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Liu Cixin’s 'The Three-Body Problem'

Liu Cixin’s 'The Three Body Problem' binds together physics, philosophy, and history against a brilliant sci-fi plot.

Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body trilogy became one of the most popular science fiction series in China rapidly after its publication. Starting in 2015, English-speaking audiences were finally given the opportunity to see what China had been buzzing about since 2008, when Tor Books published an English translation of the series. The Three-Body Problem is a promising start to a science fiction series: A brilliant plot unfolds against a tightly composed background that binds together physics, philosophy, and history. It is a novel that takes time to read because the philosophical positions of each character have to be carefully considered. The back and forth between the book’s factions shows that the author carefully considered the pressing issues at hand: humanity's place in the world, the value of human civilization, and the repercussions of extraterrestrial contact. The lively translation accomplished by Ken Liu in the English version brings all these elements to life on the page for English-speaking audiences.

Imperfect Humanity

Image via npr

The novel begins in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie’s father is being put on trial before a “mass struggle session.” He is a theoretical physicist and his scientific knowledge has come under fire for being ideologically unsound. When he refuses to recant his views, he is beaten to death. Ye eventually finds herself in a logging camp in the north, where she reads a book about the environment which causes her to resent human civilization. She ponders the possibility that the relationship between humans and evil is the same as the relationship between an iceberg and the ocean. In other words, humans are composed of evil, damned to always do the wrong thing.

She is repeatedly confronted with the imperfection of humanity. A friend betrays her when she helps him send a letter to a political council on how they might better protect the environment, and Ye is interrogated. She eventually finds herself at a place near her forestry camp called “Red Coast Base.” As the novel unfolds, flashbacks to Red Coast reveal the nature of her work.

In the present day of The Three-Body Problem, Wang Miao is in charge of a nanomaterials project. He finds himself contacted by a strange union of international police and military officials engaged in fighting a mysterious enemy. He begins seeing a strange countdown on pictures he takes with his camera. Shutting down his project causes the countdown to disappear. He is also tied up in a strange virtual reality game called Three Body, which simulates the attempts of a civilization to survive a chaotic orbit around their star. As Wang Miao begins to unravel the mystery of the Three Body game and as Ye Wenjie, an old woman in the present day, continues to reveal what happened to her during her time at Read Coast, all of the novel’s tiny, seemingly unrelated pieces coalesce into a grand work of epic and deeply philosophical science fiction.

The present-day segments of the novel actually seem to take place in the late 21st century. I suspect that this timeline was intended to make room for the possibility of mass produced virtual reality suits and video games. Cixin does not delve into the social aspects of what such readily available virtual reality might mean, but he does give a positivist glimpse into how such an experience might revolutionize the field of online gaming: With the ability to feel and experience a game world allowing a player to engage the game on a deeper intellectual level.

Human Nature

Image via JayProductsV

What the book does explore in more detail, however, is philosophical consideration of the inherent goodness or badness of human civilization, as well as the interplay between ideology and science. The plot of the novel gradually comes to involve a secret organization which is hoping to facilitate an invasion of earth by an alien species. This organization believes that human civilization is at its core corrupt and evil. They believe that an outside force is the only thing capable of saving the planet.

The organization's ideology stems from a reaction to the organization’s founder’s father, an oil tycoon who remarked after a tanker disaster that the ethic of human civilization is to put human survival and comfort above all else, even if it meant driving other species to extinction. It might be hard to imagine someone saying this publicly, but I know I have heard it expressed privately before, and besides, one must only look at our current treatment of the planet to see that this ideology is expressed in actions if not in words.

The book engages the interplay between ideology, knowledge, and the practice of science. In my tease of the plot above I said that Ye’s father was killed for refusing to recant his scientific data. The data was under fire for being ideologically problematic. The issue, for those who are curious, was that to the untrained ears of the politically zealous Red Guard theoretical physics seemed undialectical, and relied too heavily on the findings of “capitalist” scientists like Einstein.

It bears mentioning here that this is not to be assumed as the standard view of Marxism-Leninism in regards to scientific discovery, but such backlashes have occurred in the history of the ideology. In the present day sections of the novel, however, there is a group called “The Frontiers of Science.” The group is interested in the ways the scientific method limits discovery. They are concerned that the discoveries that will be needed to expand technological growth will not be possible with current methods of experimentation.

Order and Disorder

Image via JayProductsV

Elsewhere in the novel, science is not regarded as mere observation of reality, but as an attempt to impose human-constructed order onto the disorder of the natural world. In this sense, science as a branch of human civilization becomes a tool of violence against nature. The proposed amorality of science opens it up to immoral action. Though this is never settled upon as the message of the novel (ultimately, the book’s “heroes” are trying to thwart the notion), the arguments made in its favor are compelling and invite the reader to consider their own position on science and progress.

The futility of trying to scientifically order the disordered natural world is summed up in the eponymous Three-Body problem. I’m not a physicist, but a little play-time with a two-dimensional gravity simulator reveals this principle to be true. A gravitational system composed of two bodies orbiting each other is fairly predictable. A system composed of three bodies orbiting each other is much harder to predict. The novel presents several people who have been trying to compose a mathematical model for three orbiting bodies for their entire lives, but such complex math requires an extremely powerful computer.

The math is there, but it is too complex for the characters to deal with. The attempt to master the physical forces of the world through observation is thwarted by the nature of the world itself. This issue is repeated again later in the novel when the endless war between bugs and humans is recounted. Despite fly swatters, DDT, and marsh drainings, humans have not been able to sweep away insect life, or even keep it out of humanity’s way. Technology is thwarted by overwhelming natural forces.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem is the first English translation of the work of China's most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin. A secret military project in search of contact with aliens takes place against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution. On Earth, conflicting camps are forming, each with plans to either welcome the beings or to fight the invasion.

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