Monday, April 4, 2016

Wobbly Relations of Past, Present, and Future: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (Translated by Ken Liu)

Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu, starts heartbreaking, becomes slow and seemingly random, and ends awesomely weird and fast paced.  Deep thoughts ensue throughout.  I see why this won the 2015 Hugo for best novel.

Wobbly Temporal Relations

The novel begins in China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's-70's.  As this is one of the most heartbreaking chapters in the history of the 20th century, it's not surprising that this part of the novel is heartbreaking as a physicist is killed in front of his family by revolutionary youth.  I was previously aware of some general aspects of the Cultural Revolution, but the translator's footnotes explain a lot of the details (the footnotes aren't obtrusive -- in fact, they help a lot).

Some reviewers find the writing to be unemotional, but I disagree, especially in how the characters relate to the Cultural Revolution.  I can only imagine this resonates far more deeply for people who lived in China at the time and for 21st century Chinese citizens coming to grips with this history.

The three body problem is an issue in orbital mechanics that plays a role in the book, but metaphorically it could be read as a problem for the relationships -- individual, collective, metaphysical -- between the past, present, and future.  In this book (and in life) the past is part of the present and the seeds of the future are in the past.  As Huayan Buddhist philosophers might say the past, present, and future are mutually interdependent: each influences the other, and each is partially present in the other.  If this is right in some sense, whether metaphorically or literally, the wobbly temporal structure of The Three-Body Problem is no mere accident, but a case of medium as message.

To the Future and Back (and Forth)

In the second part of the novel, we jump ahead about 40 years when we meet Wang, a nanomaterials scientist.  The book jumps back and forth in time throughout, which can be disorienting, but come to think of it, this may well be the author's intention.  Wang learns about shadowy organizations that may or may not be connected to scientists who committed suicide and then he starts playing a virtual reality game called Three Body.  The scenes in the video game are like psychedelic dreams: seriously, this is some trippy stuff.   Still, readers, along with Wang, come to suspect that something deeper than a weird game is going on.

Eventually Wang meets Ye Wenjie, astrophysicist and daughter of the murdered physicist from the first part of the book.  We get flashbacks about what Ye has been up to for the last 40 years, and eventually we discover that she was involved with first contact with extraterrestrials (we later learn they're called Trisolarians).

While I love the book, my main criticism is that the middle sections lag a bit and don't make much sense until you finish the book (but it does all eventually make sense, so hang in there!).  The narrative starts to feel jumbled and confusing a few hundred pages in.

I can forgive all this, though, on account of the last 100 pages.  They redeem the whole thing.  I even came to think that what looked like a jumbled mess in the middle was actually a carefully constructed plot structure designed to come to fruition at the end.

I don't want to say too much about what happens in the last 100 pages, but I will say that fans of hard SF, crazy theoretical physics, conspiracies, deep thoughts about our place in the universe, and/or first contact stories will find this to be worth the price of admission.  It's Arthur C. Clarke-style Big Ideas SF.

The Philosophy Report: Is Nature Uniform?  What to Expect from ETs?

Philosophy is mentioned several times, including the Chinese philosopher, Mozi, and the German philosopher, Leibniz, who are both characters in the game.  Aside from such small connections, two major issues are the uniformity of nature and the reaction to extraterrestrial intelligence.

In philosophy of science (and regular life for that matter) we all rely on what some philosophers have called the principle of the uniformity of nature.  This is usually discussed in (constant) conjunction with David Hume's problem of induction.  Could we live as successfully in the world as we do, could we do science, if the laws of nature were not in some sense uniform across time and space?  If the laws of nature varied over time or between countries or planets, could we really get around?  Could we do science?  Or -- closer to Hume's point -- whether this principle is really true or not, should we believe it?  Could we stop believing it even if it turned out to be unjustified?

But what if we had lived on a planet where as far as we could tell the laws of nature do sometimes change, where things are never the same over time, could we have evolved as we did and could we have developed science?  Those are some of the intriguing questions raised in The Three-Body Problem.

One of my philosophical quibbles with the novel is that I'm skeptical, even with the vaster periods of time involved, that much of a civilization could develop in such a place, much less one as advanced as that of the Trisolarians.  Such beings may not have even evolved to a point where they could wonder, as Hume did, whether belief in the principle of the uniformity of nature is epistemologically justified.  Another philosophical quibble is whether another civilization would necessarily follow the Scientific Revolution-Industrial Revolution-Atomic Age-Information Age progression that was followed on Earth first in the West and then elsewhere.  Maybe there are material limitations or structures of the evolution of ideas that govern such progressions, but since we have a limited sample to work from I see see no reason to assume this progression.

On the issue of extraterrestrial contact, Liu gives a lot to think about.  In the novel he presents issues that he explicitly points out in his postscript to the American edition.  Should we expect more scientifically advanced civilizations to be more morally advanced than humanity?  Would contact with ETs promote a moral evolution in our treatment of other human beings?  Is the human race worth saving?  Can these questions help us think about coming to grips with our own past (like the Cultural Revolution) and the moral complexities of human nature?

Another quibble is that I totally agree that we should be nice to each other regardless of whether ETs are out there and that we should be cautious about first contact, but I think we have so little to work with that it's hard to even play the prediction game about first contact (see a unique and intriguing take on first contact in Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon).  Sure, I hope ETs are more benevolent than we are, but I admit I have little basis for thinking so aside from the fact that super mean ETs might wipe themselves out, but can we assume that?  My main worry would be that our caution would translate into bellicosity: excessive worry about violent conflict could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Perhaps a more open-minded approach in the face of something truly unknown would be wiser.  But I'm not sure.

Imagination Disciplined by Logic: Getting my Fix

None of my quibbles, either about the writing or the ideas, dampen my enthusiasm for the book.  The last 100 pages honestly contained some of the best reading thrills I've had since I finished the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks.  I read both philosophy and science fiction for the same reason: I experience deep joy in flights of imagination disciplined by logic.  That both Lius (author and translator) gave me a fix of that joy fills me with praise, thanks, and admiration.  I'm excited to read the sequels.

Bonus Music!

Instrumental post-rock band, Red Sparowes, has a concept album based on the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution called Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun.  I thought of this album and its incredibly long track titles as I was reading The Three-Body Problem.  Check it out.


  1. Excellent review. Fascinating stuff, especially the thoughts on extraterrestrials. Thanks for posting!

  2. Great review.. always looking for something new and fresh in Sci-Fi and this looks like it ticks those boxes.

    1. Thanks! It's definitely an interesting book. It gets a little weird and rambling in the middle, but stick with it! It gets awesome at the end.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.