With science and technology development frozen by alien technology and an alien army force rushing towards the earth at near light speed, what’s going to happen to us?
Writing an essay on The Three-Body Problem (abbreviated by Chinese readers to Three-Body) has become one of the hardest tasks for me. I finished reading it a few months ago now but I couldn’t write down anything good enough. It’s like when Guo Jing was asked what he likes about Huang Rong, he adores her so much but because he’s not skilful in speech, he just keeps saying, she’s nice, very very nice.
The Three-Body Problem is the first book of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Chinese author Liu Cixin. This science fiction trilogy is: The Three-Body Problem (2008), The Dark Forest (2008) and Death’s End (2010). The Three-Body Problem was serialised in a Chinese magazine in 2006 and published as a book in 2008. An English translation of The Three-Body Problem by Ken Liu was published in 2014. It won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel and was nominated for the 2014 Nebula Award for Best Novel. The Dark Forest was translated and published in English in 2015, Death’s End (hopefully) some time this year! My very own husband was suspicious at the beginning and was converted after the whole story was spilt out from me every day in great excitement as I read it (despite my broken English and out of sequence narrative), he read it all over again, and is now looking forward to reading the last book like a kid looking forward to Christmas (the release date on Amazon keeps postponing, which is exasperating!).
“The three-body problem” is one of them and is obviously one of the key words in the story. If you’re a physicist, you might have heard of the term. I just checked its Wiki page but closed it fairly quickly. It’s more fun I think if you know nothing about it. The second storyline is about a girl’s life during the infamous Cultural Revolution. What did the world do to her and how did she react? Small and seemingly insignificant incidents along the way lead to disastrous consequences for mankind. The third storyline is about those who try to understand the situation and get ready for the battles which are coming in 400 years time.
There is some vivid character-building. No fancy language. The narrative of the events is straightforward but fast-paced and exciting. The tense pace is blended with good humour. It’s serious but never dull. It won’t let you put it down!
To help me start I consulted Wikipedia; apparently science fiction includes certain elements:
1. A time setting in the future, in alternative timelines, or in a historical past that contradicts known facts of history or the archaeological record.
Interestingly, science fiction can happen in the past too. I never thought of it. Three-Body ticks this box. However it’s done in a very subtle way. The big context of the Cultural Revolution storyline is true to history. It’s so real that when the “fiction” bit comes in, I had trouble to identify it even though I’m Chinese myself. I wonder at what point average English readers start to realise “this can’t be true”?
It’s the same for the storyline which is set in the current age. It’s set in the future, but a close future. Therefore due to my lack of common sense and scientific knowledge, I couldn’t tell where I was on the timeline of the science and technology development until it had become really obvious.
The setting of the third storyline is even better. I don’t want to ruin it. It presents an alien world in great detail, which is so foreign but so real in my head, because the scientific theory behind it makes good sense. One leading character takes the reader into that alien scenery, and through his eyes we try to make sense of this world. When he solves one problem after another we gradually gain a clearer sense. But when we think we’ve learnt everything, bigger surprises await.
2. A spatial setting or scenes in outer space (e.g. spaceflight), or other worlds, or on subterranean earth.
Half of the stories happen on earth. Actually it’s mostly set in Beijing, my home city. I love the fact that some of the characters even talk in a Beijing accent (unfortunately this doesn’t come through in the English translation). People travel further in two following books. But I like the earth-based plots best.
The other half happen on a planet which is four light years away. Geography has influence on many aspects of a country, even history. At higher latitudes, flour products dominate dinner tables whereas at lower latitudes, it’s rice. In Iceland, you can have shark, puffin and reindeer. Big cities in Japan have subway staff who push people onto trains, due to the high population density of the cities and limited land. Napoleon retreated from Moscow because it was cold. Australia has flying doctors who rescue farmers bitten by snakes. Etc etc.
It’s the same for a planet in the universe, as it’s clearly shown in the book. I am often amazed and thankful for the beauty of our earth as God’s good creation, but I never thought of how fortunate we are on this ‘heavenly’ earth, despite natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes. After Noah’s flood, the human race was never wiped out entirely. Civilisation has been developing without major interruption for thousands of years. It’s all taken for granted. Just imagine if huge comets rained down on us as frequently as the news agencies report terrorist attacks? What impact would it have on governments, societies and my street?
