The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body-Problem by Cixin Liu

I bought this book and made it halfway through before I realized it was part of a trilogy. I rarely have the patience for trilogies anymore so I tend to avoid them, but now I’m locked in for another two books so this should be interesting! Hah! Hopefully this turns out better than the time I attempted to review more than one Horus Heresy novel in a row.

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is a Hugo-Award-winning book that was on the “staff picks” shelf in Powell’s when I was in Portland back in November. It’s an Obviously Good ™ book, so I’ll admit I went in prepared to sing its praises.

Not that I’m disappointed, it certainly is good. I found that for a number of reasons the pacing of the novel tended to ebb and flow for me. There were bits where I devoured entire chapters, unable to put it down, and bits where it took me several days to make it through 10 pages.

Liu plants an extraterrestrial first-contact tale deeply in the mire of contemporary Chinese history. I’ll admit that my knowledge of the Cultural Revolution is vague at best, and the novel starts by presenting a not-entirely-objective interpretation of events so I still can’t call myself an expert. Liu’s focus lies with the impact of the revolution on academia and scientific research, particularly in the field of theoretical physics.

In Liu’s fiction, the events of the Cultural Revolution indirectly set in motion an extraterrestrial invasion of Earth by fostering a disdain and mistrust for humanity in the best and brightest of astronomers, physicists, and military personnel.

First contact reveals itself slowly as characters in two different timelines play their separate parts. Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who is sent to work at a military base using radio scanning equipment for tactical purposes during the revolution, discovers a novel method of amplifying radio waves, allowing a later transmission to be sent into another solar system.

Decades after this discovery, Wang Miao, a present-day nanomaterials researcher, stumbles upon a bizarre VR game in which players are unknowingly introduced to the aliens that Ye Wenjie opened communications with decades before, by attempting to solve a physics problem that plagues the in-game NPCs.

The aliens are called Trisolarans, as they inhabit a planet caught in the unpredictable orbit of three stars. These three stars (the three bodies identified in the book’s title) cause the planet to oscillate violently between periods of extreme cold, incinerating heat, and occasionally, an era of mild and predictable temperatures known by locals as a “stable era.”

The communication that Ye Wenjie opens causes a cascade of events leading to a sort of multi-tiered invasion, the first phase of which manifests in the individual minds of high-level physicists, and which is designed to culminate in a physical invasion some four centuries in Earth’s future. Humanity must coordinate and plan ahead on a scale never before imagined, or doom a distant future generation to certain death.

Phrased that way it seems like an apt metaphor for the climate change issues of today, but rest assured that I’m oversimplifying it.

Throughout the novel, Liu does an incredible job of evoking complex processes on magnitudes both extremely large and extremely small, using clever metaphor and visualization. The basic binary function of a computer, for example, is at one point depicted with thousands of pairs of soldiers raising and lowering alternating flags. In another scene, the unfolding of a photon into additional dimensions is described in beautiful visual detail, and reminded me of some of the more fascinating descriptions of life in six dimensional spaces, in Greg Egan’s Diaspora.

The aliens themselves are interestingly thought out – with characteristics that would be plausible for their extreme environment, as well as others that seem deliberately designed to reflect the worst aspects of human nature back at the reader. While the scope of the novel is massive – in some cases too massive to easily relate to – I appreciated that it did not extend all the way to preemptively describing the physical appearance of the Trisolarans. They remain enticingly alien through the very end of the book.

I’ve started reading The Dark Forest at this point already and it so far holds to the same level of scope, in which the story spans the entire globe, yet will occasionally stop to focus intently on the tiniest minutiae of Earth, or spend pages on the inner thoughts of a single character. It’s an interesting strategy, one that allows for a large number of threads to eventually come together, even if they take their sweet time getting there.

Pick up this book if you want to contemplate the destruction of the human race as a psychological, rather than a physical process. Read it if you want to feel small, or to lament the heartbreaking shortness of the human lifespan – and the daunting idea of continuing to operate as a unit despite the routine death and replacement of every aspect of a system.


Diaspora by Greg Egan

Have you ever loved a novel so much that you wanted to get every word of it tattooed on your body?

Allow me to introduce Greg Egan’s Diaspora.

This is speculative fiction at its absolute finest, in my opinion: the type that’s grounded in what seems scientifically plausible to feeble yet physics-loving minds such as my own, while also doing what I have yet to see a pre-1990’s sci-fi story do, which is to recognize that not only the medium, but the nature of human interaction, can change.

(This is ’98, so it’s close, but no dice.)

