The Three-Body Problem, by Chinese author Cixin Liu and translated by American author Ken Liu (himself winner of numerous awards), is one of the more acclaimed novels of 2014, especially because it’s the first prominent Chinese novel to have been translated into English, and it’s been published by the leading American publisher of SF, Tor, in a handsome package with a Stephan Martiniere cover illustration, and back cover blurbs by David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Mike Resnick, and others. It’s made its way onto the final ballot for the Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Awards.
It’s a first-contact story that begins during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Chinese officials of the time are aware of “American Imperialist and Soviet Revisionist” SETI efforts, and want to get their own cultural word in to any potential alien contactees. The story follows the daughter of a scientist murdered by Red Guard mobs, who later makes a discovery about the solar enhancement of radio waves, and inadvertently broadcasts humanity’s presence to the galaxy at large.
Consequences over following decades involve a signal from alien “Trisolarians”, a signal that triggers various reactions among the Chinese population. Those who support the contact, for one reason or another, seek out fellow sympathizers via a sophisticated computer game called “Three Body”, that involves successive risings and fallings of civilizations on a planet dealing with alternating “chaotic” and “stable” eras that are the effect of three suns in their sky. An early revelation in the book is about the identity of that three-star system… (You have one guess.)
I have issues both with the storytelling, and the scientific concepts. I found the storytelling frequently clunky, or glib. Sample line of prose, from a high-level government official about an outrageously risky plan: “To ensure the survival of Trisolarian civilization, we must take this risk.” (p369) Does anyone really talk like that? And characters occasionally speak for the sake of informing other characters what they think about them. These are techniques reminiscent of early-20th century pulp SF.
Thematically, as the I read my way through the book, it reminded me so much as any western SF author as of A.E. van Vogt, who famously deliberately introduced one new outrageous idea every few hundred words, just to keep things interesting and unexpected. I admit I haven’t read AEVV in decades, but Cixin Liu develops various ideas of modern physics and cosmology that are plausibly familiar (and perhaps impress some of the cover blurb authors), but which strike me, again, as glib: e.g. (– spoiler alert –) how the “Trisolarians” (a term for the aliens that recalls ’50s sci-fi movies) “unpack a proton” into various dimensions and embed a vast computer inside, shoot the proton to Earth, and thereby take over human particle accelerators and even individual humans’ direct perception of the cosmic background radiation (!)… to trick scientists into despair and death.
Here we get to two central premises of the book that I don’t buy. First, that physicists, confronted with results from new high-powered particle accelerators that are inconsistent and seemingly random, conclude that physics is a lie and life is not worth living and commit suicide — Boom, just like that. It’s a crisis at Chinese government levels that brings in the main point-of-view character, Wang Miao, a researcher in nanomaterials. This is one of two plot motivators.
I reject the idea that scientists would kill themselves (and write cryptic suicide notes) just because they get perplexing experimental results. There’s an Isaac Asimov quote — here it is [everything’s on the internet!] — about how “Eureka!” is not the most significant thing a scientist can say, but rather, “That’s funny…”. Scientists *love* a puzzle; that’s how science advances. Is there a single example in history of a scientist who committed suicide over perplexing experimental results? On the contrary, there are scientists who spend their entire lives trying to resolve discordant results, and die without reaching a resolution… e.g. Einstein. They do not give up and commit suicide.
Second, that for that reason, or various other reasons involving bitter life circumstances (e.g. the unrepetance of surviving Red Guards) and hopeless futures (examples range from the reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in light of the deforestation projects of the Chinese government in the 1960s, to the recognition in later decades of the great ‘sixth’ extinction that humanity is bringing about), this book supposes that — *spoiler alert * — there would be significant factions among the population who are so eager to bring about the end of the human race they *invite* alien invaders to wipe us out, and conspire to encourage them to do so.
Again, really? There are any number of people who right now recognize humanity’s negative impact on Earth’s biosphere, the planet’s “sixth extinction” (I just reviewed Elizabeth Kolbert’s THE SIXTH EXTINCTION here on my blog, on that point) without advocating humanity’s death.
I do give the book a credit about the contingencies of communicating across interstellar distances. Following the initial communication between Earth and “Trisolaria”, the latter civilization realizes that due to the time involved in their plan to invade and settle Earth, the civilization on Earth might well advance, considering the accelerated progress of human science and technology over recent centuries, to the point that they could easily defeat the invaders. And so the “Trisolarians” (ugh) decide to hobble the advance of science on Earth, creating distrust in science and the appearance of apparent “miracles” that would discredit science. Which explains numerous plot events earlier in the novel; thus that bit about that magical proton that can, apparently, do anything.
I wish I found this novel more interesting, and plausible, because I must suppose that English language SF is constrained by cultural assumptions in ways we English language natives do not realize. Other cultures, considering ideas about alien contact, might well have different takes. There is some of that in this book, but not enough, I’m thinking just now, to inspire me to read the second volume of this trilogy.