The Three-Body Problem (2006)
Cixin Liu (1963)
Translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu
A fundamental tenet in work intended to reveal the physical laws of the universe is that these laws remain the same across time and space, that they are invariant: repeating the same experiment at a different time and location will --- must --- yield the same result. What would become of physics, and physicists, if they were to discover that this most basic assumption does not hold?
Precisely this unprecedented situation presents itself in Cixin Liu’s science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem. While performing experiments in super-colliders built to advance understanding of the most basic laws of nature, physicists record results from repeated experiments under the same conditions that show wildly different outcomes. Their core beliefs about their field shattered, many physicists begin to give up their work, some even committing suicide in despair. But do these experimental findings actually reflect the reality of the natural world, or are they instead being caused by an unnatural, perhaps even threatening, source?
Liu’s story opens in Beijing in 1967, during the early, frenzied years of the Cultural Revolution. The elite in China, including academics, find themselves persecuted in mass rallies led by the Red Guards. During one such session, at one of Beijing’s leading universities, young revolutionaries interrogate a renowned university physics professor for his teaching of reactionary, Western concepts, such as Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. As the professor’s daughter, Ye Wenjie, watches helplessly from the crowd, the young Red Guard members humiliate and eventually murder her father.
Soon after, Ye Wenjie, herself a graduate student in physics, falls victim to the same forces and is assigned to a logging operation in the northeastern mountains of China to be re-educated. Despite attempting to forget what she has experienced and sink inconspicuously into her work in the distant wilderness, she cannot entirely contain her educated upbringing and natural curiosity. Reacting to the devastation of the wilderness she observes around her, she inadvertently slips into a compromising situation that leads to a false charge of being a reactionary.
Upon her arrest, however, she is surprised to find that due to her background in astrophysics, the authorities give her the option of avoiding jail time if she agrees to work at a top-secret radio telescope project. She soon discovers the true purpose of the installation and, in reaction to all of the willful and seemingly inexorably spreading violence she has witnessed people commit --- against their fellow humans, as well as against the earth itself --- she makes a decision with dramatic and potentially devastating consequences for the world.
From the depths of the Cultural Revolution, the story then jumps to the present day. A nanomaterials scientist, Wang Miao, finds himself drawn into a secret, multi-governmental military operation set-up to investigate and understand a growing series of menacing events, among them a rash of ecologically destructive industrial disasters that are undermining humanity’s faith in the future, and a growing number of suicides among leading physicists in the face of experimental results that invalidate their fundamental assumptions about the natural world.
As his involvement deepens, Wang learns that one recent suicide was a physicist he had briefly met not long before: the daughter of Ye Wenjie. He also comes into contact with a fringe scientific organization that seems to be implicated in the strange events. The group claims to have contacted an alien species, one which has launched an invasion force toward earth, a move the group supports in the face of what they see as humanity’s apparently irreversible destructive tendencies. Initially dismissed as a group of crazies, Wang learns that governments have begun to take the organization’s claims more seriously. As he learns what has been happening out of the public eye, but seemingly in plain sight, he struggles to make sense of it. Are the strange events of the recent past really associated with an alien species, one with plans to invade Earth? And, to what extent are current events related to the secret work Ye Wenjie took part in decades before?
Liu tells a gripping story, filled with tense intrigue, sharp humor and fascinating explorations into the physical, computer and even social sciences. A part of the novel takes place in a complex virtual reality computer game that simulates the struggles of an alien world with three suns --- the Three-Body Problem of the title, while another take us to the reality of that distant world. Though as with most science fiction, some elements in the story seem over-simplified --- for example here, the surprising ease of understandable communication between humanity and the extraterrestrial world --- Liu does a wonderful job of describing the science that supports his story, while maintaining the pace of the action.
For Western readers, an additional joy of the novel is that it comes from a Chinese writer, and is set in a Chinese context. So many science fiction novels are US-centric: constructed around US, or at least Western, political and social norms, and with a strong assumption of US leadership built into the plot. In The Three-Body Problem, by contrast, the fateful change to the course of human history occurs in China, and the Chinese lead the international coalition of security forces working to counteract the growing threat.
Western readers also get to enjoy the at-times disconcerting but always intriguing encounter with character names and social interactions that lie outside our typical literary, and for that matter daily, experiences. From reading this novel we cannot help but emerge with a somewhat richer, more complex cultural understanding of China the Chinese people, one in which we come to recognize areas of fundamental difference, as well as others of shared human understanding and sentiment. And, finally, do we not in part read for the pleasure of just such discoveries?
The Three-Body Problem is the first of a three volume set: I’m eager to read --- and review --- the next two books in the series.
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