Confession no. 1 : I am a noob when it comes to hard sciences. My mathematical skills non-existent, my knowledge of physics may be summed up in about two words (gravity and Einstein…), my notions about astrology based on the recent sci-fi movies I watched. Confession no. 2 : I do not particularly enjoy sci-fi books. I’ve read some speculative pieces for research but that’s about it.
And yet, despite this undeniable lack of expertise and love for this subject, I have fallen in love with Cixin Liu’s hard sci-fi novel which takes as its inspiration the orbital mechanics dilemma of predicting the movements of three bodies whose gravitational fields collide (phew!) — the so-called Three-Body Problem.
My overall rating : 14/15
Epistemologically tickling ✰✰✰✰✰
Stylistically appealing ✰✰✰✰
Effective execution-wise ✰✰✰✰✰
Liu is the first Asian author to ever win a Hugo award and this novel is the first Chinese sci-fi novel to be translated to English. It is also hailed as the best Chinese fiction of this genre. I’ve heard about it first from a Chinese professor in my Masters programme and was since then, dying to have a go at it.
But this go turned out to be quite difficult. When Liu says science fiction, he is not joking around. My basic understanding of science, of physics especially, was not enough to understand everything he was talking about. So while I cannot go into the scientific details, I’ll try in this book review to put into words what I liked about this book.
What it’s all about
1967 : It is China’s Cultural Revolution. Casualties rise amidst the conflict between social classes and the promotion of communism. Ye Wenjie sees her father die while being tortured by the Red Guards. This would change her perspective in humanity, urging her to take a decision that will affect the entire universe.
2000s : An engineer who specializes in nanotechnology, Wang Miao, is called to infiltrate a group of intellectuals in order to solve the mystery of mass physicist suicides. During his mission, he learns of a virtual game called Three-Body Problem. The game takes place in a universe which oscillates, irregularly, between Stable and Chaotic eras. Trying to solve the mystery of this game’s cosmos, Wang Miao discovers a conspiracy in which Ye Wenjie is involved.
450 years later : Will Earth be safe from extinction?
Why this is a must-read book
The Three-Body Problem does not exist in a vacuum, so to speak. It is rooted in a historical period that has been described and satirized multiple times in Chinese literature. This is, in my opinion, what makes Liu’s novel engaging. Science in all its forms (physics, mathematics, ecology) combine with the social to pose a political question.
An example at its most literal sense : Ye Wenjie’s scientific reports are verified by the Commissar before publication in order to prevent misunderstandings vis-à-vis the revolution.
Terms like sunspots were forbidden.
As the translator indicates, sunspots in Chinese translates to solar black spots. And “black, of course, was the color of counter-revolutionaries.”
When Ye Wenjie suggests a mission, the Commissar argues:
You want to aim a superpowerful radio beam at the red sun? Have you thought about the political symbolism of such experiment?
Red sun is the nickname of Chairman Mao most used during the Revolution.
The plot speaks to a history important to the shaping of China as we know now it. And everything, even particle physics, symbolizes a higher ideological meaning.
The novel also talks about the possibility of a Pan-Species communism where all living beings on earth, including animals, can be equal. The subalternity of animals and other species is not an after-thought to Liu, but a real question to ponder. Why are humans the “superior” species? Are humans worthy of an Eden? Is science the path towards the paradise? And what is the real source of Earth’s imminent destruction? War, famine, environmental damage — or humans? These are just some of the galaxies that this author attempts to explore.
Finally, the expertise with which Cixin Liu writes science in science fiction is a feast in itself :
The principles governing micro-scale integrated circuits were completely different from those of conventional circuits, as the base material wasn’t made of atoms, but matter from a single proton. The “p-n junctions” of the circuits were formed by twisting the strong nuclear forces locally on the surface of the proton plane, and the conducting lines were made of mesons that could transmit the nuclear force.
His passion emerges forcefully from the pages of the book, engaging the readers to try and understand what this image all means. Don’t fret if you are inexperienced with science like me. While Liu uses terms and analogies that are often very scientific, you’ll find yourself flipping through the pages and appreciating the fundamental and complex nature of this subject.
A few notes
Cixin Liu was a computer engineer before he became a novelist. The Three-Body Problem attests to his love for the sciences and his mastery of the domain (from particle physicals to computer science).
To know more about the Chinese cultural revolution, watch this 2-minute video from BBC.
Do you love sci-fi novels? If you have any recommendations, please do comment below. Let’s make me an SF fan! ^^