3. Characters that include aliens, mutants, androids, or humanoid robots and other types of characters arising from a future human evolution.
What image of “average” alien have you got in your mind? I’m not a big fan of science fiction films, so my image of alien is limited to E.T, and District 9. The appearance of “Trisolaran” is not described at all. However, I got to know their way of communication, their personality, history and technology, government and social structure very well. I empathise with their struggle since the beginning of their world although they’re the “baddies”. The relationship between Trisolaran and human becomes more complicated and delicate in the following books. Are they enemies, friends, saviours or victims?
4. Futuristic or plausible technology such as ray guns, teleportation machines, and humanoid computers.
How can the voice of the earth be heard in this big universe? If someone managed to do it, what would the reply be? What would they do? If they were on their way to destroy us, at almost the speed of light, what have we got as human beings to defend our earth?
I’m no expert in technology. There was a bit talking about the basic principle of computer operating which was the most boring for me, but after all, this is a battle of technology. The climax of the story is one of the best evidences for this. It’s also one of my favourite pages in the book (it’s genius!), the intensity of the story not the killing bit – I would describe it as killing people with one of the most advanced technologies in one of the most barbaric ways.
5. Scientific principles that are new or that contradict accepted physical laws, for example time travel, wormholes, or faster-than-light travel or communication.
It’s eye-opening I have to say. I wish the book was available when I was in school, I might become a scientist instead! A lot of it is about physics, physical cosmology, astronomy, about which I had no idea at all. The author explains them in simple and interesting ways, even people from arts and social science backgrounds (me) can appreciate them and find them fascinating. Especially when it becomes a matter of life or death, it suddenly seems to be very relevant. More amazing theories and ideas are introduced in the following books, by which time I have stopped altogether trying to distinguish between reality and fiction.
6. New and different political or social systems, e.g. dystopian, post-scarcity, or post-apocalyptic.
This aspect is touched on as a follow-on issue from the geographic element. The political and social system of this alien world is closely linked to its natural surroundings. The author didn’t spend too much effort on it, but did enough to show readers the difference.
7. Paranormal abilities such as mind control, telepathy, telekinesis, (i.e. “The Force” in Star Wars) and teleportation.
This aspect is not scientific at all. Nothing super-natural is included in this book. Everything has a concrete theory to support it. However, Trisolarans are different biologically. An interesting point for a linguistic enthusiast (me) is to ask: what’s the function of verbal language? To communicate or not? Do people who speak different languages behave differently?
8. Other universes or dimensions and travel between them.
There are some pages on micro dimensions and I was lost hopelessly… More interesting stories on this subject are told in following books.
As a Christian, I find one more interesting aspect about this book. I know very little about the author, but he seems to have some knowledge in Christianity. Many concepts of Christianity are mentioned, sometimes correctly, sometimes not so correct. But it makes the story extra thought-provoking for me.
For example (spoiler warning!), when a physics scholar was cross-examined during the Cultural Revolution, he explained the Big Bang theory and the hypothesis that there was absolutely nothing before it. The conclusion the young persecutors came to, to my surprise, was that it indicated that there was a God. When questioned if he believed God exists, the scholar answered that he wasn’t sure and science couldn’t prove it either way. That was the last straw. A non-believing scientist was killed by believing in science and defending the possibility of the existence of God. This argument and result of the event disorientated me a lot. In the UK at least, people use the Big Bang theory as an argument that there is no God! How do people come to completely opposite conclusions? (Plus Genesis and the Big Bang theory don’t exclude each other if people are open enough to read and think about it.)
Another example is the description and reflection on sin. Thinking about her life through the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution, the character’s conclusion disagrees with the traditional thinking of Chinese philosophy that people are originally good. It summarises: humans are hopelessly sinful and we’re helpless to save ourselves – we need a power beyond us to rescue us.
The Three-Body Problem definitely covers a lot more than warfare in the cosmos. I love the fact that it prompts readers to think about big questions in life. We’re sometimes buried too deep in homework, housework, bank statements, TV dramas, shop promotions, celebrity gossip. As it was said wisely thousands of years ago, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Is it not worth stopping and thinking about creation, life and death, and the meaning behind it all?