Liu Cixin, “The Three-Body Problem” (2007) (translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu) – When you think about it, for most of human history, if the aliens came and wanted to talk to anyone, they’d probably want to talk to China. It just so happens that the rise of scifi as a genre occurred at a time when China was weak and domineered by other powers. Liu Cixin corrects the imbalance in this book, and reconstructs the classic contact narrative while doing it.
The first two thirds of the book involve two narratives told in tandem. We hear the story of Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who witnesses the chaos of the Cultural Revolution but who survives to get involved in China’s revolutionary version of SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). We also follow a contemporary scientist, Wang Miao, as various weird stuff starts happening. Scientists are killing themselves in numbers, Wang and others suffer weird hallucinations, and he gets sucked into a sinister online game where players try to solve one of the hardest problems in astrophysics- working out the gravitational pattern of the titular three bodies. Wang and other gamers try increasingly ingenious schemes to save a planet from getting messed up by its three suns in various ghastly ways, but always wind up getting owned. Liu makes good use of a classic post-classical scifi trope, the sinister-ass video game.
The stories come together as it becomes clear something with power greater than anything on earth is making itself felt. We learn a secret channel has been established between Earth and its nearest interstellar neighbors, and without giving too much away, this link is animated by dangerous combinations of disgust with life on their respective planets with delusions about what can make things better. Both Earth and Trisolaris (the other planets) are harsh worlds, inhabited by people who can only see salvation off of their respective planets, both sets of whom are bound to be disappointed. One way or another, the collision between the two worlds has been set in motion.
For the most part, the book is setup for the sequels, when the cards come to be more on the table and perhaps we see how this conflict shapes up. This leads to a certain anticlimactic quality. Liu writes in very straightforward prose with occasional rhetorical flourishes that wander into naivety- not unlike some engineers I know, when they want to make a point. At first this can be distracting. It starts to really work, though, as a fitting mode for the paranoia, cosmic insignificance, and intimations of (deserved, transformative, in some cases longed-for) doom that his scenario entails. Two beautiful scenes in particular — one where Ye confronts the Red Guards who murdered her father only to find old, haggard, unrepentant people insisting that history would forget, and another where Wang endures the peculiar sort of reassurance offered by a Chinese scifi writer’s depiction of a Marine officer during a horrendous calamity — I think will stick with me for some time. In general, there’s good reason to believe the Liu hype (I feel I say that a lot about writers- what can I say? I pick good ones) and I look forward to reading the next one. ****’