Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Three-Body Problem

There's been a lot of buzz about The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu in the science fiction community. Translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu, this novel combines physics, astronomy, and math with philosophy and some aspects of religion.

[Minor spoilers follow immediately below; major spoilers appear later in this review.]

In exploring these science, philosophy, and mathematical concepts, The Three-Body Problem utilizes a host of science fiction staples: an online game (complete with virtual reality sensory suits), SETI efforts, first contact, and the prospect of alien invasion. But even though these elements are familiar, their sum whole is unlike anything else I've read. Ultimately, this book didn't quite work for me, but much of that is due to my shortcomings rather than the novel's. And there were things about it that I loved, particularly the idea of a human "computer" within the virtual game that consisted of 30 million soldiers manipulating colored flags (representing 0 and 1) to perform complex calculations -- what a great visual! The rest of the game world was intriguing as well, and I was fascinated by an interesting, if gruesome, high-tech solution to a particular combat problem that some of the characters face.

However, there was also a lot of heavy-duty speech-making between characters that I found difficult to enjoy. In one scene, an astrophysicist named Ye Wenjie meets with three of the four female Red Guards who beat Ye's father to death in front of a crowd at a "struggle session" (a question-and-answer demonstration intended to break down the enemies of the revolution) years earlier. The women agree to meet with Ye, which I didn't find entirely believable, especially because they seem to want only to lecture her. They're described as the thickset woman, the thin woman, and the one-armed woman, and they take turns telling Ye how difficult their lives have been since their Red Guard fervor no longer has much support. In my mind, the three women function as a single amalgamated character in order to explain a certain point of view to the reader, and it feels clunky.

In a similar vein, other characters show up in the book exactly when it's convenient for the plot. For instance, on a trip to scout possible radio astronomy sites, Ye meets an American living in the remote hills of northwestern China. The man lives as a peasant, spending his days planting trees because he wants to save an endangered bird species. Ye has only this one chance encounter with the man and then does not see or hear from him for three years, but he contacts her out of the blue when his billionaire oil tycoon father dies. In other words, he inherits a vast sum of money, and seeks Ye's counsel about what to do next -- a woman with whom he had only one conversation three years earlier in which he did most of the talking himself. I got the impression that for the plot to move forward, Ye would need to find a sympathizer with access to vast resources, so the three-years-prior encounter was back-filled into the plot to introduce a character who would offer just that. I have no way of knowing if I'm right about the back-filling, but that's how it reads to me, and I prefer my fiction to appear less obviously constructed.

On the big picture scale, there was one element of the plot with which I had a huge problem. [MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW] It is about midway through the book that we learn that Ye Wenjie not only happened to be the person to discover that humans could use the sun to amplify first contact messages sent out into space, she also happens to be the one person at her facility who, eight years later, receives the response, which says "DO NOT ANSWER." The alien who sent the reply believes that if Earth transmits again, it will reveal its precise location, and the alien's own culture will invade and conquer humanity. Ye then takes it upon herself to send a reply anyway, essentially saying (paraphrased) "Come anyway and I'll help you conquer Earth, because humans aren't capable of helping themselves."

But here is what really bothered me: about 80 pages later, we finally get more information about the alien culture, and we are explicitly reminded that the first Trisolarian to respond to Ye, the one who sends the "DO NOT ANSWER" message, also just betrayed its entire species. Which means that, coincidentally, the first two intelligent creatures to make extrasolar contact, who come from planets that are four light years apart, and who have vastly different biologies and physical environments and cultures, both simply take it upon themselves to make a decision endangering the future survival of their entire species. It's not just that each of them engages in what I view as egregious and unrealistic behavior, it's that they both engage in the exact same egregious and unrealistic behavior. The difference is that Ye assumes that the more scientifically advanced Trisolarians must have better morality than humans and therefore will actually save humanity. The alien (call it "Listener 1379"), on the other hand, does what it does in part because it can't bear the thought of destroying the garden-like paradise that Earth represents in order to save its own species, which leads a precarious existence due to the configuration of its solar system.

Hmm, maybe that means that the Trisolarians, or at least Listener 1379, do have higher morality than humans! But even so, the odds against both Ye and Listener 1379 betraying their entire species seem astronomical (pun intended). And therefore the most important element of the plot became implausible to me. I have to recognize, though, that what I would consider unrealistic self-martyrdom (both Ye and her alien counterpart say they don't care what happens to them personally; they had to do it) may be viewed in an entirely different light by Chinese readers. Perhaps they assume that this type of behavior would be common in any intelligent species and is therefore eminently believable and admirable.

After all this criticism, you might not think I would say that the book is still worth reading, but of course it is. It sure as hell made me think! It also entertained me, although unevenly. And it provided a perspective very different from those I usually encounter in fiction. As a survivor of the New Jersey public school system, I had very few history classes, and the ones that I did have were generally so poor (*) that they put me off the subject for life -- I refused to touch a history class in college with a ten-foot pole.

So I did learn from this book, and enjoyed much of it. I'm not sure I'll read the second and third books in the trilogy, due to the somewhat dense and didactic nature of the prose. But I'm glad I read the first one.
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[* In eighth grade, my history teacher would have us sit silently at our desks for the entire period, Monday through Thursday, and review a single chapter over the course of the week. On Friday, she would give us a spelling test with words from that chapter. My mom complained on my behalf and I finally got switched to another class, but I've never forgotten that. At least I'm a good speller now.]

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