Book Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Translated by Ken Liu)

What’s It About

It’s an alien invasion novel that features the Cultural Revolution, a computer game that incorporates the entirety of Western and Eastern scientific thought and a series of jaw dropping set pieces.

Representative Paragraph

Qin Shi Huang, Newton, Von Neumann, and Wang all stood on the platform at the apex of the pyramid. This platform was similar to the one where Wang had met Mozi. It was filled with astronomical instruments, some of which were of recent European design. Below them, a magnificent phalanx of thirty million Qin soldiers was arrayed on the ground. The entire formation fit inside a square six kilometers on each side. As the sun rose, the phalanx remained still like a giant carpet made of thirty million terra-cotta warriors. But when a flock of birds wandered above the phalanx, the birds immediately felt the potential for death from below and scattered anxiously in chaos.

[…]

On the ground below, colors in the phalanx began to shift and move. Complicated and detailed circuit patterns appeared and gradually filled the entire formation. Ten minutes later, the army had made a thirty-six kilometer square computer motherboard.

Should I Read It?

Absolutely.  This is Science Fiction with huge ideas and even larger set pieces.  The human computer quoted above is only one example of the many magnificent and crazy concepts that Cixin Liu brings to the table.  And if the novel becomes all exposition and no character in the last third that’s entirely OK because this is the sort of info-dump you want to read.

I know very little about the challenges and difficulties of translation, but given how accessible this novel was – so much so I’m not sure the endnotes are really necessary – Ken Liu should also be applauded for his work.

Commentary

The Three Body Problem starts unexpectedly with the Cultural Revolution.  I say unexpectedly because as a result of my own cultural ignorance I wasn’t aware how critical a Chinese writer could be about this pivotal moment in contemporary Chinese history.*  And Liu doesn’t pull his punches.  A young Ye Wenjie watches as her father is beaten to death by the Red Guards for teaching a standard model of quantum mechanics.  This moment, unsurprisingly, is a defining one in Ye Wenjie’s life, and when she later becomes an astrophysicist at a clandestine Chinese radar installation, she will make a terrible decision, one that may lead to the end of the human race.  All because she can’t forgive humanity for what happened to her father.

We’re not told about Ye Wenije’s decision until later in the novel.  Instead we leave Ye as a young woman just as she’s about to join the team who run the aforementioned installation and jump 30 or so years into the future where we are introduced to Wang Miao, a researcher into nanomaterial, who is facing a unique problem.  He’s started seeing a countdown clock in the corner of his vision:

[Wang] drove to the hospital. Along the way, the countdown mercilessly hovered in front of the real world. It was able to adjust its brightness so that, no matter what the background, it showed up distinctly. Wang even tried to temporarily overwhelm the display by staring into the rising sun. But it was useless. The infernal numbers turned black and showed up against the orb of the sun like projected shadows, which made them even more frightening.

It’s a horrific idea, a clock that refuses to leave you alone, even following you into your dreams, that also must foreshadow something terrible because, well, it’s a countdown clock.  The scenes where Wang becomes increasingly desperate, frightening his family and concerning his co-workers, are wonderfully tense.

But this isn’t a horror novel and Wang quickly manages his countdown clock after he receives enigmatic advice to shut down his nanomaterial project.  The moment he does the clock vanishes.  But that’s only the beginning of Wang’s story because he is then introduced to a computer game that’s goal is to solve the Three Body Problem.  Why this particular conundrum involving physics and gravitational forces is a key to the novel’s plot is something I’ll let you discover on your own.  Suffice it to say that in answering the problem the game takes Wang through what feels like the entirety of human scientific thought – both Eastern and Western.  And this panoramic and broad view of the basic principles of what constitutes our current knowledge of the universe is, frankly, breathtaking.  One of these sections includes the human computer I quoted above.

