Review: The Three-Body Problem

“Can the fundamental nature of matter really be lawlessness?”

Cixin Liu

the-three-body-problem-by-cixin-liuI wonder what it means that The Three-Body Problem won a Hugo in 2015, the year blighted by Puppydom.

Apart from the facts that its author is Chinese, and it is steeped in the troubles of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the novel feels quite conservative in its worldview and its method – which is to say, it feels exactly like the kind of novel the Puppies claim the Hugos don’t recognise any more.

It’s nice to think that Hugo voters might have been pulling the rug out from under Vox Day en masse.

The Three-Body Problem is a story of first contact – sort of. The story begins in a China riven by the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, as we see scientists driven to suicide by the humiliation they suffer at the hands of the Red Guard. Their theories, the Guard claim, are not in line with the ideologies of the state.

The early narrative follows Ye Wenjie, daughter of a scientist killed by the Guard, as she is exiled to the countryside and, after an episode involving her being found in possession of a banned book, is given political refuge at Red Coast Base, a mysterious and top-secret scientific facility with a mysterious and top-secret radio transmitter.

The story then leaps forward into the present day: scientists are killing themselves again, seemingly because their experiments are telling them that the universe is fundamentally irrational. This time, our hero is nanomaterials expert Wang Miao, who is asked by a shadowy government organisation to join the Frontiers of Science, a group apparently set up to explore whether there are things that science can never know.

The Frontiers of Science leads Wang Miao to Three Body, a massively-multiplayer online game which asks players to solve the problem of Trisolaris, a planet which suffers from apparently random periods of extreme cold and extreme heat (Chaotic Eras) and, very occasionally, periods when the climate is mild and habitable (Stable Eras).

This, in turn, leads Wang Miao to some Shocking Revelations concerning Trisolaris, the Frontiers of Science, and Red Coast Base, involving aliens and the titular three-body problem (which asks whether it’s possible to predict the movements of three astronomical bodies operating under each other’s gravity – this being a real scientific issue which is, at the moment, functionally impossible to solve).

What makes The Three-Body Problem feel so classically SFnal – so, in fact, Asimovian – is that it’s primarily a novel of observation. Our primary POV character, Wang Miao, very rarely actually does anything for himself – instead, he observes, painstakingly picking the truth from an often unreliable universe. In this novel, the boundaries between what we can know and what we are allowed to know blur sickeningly. Is this the edge of science, or is it some shadowy governmental or extra-terrestial power controlling the direction of our experimentation? The Three-Body Problem is, in true Golden Age mode, a story about finding stuff out; sifting through the evidence of our senses and our fallible humanity to get at the scientific truth, refusing to cede power over knowledge to ideology, to censorship, to terrors from the stars.

The issue I had with the novel is that, essentially, everything it does is done better and with more subtlety elsewhere. The fraught relationship between science and ideology? Greg Egan does it fantastically in his Orthogonal series. A POV character sifting through cultural narrative to get at the truth? China Mieville’s excellent Railsea. Thought experiments in which scientist characters Find Stuff Out? Any of Isaac Asimov’s work. Ultimately, The Three-Body Problem feels like a re-tread of old science fiction, and not a very subtle one at that.

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