The novel starts about 800 years into our future, with a large portion of humanity having voluntarily given up their physical bodies in order to live as sentient software programs inside servers buried deep under terrestrial ground. Each different server is called a polis, named after, presumably, the original creators. We’re introduced to Konishi Polis and Carter-Zimmerman Polis, and it’s implied that there are more.

Our hero, Yatima, is a Konishi polis “orphan”—a parentless, genderless being created from what could be called a glitch in the software that makes up reality within the polis. Essentially, Yatima’s birth was an immaculate conception in programming terms. Egan never truly leans toward a Messianic interpretation for the character, though I suppose that reading would be there, if you wanted it to be.

An aside, here: Yatima is far from the only genderless character. In fact, the majority of the characters use the pronouns ve/ver/vis, and at no point is the reader assaulted with explicit reasoning for this (though there’s plenty of implicit reasoning.) It feels natural, and I love it, and it’s great.

The remainder of humanity has split off into sects of “fleshers” – a fairly self-explanatory term. Naturally there are extremes within the fleshers: those who opt for a ton of genetic modifications and augmentations to make them essentially superhuman, and those who reject these opportunities—while paradoxically using them—to regress back to a more primitive state.

In the grand scheme of the novel, the fleshers don’t really matter. They are wiped out fairly early in the story by an unexpected cosmic event, something that shouldn’t have been possible according to the laws of physics as they are understood in the novel’s future (the Theory of Relativity has been replaced by Kozuch theory, which without giving too much away is a once again, entirely-too-plausible-sounding explanation for some of the weirdness that physics as we know it can’t definitively explain.)

The polises, buried deep under the Earth and backed up on other galactic worlds, survive the event. The remainder of the novel is focused on the Diaspora, the journey of the citizens of the Carter-Zimmerman polis (including Yatima) away from earth and into uncharted territories of the universe, across several more millennia and shifts into areas where our understanding of time no longer holds up.

This book really excels at telling a compelling story of massive, exponential progress in technology and social design, while remaining mostly aware of the bits of human nature that can and do tend to confound such progress. The scope of the story is vaster than that of any novel in my recent memory, yet Egan grounds it well by filtering through the experiences of a small, tight group of characters.

The polises are predictably hyper-advanced and allow their citizens to think and act hundreds of times faster than humans in the “real” world, yet polis citizens still fall victim to the type of overthinking and emotional blindness that frequently plagues today’s interactions.

In Konishi polis, autonomy is valued above all else, leading to a localized reality in which citizens are unable to touch each other, as even the slightest sensory intervention by another being is considered a loss of autonomy for the one being touched. Naturally, sexuality and romantic love have fallen deeply out of fashion and are largely considered outdated and off-putting, a point that I consider a refreshing turn away from the tropes of 60’s and 70’s sci-fi in which everyone is banging hot space babes with the help of off-world alcohol and massive leaps in birth control science.

Early in the book, attempts at saving what remains of the flesher population are mostly thwarted by the fleshers themselves fearing the unknown, refusing to accept the severity of the threat, and misconstruing the polis citizens’ invitations as some sort of invasion plot. Fairly topical issues.

In Carter-Zimmerman the focus is heavier on artistic pursuit and sensory experience, making it fitting that it should be the polis that creates thousands of cloned copies of its citizens and sends them off to distant planets. Which is where the story gets cool. Egan’s descriptions of life, and “life” on other planets are incredible, especially his descriptions of life that exists in more than four dimensions.

Technological advancement isn’t demonstrated with floating cities or Dyson spheres or FTL drives, but rather with the ability to physically change and manipulate the atoms in a planet’s atmosphere – to leave decipherable messages in the form of isotopes, for example. There’s the underlying idea that sufficient advancement would lead to technologies that are increasingly unobtrusive, difficult to detect, a contrast to the constant race to build the biggest, the tallest, the strongest.

Eventually, the pursuit of an ultra-advanced non-human civilization, following clues that have been left throughout the universe, leads the citizens of C-Z out of Earth’s universe, into exponential higher dimensions and physical descriptions that are dizzyingly difficult to picture.

The end of the novel is almost disappointing, if only because by that point I half expected that Egan would be revealing some sort of undiscovered, unifying universal truth. In reality though, the story reaches its logical conclusion when it becomes clear that there isn’t any point in continuing. The Diaspora discovers multitudes, but in the end what it truly reveals is the ambivalence of the universe at large, the sort of optimistic pointlessness of attempts to map or fully understand the extent of the universe, to even know what reality is.

And you know by now that I’m a sucker for endings that resolve nothing.