[Guest Post] A Book Review of: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu Translated by Ken Liu


[Author’s Note: This is a Guest Post by Steve Goschnick]

This book is a wild ride: from the persecution of several individuals in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, to a lone technician with a major in Astrophysics (one of the persecuted) making a scientific breakthrough regarding the Sun which leads her to making ‘first contact’ with an alien civilisation (and keeping it all to herself, for years!), to human traitors who encourage and are abetting an alien invasion force coming for our planet and due to arrive in 450 years.

As a young woman Yi Wenjie, the main protagonist, witnesses her academic father bashed to death by four young comrades – girls, no more than 14 years old – after he refuses to denounce Theoretical Physics as a reactionary, capitalist invention. The renowned Professor is himself denounced by his very own wife and her mother, in front of a crowded lecture theatre packed with many of the students he had taught in a generous and authentic way.

She herself gets ‘sent down’ to the countryside, where the first glimmer of a friendship turns into another massive betrayal, as push-comes-to-shove from the power elites above them. Just as she is facing a 10-year sentence for someone else’s supposed crime (reading a book by a western ecological activist), a helping hand from her past opens a doorway into a remote secret radio telescope facility, that does ‘who-knows-what’, courtesy of a scientific paper she managed to write before the madness of the Cultural Revolution descended upon and dissected her immediate family.

She is a Scientist at heart too, like her father, a seeker and upholder of prove-able truths, and she would happily like to apply herself to her Astrophysics in this stark, walled and insulated microcosm for the rest of her days, if only she could. Turns out that it has a SETI-like function, so that China can stay abreast with the West in that particular deep-space search.

Happenstance, coupled with the actual research she did get done before the Cultural Revolution, leads her to a dramatic breakthrough in radio transmission, and, as could only happen in a very closed research centre, in a very closed country, she is able to keep her discovery all to herself – or so she thought! Better still, she is able to send out a brief message, unbeknown to her superiors, at solar-system strength, capable of being heard across the galaxy and beyond.

The main story moves to their current times – about 15 years into the author’s near future. The main storyline now follows a certain Professor Wang, a nano-materials researcher. We don’t get a lot of back-story on this guy, but enough to establish a little empathy from the reader. He seems like a decent bloke, but his marriage is very ordinary and he is starkly reminded of a splendid brief vision of a woman he once admired. When we meet him he has just been approached by a high-level Chinese government committee, that, very surprising to him, even includes NATO and CIA personal. The committee also includes a street-wise, war-hardened, investigative cop called Da Shi. They allude him to the many suicides of top level scientists, worldwide, and they want him to take up a recent offer he received in his email, to join a mysterious online computer game called 3body.com. They want him to go undercover to try and get a handle on what seems to be some vast conspiracy undermining scientific research, worldwide. The eminent recently deceased people on that suicide list just happen to have been previous invitees to this same mysterious game. Wang doesn’t want a bar of it, but Da Shi, an outwardly crude and vulgar man, is far more skilled at subtle persuasion than the Professor could ever anticipate.

This book holds much novelty – super-strong nano-material fibres capable of slicing up vehicles of all sizes; a religious cult that is hell-bent on rescuing Our Lord rather than the other way around – as just a peek or two of the many.

Turns out that the main protagonist committed a dehumanising crime not too many years into her isolation from the human race, and in so doing, she joins the ranks of those very people that cast her early life into such deep chaos. The only way left she can see of redeeming herself is off-world.

If you thought a totalitarian regime on earth was Bad – remember, the first Chapter is a microcosm of the Cultural Revolution, given for the benefit of those readers who haven’t had such thoughts recently – then imagine what a totalitarian civilisation from a 3-Sun system too chaotic for any calendar to ever have been produced, whose civilisation has grown then been destroyed at least 200 times by various random solar acts, is capable of? An alien civilisation who have just lately reached such technical heights as being able to turn a proton into any of the 11 dimensions as glimpsed by us via String theory, and who can then use the said proton in very ingenious ways. Imagine how spoilt us humans look with our totally predictable single-sun system, and our relatively stable mild balmy environment. Here we are living in their imagined paradise, and we can’t even get beyond inter-country war, or the ecological destruction of that longed-for alien paradise, including the daily extinction of several of our fellow species. They don’t need any self- scrutinising moral justification for their intended annexation of the Earth and annihilation of its dominant species, as they have many willing tree-hugging recruits from the very humans they want to displace, facilitated no less then by the main protagonist who sent out that first mega-powered message!

So, where does the author shine so brightly in all of this? In many ways. In his imaginative storyline that is effortlessly woven with speculative outcomes of contemporary theoretical physics, as but one example. As the aliens experiment with unwrapping a proton into one dimension, then three, then two, it makes the story of Pandora’s Box look like a picnic basket – I can’t wait for the movie, just for the special effects for this small chapter alone. The single dimension proton produces an infinite line, somehow visible, so you may be able to imagine how big the 2-dimensional version is? The aliens then etch the circuitry of an advanced computer onto that vast surface, one that puts Douglas Adam’s ‘Deep Thought’ in its place, as perhaps the Apple II versus the latest fully- configured Mac Pro. This miniature machine is a vast improvement on their very first computer from a much earlier alien epoch, where an army acted-out the circuitry at an epic scale, MindCraft- style, on a 30×30 kilometre motherboard of a field.

The aliens then upload an AI program that Hal would instantly side-with, and repackaged the proton back to its normal size. It is then shot to Earth via an advanced cyclotronic cannon at .9C, as a scout and confounder, arriving well ahead of the invasion fleet, several hundred years hence. Just two such protons are capable of halting the advancement of human scientific knowledge. Worse, with the application of quantum theory, this particular totalitarian regime is able to spy on every humans’ every activity, instantaneously, from way back home on their ageing, random 3-Star world, and on their approaching interstellar fleet. Only the thoughts in human heads are safe from these fabulously empowered cameras – I mean protons (its just lucky we’ve been pre-conditioned and pre-warned via social media magnates and search engine empires!)

Then, when all seems hopeless, good old Da Shi the rough-nut detective has a plan – well, not quite a plan. He has a down-to-earth perspective that will surely lead to a Plan.

I can see why this book won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, and in doing so, Cixin Liu became the first Asian author to do so.

Highly, recommended. Couldn’t put it down.

Steve Goschnick


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