Because Liu is dealing with a number of huge ideas around quantum mechanics, gravity and computer science there’s very little time for characterisation.  Wang might be our main protagonist, but other than drama surrounding the countdown clock, he’s essentially a cipher to the plot (his family disappears once he’s drawn into the mysteries of the game).  The saving grace to all this is the re-introduction of Ye Wenjie halfway through the novel.  Liu goes back and fills in the rest of her story and how it links to Wang’s current dilemma.  These sections are by far the most human and after all the theoretical crunchiness and history of science, it is a revelation to realise that the events of this novel have a very human source:

As she pondered human nature, Ye was faced with an ultimate loss of purpose and sank into another spiritual crisis. She had once been an idealist who needed to give all her talent to a great goal, but now she realized that all that she had done was meaningless, and the future could not have any meaningful pursuits, either. As this mental state persisted, she gradually felt more and more alienated from the world. She didn’t belong. The sense of wandering in the spiritual wilderness tormented her. After she made a home with Yang, her soul became homeless. One night, Ye was working the night shift. This was the loneliest time. In the deep silence of midnight, the universe revealed itself to its listeners as a vast desolation. What Ye disliked most was seeing the waves that slowly crawled across the display, a visual record of the meaningless noise Red Coast picked up from space. Ye felt this interminable wave was an abstract view of the universe: one end connected to the endless past, the other to the endless future, and in the middle only the ups and downs of random chance—without life, without pattern, the peaks and valleys at different heights like uneven grains of sand, the whole curve like a one-dimensional desert made of all the grains of sand lined up in a row, lonely, desolate, so long that it was intolerable. You could follow it and go forward or backward as long as you liked, but you’d never find the end.

As a description of someone suffering an existential crisis, this is lovely stuff.  Much of this spiritual unease stems from what happened to her father.  An innocent and gentle and smart man who is murdered to feed the flames of an ideology.  There is this poignant and powerful scene where Ye meets three of the female Red Guards who beat her father to death (this is set after she’s responded to the alien message).  They only seem vaguely repentant, scarred by what they saw during the Revolution.  But what sticks with Ye is the comment from one of them that:

“History! History!  It’s a new age now.  Who will remember us?  Who will think of us, including you?  Everyone will forget this all completely!”

And from the echoes of that meeting, Ye comes to the conclusion that responding to the alien message was the right thing to do.  In Ye’s mind humanity needs the tough guidance of  a higher intelligence to show it the error of it ways.  So Ye responds, even if the —

message was a warning repeated three times… Do not answer! Do not answer!! Do not answer!!!… . As long as you do not answer, this world will not be able to ascertain the source of your transmission. But if you do answer, the source will be located right away. Your planet will be invaded. Your world will be conquered! Do not answer! Do not answer!! Do not answer!!!

The last third of the novel is pure info-dump as the alien’s – the Trisolarans – explain their terrible plan.  Structurally it’s this big piece of gristle at the end of a meal, but of the fatty variety that’s utterly unhealthy but yummy to eat.  The aliens’ plan not only involves quantum entanglement but explains the importance of The Three Body Problem and why Wang was seeing a countdown clock.  It’s stupendous stuff and an absolute delight to read even if the plot does literally stop cold.

The Three Body Problem is a novel that’s constantly surprising you, whether it’s the strange shifts in tone – ranging from the shocking brutality of the Cultural Revolution to the page-turning thrills of an alien invasion conspiracy – or the high concept set pieces that go well beyond anything I’ve read or had the pleasure of imagining.  It’s cinematic and it’s fun and it’s utterly lacking in pretension.  And if the characters, other than Ye Wenije, are no more than plot tokens to be moved around a galactic-spanning board, that’s fine because the vibrancy of the ideas and the sheer ambition of it all had me laughing in delight on more than occasion.

And kudos to Ken Liu for a remarkable job in translating this moveable feast of a novel.  He talks about the challenges he faced in this episode of the Coode Street podcast.

————————————

* This question was raised In a question and answer piece on i09.  In response Cixin Liu said:

 

As for your concern that my work might make me appear to be a counter-revolutionary, you need not worry. The current Chinese government is also severely critical towards the Cultural Revolution, deeming it a period of civil turmoil that harmed the country, a disaster for the nation. Still, the Cultural Revolution is still a sensitive topic in China, and when this book was first published, it was the 30th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. Out of caution, I moved the section of the novel dealing with the Cultural Revolution from the beginning to the middle of the book so as to avoid too much attention.

 

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