Monday, September 22, 2014

Review of The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The opening line of the canononical Chinese novel The Three Kingdoms reads:“A nation divided must unite, and a nation united must divide.” Implicit to this statement is that any given society is in continual transition between periods of social stability and times of war and chaos.  It begs the question: how to turn off this perpetual ferris wheel of existence?  How to apply the brake in a stable period, affording humanity peace and quiet?  None yet able to answer these questions in practical terms, Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (2014, Macmillan-Tor/Forge) removes the ferris wheel’s housing to get a better look at the motor inside. Triangulating classical and modern physics, alien contact, and 20 th century Chinese history, it is a deceivingly simple examination of perhaps the most relevant issue facing humanity as a whole: how to stay united?  The Three Kingdoms' scenario has become the three-body problem.

The Three-Body Problem opens on a powerfully symbolic scene.  The irrationality of China’s Cultural Revolution set as the benchmark for chaos, a physics professor dies for his understanding of the world.  His daughters, who happen to fall on opposite sides of the ideological fence, are left to carry on the family name, with one, Ye Wenjie, going on to become an astrophysicist.  But after transcribing a letter to help a friend, she nearly lands in the same pot of boiling water as her father, and is lucky only to be exiled to a rural mountain top radar installation where a secret government project is underway.  Many years later, Wenjie’s daughter meets a nanomaterials researcher, Wang Miao.  Miao heavily involved in a computer game called Three Body, his discoveries in the virtual environment gradually evolve into the real world as the secrets behind the game and Wenjie’s mountaintop project collide in a galaxy-spanning plot with life-changing implications for the future of civilization.

Wonderfully balancing history, theory, and plot, The Three-Body Problem is a rich, engaging spread of ideas.  Miao’s Three Body game is a quest to absolve a virtual civilization from the chaos which inevitably results from the inability to predict when the orbits of its three suns will intersect.  Significant figures of old—Aristotle, Mozi (look him up), Einstein, Copernicus, King Wen (look him up), and others—playing roles in the game, the evolution of their contributions to world culture and science help to bring the civilization closer and closer to its social idyll, modern times just on the horizon.  In Miao’s real world, however, the concepts are more evenly divided amongst soft and hard science fiction.  Wenjie’s SETI work, particularly radio waves and particle movement, slowly come to prominence—the climax a subtle fireworks of theoretical physics.  Likewise sharing the stage are the cultural and social ideals—the true movers and shakers of humanity—swirling around Wenjie and Miao, helping to define their lives and the society they live in.  The military, important discoveries in material science, a mysterious string of suicides, the suppression of knowledge, and cults of personality drive the narrative to its intriguing, out of this world conclusion.  A wonderfully delineated meta-mirror that reflects back through the novel to link with the opening sequence, this conclusion binds the lot into a solid whole, proving Liu’s structural choices, character perspectives, and concept placement effective at multiple levels. 

Ignoring gadgets and sense of wonder space opera sensationalism, Liu Cixin focuses on aspects of existence that truly matter.  A fervent examination of the ideological wheels within wheels that prevent humanity from having control over its self-destructive tendencies when the rubber actually hits the road, The Three-Body Problem directly confronts the blemishes on mankind’s record hoping to gain a better understanding.  Like a true scientist, Liu explores the Cultural Revolution—a time when “In the face of madness, rationality was powerless”—trying to get as good an understanding as possible of the base conditions from social, philosophical, and scientific perspectives before taking the next step. (If my understanding is correct, Liu builds towards a hypothetical solution in the second and third books of the trilogy.)

Regarding the translation, some readers may dislike the square edges of The Three-Body Problem.  Ken Liu ignoring the belles lettres approach of someone like Lin Yutang, the majority of the novel is short, declarative sentences.  Authenticity chosen over transfiguration, the text maps the source almost analogously, and as a result is slightly eschew from the style and presentation of what some expect a ‘good Western novel’ to be. Chinese a nuanced language that depends on what is written between the lines as much as in them and containing cultural inferences that go back as far as 5,000 years, what seems simple on the surface is, in fact, packed with meaning once a person pauses to truly ponder the statement being made or knows the historical background.  Liu handling the latter via footnotes, he does not interrupt narrative flow to digress on said history or culture.  The resulting rhythm of words, while slightly different than our norm, will not hinder readers who participate in fiction at both superficial and conceptual levels.

In the end, The Three-Body Problem is precisely what science fiction should be: a socially conscientious literature of engaging ideas.  Liu Cixin passionately interested in humanity’s tendency toward cyclical self-destruction, the novel is a brilliant combination of hard and soft science fiction that digs at philosophical, social, and personal aspects behind mankind’s negative behavior.  Its visuals are sporadic but powerful: the blind message to the stars is beautifully paranoid, the pyramid and pendulum of the Three Body game arrest the mind’s eye; and the matrices of particle acceleration in the conclusion are a treat.  Commonly held understandings occasionally challenged, the iterations of civilization as perceived by Liu Cixin (i.e. a non-Western mind) are no less informative and fascinating.  Though the prose lacks the rounded edges of Western fiction, style is subsumed by the profound nature of the ideas under discussion and, if anything, directly relates the import of the novel. For its aliens and desire to better humanity the reader will be reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, while for its belief in and dependence on science, the works of Greg Egan came to mind.  But Liu Cixin undoubtedly has a stamp of his own on the proceedings, and as a result the novel makes a fine addition to the works of Stanislaw Lem, the Strugatsky brothers, Jules Verne, and other international science fiction writers already available in English.  Fitting right in with this group, we can only hope The Three-Body Problem is just the beginning of Liu’s availability in the English speaking world.

A side note about the text:  In my understanding of Chinese history, one thing is clear: Mao Zedong (Mao Tsetung) was, and to some degree still is, untouchable.  The slightest hint of libel once cause for anything from exile to prison, perhaps even execution, talking with my Chinese friends in recent years I notice they are willing to question whether his leadership brought Chinese civilization to a better place in private conversation, but in public I hear nothing of the sort.  The Three-Body Problem is thus intriguing to me.  At no time directly pointing a finger at the feared leader, Liu Cixin nevertheless condemns the Cultural Revolution Mao instigated in no uncertain terms.  Published in China in 2007, it’s thus interesting to note how far censorship has been relaxed.  Forty years ago The Three-Body Problem would have been unpublishable but is today lauded as among its best.  The Chinese government still controls the press and have in place an (easily circumventable) firewall on the Chinese internet, but freedom of speech is slowly changing in the Middle Kingdom. 


  1. I've been looking forward to this for awhile now; glad to hear that it lives up to expectations. Thanks for posting such a thorough and engaging review.

  2. Not available at any of my local libraries, but I'll keep an eye out for this one.

    1. And I don't imagine it will be anytime soon. It has a mid-October release date.