Best thing you’ll read all week: The Three-Body Problem

, | Book reviews

Republican Congressman Mike Bost invoked something called “struggle sessions” last month. While talking to journalists, he explained why he wasn’t holding any town hall meetings, which have provided angry constituents a forum to make themselves heard by their Republican representatives. Bost felt holding such a meeting wasn’t a good use of his time. He compared it to “the cleansing that the Orientals used to do where youd put one person out in front and 900 people yell at them.” That’s how I learned about “struggle sessions”, a form of public humiliation used in Communist Russia and China. Bost later apologized for using the word “Oriental”, but not for shirking his duty as a representative.

The Three-Body Problem, an award-winning “Oriental” science fiction novel, begins with a struggle session during China’s Cultural Revolution. It is the catalyst for everything that happens in the book, which might include the end of the world. It is also an example of the novel’s uniquely Chinese cultural identity.

You’d never know from its beginnings that despite this identity, The Three-Body Problem is literally universal.

As a product of Communist China, it’s no surprise author Cixin Liu has drawn some deeply cynical conclusions about humanity, and even beyond humanity. The ultimate premise of Three-Body Problem is that “our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems.” It’s a classic sci-fi trope, as old as The Day the Earth Stood Still. We’re destroying the environment, we’re constantly warring, we’re ravenous materialists, we idolize the Kardashians! A superior alien civilization would shake its head sadly at our pettiness because it has learned to transcend this stuff. It could teach us. It could hold us accountable. Under the watchful eye of a Gort, we could learn to say ‘Klaatu barada nikto’. Liu considers this idea naive. He compares our ideas about life on other planets to a man wandering alone in the desert. What if you told that man there’s a lover waiting for him somewhere out there? The man will imagine what the lover would be like. The more he thinks about her, the more he idealizes her. He creates an idea out of ignorance and desire.

In Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, an anarchist isn’t content just terrorizing the ruling elite. He wants to go further. He wants to “throw a bomb into pure mathematics”. He concludes that’s not really possible, so he settles on the prime meridian. He bombs the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Terrorists usually have to settle for symbols.

The Three-Body Problem eventually reveals itself as a story about throwing a bomb into pure mathematics. It uses science fiction to examine the juxtaposition of science and oppression. Many of the scientists of my generation were inspired by Carl Sagan and SETI. But what about the scientists behind the Iron Curtain, who didn’t have PBS or Scholastic Book Clubs? What about the intellectually curious people who never knew the United States had landed on the moon because the Chinese government controlled the flow and availability of information? Americans like me think of the persecution of Galileo is a quaint relic of the 16th century.

Part of the novel takes place inside a videogame called Three-Body Problem. It’s a hilariously implausible videogame, the sort of thing that might be imagined by someone whose nephew showed him World of Warcraft once. The “tighten up the graphics on level three” perspective on videogame design. Although Asia does have a strange predilection for dull grindy MMOs, so what do I know? But Liu uses his unlikely MMO to explain some of the story’s more imaginative concepts, which includes the title. It’s also the setting for the spectacular recreation of a working computer using an army for the components. That part of Three-Body Problem, the game and the novel, reminded me of those amazing Minecraft servers or Little Big Planet levels where someone has made a working circuit board. Liu might not understand game design, but he knows enough to build his own computer instead of just getting a Dell. As vividly as any game designer, he manages to breathe life into the concept of 1s and 0s.

He also demonstrates what it would be like if you let an engineer design an action sequence. What if you needed to seize data hidden somewhere on a ship in the middle of the ocean, but the people on the ship will erase the data at the first sign of trouble? How would you do it? You can’t storm it with commandos, nerve gas would take too long to take effect, and a neutron bomb could damage the data. So what do you do? Liu’s solution is both horrific and beautiful.

But the real beauty of Three-Body Problem is its breadth. By the time it’s over — at which point, it’s not actually over, because this is the first in a trilogy of novels — it has become a story about computers, subatomic particles, astrophysics, and even quantum mechanics. “The foundation of basic science lies in the exploration of the deep structure of matter,” he writes. That sounds boring. But Liu guides us through that exploration in exciting and mind-blowing ways. You know that demonstration about how interdimensional travel might work? The one with the piece of paper representing space as we know it? You fold the paper and poke a pencil through, and voila!, that’s how wormholes work or the fifth dimension or whatever. I think I remember that from way back in Cosmos. It’s probably in Donnie Darko at some point. I know it’s in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Liu has several just as memorable variations on that thought experiment.

One of the most memorable and moving passages in Three-Body Problem isn’t even in Three-Body Problem. It’s in the postscript.

I’ve always felt that the greatest and most beautiful stories in the history of humanity were not sung by wandering bards or written by playwrights and novelists, but told by science. The stories of science are far more magnificent, grand, involved, profound, thrilling, strange, terrifying, mysterious, and even emotional, compared to the stories told by literature. Only, these wonderful stories are locked in cold equations that most do not know how to read.

I respectfully disagree. Among other things, science teaches us we don’t matter. Among other things, religion teaches us we do matter. As a student of religion, I think Liu is underselling the latter, but I also think he knows it. In one scene in a remote rural village, two women talk by the light of a kerosene lamp. Feng is a peasant. Ye is a scientist.

Feng asked, “Sister, why do you think the stars in the sky don’t fall down?”

“You’re afraid of the stars falling down?” Ye asked softly.

Feng laughed and shook her head. “What’s there to be afraid of? They’re so tiny.”

Ye might make us wiser, but Feng imagines a beauty and benevolence in the world that science necessarily denies. They make for two very different kinds of stories, each moving in their own way. Liu’s gift as a writer, teacher, and storyteller — like Carl Sagan before him — is an astonishing ability to break the latter stories free from their cold equations.

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