ESPN has published an index to all my 2016 prospect content.
Liu Cixin’s 2006 novel The Three-Body Problem was translated into English in 2014 and promptly won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, making Liu the first Asian writer to win the award. He’s won a slew of Galaxy Awards in China for his fiction, but in an interview after he won the Hugo he said he was just writing for “beer money.” That seems a bit disingenuous, as even the afterword to The Three-Body Problem reveals more of his motivation and his enormous imagination, but even so, he’s coming at science fiction from an entirely different angle than any author I’ve read before.
Liu’s novel is the first of a trilogy that presents a largely realistic, hard-science fiction look at the classic sci-fi story of first contact. The book’s title (in Chinese it’s santi, which just means “three body”) refers to a famous problem in classical mechanics. Given the beginning positions, masses, and velocities of two bodies (such as a planet and its moon), determining their motions is simple. When the same problem is extended to three bodies – such as the Earth, its moon, and the Sun – it becomes extremely difficult to solve, and the solution, first identified in 1912 by Karl Sundman, converges so slowly that it’s useless. (The same is true for any n-body problem where n > 2, with that solution coming in a 1991 paper by Wand Qiudong.)
The problem and its lack of a practical solution figures heavily in the novel, although the reason isn’t immediately clear. What is clear, however, is that something very weird is going on, causing scientists to commit suicide without apparent explanation, and it’s connected in some fashion with the secret research facility on Radar Peak and with an intense massive multiplayer game called Three-Body. A nanomaterials researcher, Wang Miao, becomes involved in the global mystery when he starts seeing an ominous countdown first in photographs he takes and then in his own eyes, eventually working with the government to try infiltrate the apparent conspiracy to undermine both science and global security. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the conspiracy involves the alien race heading for Earth, and the handful of characters who populate Liu’s book have differing feelings on the visitors, even though they won’t arrive for another four centuries.
Liu insists in that afterword that he doesn’t write to make any points, so his works are not political or metaphorical, even though I think it would be easy to read The Three-Body Problem as a work of political allegory, considering the results of life under authoritarianism on individuals’ loyalties to themselves versus to the state. But even without that subtext, the novel still offers plenty of room for analysis because, whether or not he intended it, Liu is exploring the way people might react to this kind of species-altering event, and the varying ways in which people might lose hope in humanity’s ability to fix its own problems. (He makes many references to environmental catastrophes, some real, some not, but despite the book’s infusion of real science, he also includes a maddening, unscientific claim about a GMO crop-caused catastrophe too.) What might cause someone to turn his/her back on the entire human race? To betray us to an unknown species that might intend to do us harm? Some of these conjectures border on the absurd – the rise of a global movement dedicated to the destruction of humanity seems a bit worse than your average doomsday cult – but their existence gives Liu an extreme against which he can set the characters who don’t quite embrace that nihilistic view.
Hard science fiction, in my reading experience, tends to be dry and obsessed with its own navel, so busy telling you about all the cool science – real or speculative – that the prose and plot suffer. Liu’s work is the best blend of quality fiction and hard science, of which there’s a lot, from the three-body problem to quantum entanglement to some crazy stuff about the sun as a radio-wave amplifier and the unfolding of a proton. His explanations are a little abstruse, but having read a bit about these topics recently I was able to follow his text, and he doesn’t dwell long enough on any of the hard-science stuff to derail the plot. I actually had a harder time keeping the characters straight – referring to the wisecracking policeman Da Shi by two different names did not help – than I did staying with the science.
Where Liu falls short as an author is in character development – even beyond my own difficulty with the names. The various leads, including the nanotechnologist Wang and the retired scientist Ye Wenjie, have remarkably little personalities of their own; they become different characters when pressed into action or facing a crisis, but retain none of those traits after those sequences end. Not only does The Three-Body Problem lack a hero or heroine, but it lacks any central character who’s of interest for his or her own sake, rather than as functions within the larger program of the book.
The Three-Body Problem ends with a partial conclusion – the mysteries within the book are solved, but the alien race still won’t arrive for over four hundred years, leaving humanity to decide how to prepare and respond, but with a handicap to their efforts that I assume will hang over much of the sequel, The Dark Forest. It’s certainly readable enough on its own, although you won’t get the satisfaction of a complete ending; the final book of the trilogy, Death’s End, will appear in English this August, when The Dark Forest comes out in paperback.
Next up: I’ve still got two sections left in Rabbit at Rest. Rabbit Angstrom has to be one of my least favorite protagonists in the history of literature.