The OF Blog: Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem

Monday, November 03, 2014

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem

Those who survived that initial period gradually became numb as the ruthless struggle sessions continued. The protective mental shell helped them avoid total breakdown. They often seemed to be half asleep during the sessions and would only startle awake when someone screamed in their faces to make them mechanically recite their confessions, already repeated countless times.

Then, some of them entered a third stage. The constant, unceasing struggle sessions injected vivid political images into their consciousness like mercury, until their minds, erected upon knowledge and rationality, collapsed under the assault. They began to really believe that they were guilty, to see how they had harmed the great cause of the revolution. They cried, and their repentance was far deeper and more sincere than that of those Monsters and Demons who were not intellectuals.

For the Red Guards, heaping abuse upon victims in those two latter mental stages was utterly boring. Only those Monsters and Demons who were still in the initial stage could give their overstimulated brains the thrill they craved, like the red cape of the matador. But such desirable victims had grown scarce. In Tsinghua there was probably only one left. Because he was so rare, he was reserved for the very end of the struggle session. (excerpt from Ch.1)

"Hard SF" is not an appealing term for me.  To me, it denotes science at the expense of characterization, intrepid scientists in place of other, more nuanced characters.  This is, of course, not a fair assessment of literature labeled as such, but there is enough true to it for me to avoid reading most "Hard SF" works out there for fear of such works featuring tepid prose and even worse characterization.  Sometimes, I am wrong and a work of "Hard SF" does capture my attention, sometimes even going so far as it being a good read.  Chinese writer Cixin Liu's first novel in a trilogy (translated here by Ken Liu), The Three-Body Problem, is one of those works that left a favorable impression on me.

Part of the reason why The Three-Body Problem appealed to me lies in its narrative structure.  The story begins in China during the awful years of the Cultural Revolution.  There, one young scientist, Ye Wenjie, makes the horrible mistake of having an unapproved environmentalist book in her possession and then goes about discussing it with a fellow worker.  This leads to her being placed in a sort of gilded confinement in a top-secret institution where she works with others to detect extraterrestrial radio waves over several decades.  This analogue to SETI, Red Coast Base,  has conducted secret research in which Ye has played a key role.  One day, however, their use of the sun as a booster signal leads to a surprising discovery.

But before that discovery is explored in detail, the story shifts to a sort of game/history lesson of another civilization, one that is plagued by the infamous three-body physics problem.  Hundreds of their civilizations have risen and fallen due to dramatic shifts in solar output, as the beings there have to self-dehydrate in order to survive hundreds of calamities such as extreme heat or cold or solar radiation.  With each cycle, this society, known as the Trisolaran civilization, begins to understand a bit more what is causing these erratic bursts, until at last this civilization reaches a level slightly beyond that of Earth's.  This section takes up roughly half of the novel and if it weren't presented as a series of snippets that shows life's will to exist in a fascinating light, it could have been a crippling digression.  Instead, this section adds suspense to the earlier section featuring Ye and her fellow scientists at the Red Coast Base.

The final section is a bit weaker, as it deals with the Trisolarans discovering one of the Red Coast Base's signals and despite the best efforts of a pacifist to deny the ruling group knowledge of nearby life, plans are made for an invasion of Earth.  Yet there is also fear among the Trisolarans, even despite their technological edge:  humans have demonstrated through their own history, captured in a series of broadcasts, not just a ruthlessness to them, but also the capacity for rapid advancement.  Therefore, there are some attempts at propaganda, including the creation of certain "miracles" in order to subdue the human populace.  However, there is some backlash to this, as certain Trisolarans in turn are influenced by what they see of Earth's civilizations.

This section suffers not just from a relative lack of characterization (beforehand, Ye and some of the earlier Trisolaran characters were well-developed in terms of motive and in nuanced action), but also from the realization that this section is just a bridge to the action that apparently will occur in the latter two novels.  While this lack of a clear conclusion weakens the novel somewhat, it is something that very well may be rectified in the subsequent volumes.  Certainly The Three-Body Problem is a fast-paced narrative, one that feels as though it were originally composed in English (Ken Liu's translation is excellent).  It has enough dynamic characters to make even the more scientific elements of the plot more intriguing.  Also, its use of 20th century Chinese history makes for an interesting read, as there are certain motivations behind the Red Coast Base that differ significantly from what an American reader might expect for certain situations.  All in all, The Three-Body Problem is one of the best "Hard SF" novels that I've read in a decade or more.

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