here. Exposition, narration, long pages of dialog where people discuss complex scientific concepts. What saves this book is that there is just so much going on mentally. Cixin Liu writes in his author’s note about the awe he feels when considering light-years, nanometers, the big bang.  For most people the “stories” in science are locked in mathematical equations – pretty much inaccessible to most people – so the author painstakingly explains them as best as he can, and uses them as building blocks for some of the most amazing images.

Wang looked up and saw three gigantic suns slowly spinning around an invisible origin, like an immense three-bladed fan blowing a deadly wind toward the world below.

The Three Body ProblemThe Three-Body Problem from the title refers to a puzzle in orbital mechanics, one that at the moment seems to be unsolvable. There are just too many variables, too many ways that even the smallest difference can affect the whole system. So imagine if an alien civilization had to live inside such a system. How would life adapt to an environment guaranteed to destroy civilization over and over again? And what lengths would the people go to in order to at least understand it, even if they couldn’t control what was happening? There were passages that really made me want to see this book made into a film: a field of giant pendulums moving in sync, a world losing gravity as everything is pulled towards three suns in a straight line with the planet, a truly horrible use of a nearly invisible technology to kill hundreds of people at once, and a primitive computer made entirely of thirty million soldiers standing in formation. (Loved that entire section. I was actually able to understand some of the more basic concepts of computer science the way that Liu explained it. And the method for replacing “faulty components” was brutal, but it might be a pretty satisfying idea for anyone who has to work with computers on a daily basis.)

This book is tough to give a full review for, mostly because a lot of the plot was driven by one revelation after another, and I don’t want to risk giving anything away. There were many, many times when the abstract scientific theories being discussed went right over my head, in particular the last forty or so pages when it’s revealed how the alien race plans to stop all technological development and cause scientists around the world to commit suicide by making science stop working. Quite a few times while reading this I just had to plow through and accept that the science was beyond me. But there were also those rewarding moments when I suddenly got it, when after the lead up over the course of several chapters something finally made me say “Ohhh, now I see where you were going with that.” Cixin Liu even manages to give me chills at times, especially when he can convey the terror the characters feel when finding out that everything they’ve thought were unbreakable scientific laws…weren’t.

In short, it’s work, this book, but I think I’ll be checking out the second book of the trilogy when it comes out in July, because it’s definitely worth the effort.