Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem, the winner of the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novel, is a novel about Earth’s contact with alien life, as well as the scars of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, as well as an exploration of the fundamental nature of physics and science. Cixin’s work bounces between generations, and between solar systems (not always successfully) and weaves a complex, rich, dizzying tale about Us finding Them.
The masterwork in setting up the communique is Ye Wentjie, the daughter of a famous astrophysicist who was killed during a student riot during the Cultural Revolution. Ye’s father was accused of teaching the theory of relativity, which was seen as dangerous propaganda projecting capitalist values. The novel opens in 1967, at the scene of the protest where her own mother and sister, assimilated and re-educated by the communists, would hold up the professor as this sort of heretic and ultimately actually do the deed. Ye is then exiled to the countryside, where she is given the book Silent Spring considered dangerous by Mao’s Communists, and she escapes punishment by agreeing to work at the Red Coast Base on a secret project.
The novel then hops to the present day (or near future), and Wang Miao, an accomplished scientist who runs a nanometrics lab (developing nanomaterial, essentially super strong threads and such), ends up on the radar of the police and army as they want him to infiltrate a special gathering of science elite, a sort of secret society. This is due to a rash of suicides in the scientific community. While doing this work, Wang is struck when he sees a countdown timer which would not stop showing in his eyes until he paused his research. Pulling on strings and he tries to get questions answered, Wang happens onto “The Three Body Problem”, an online virtual reality game about a world where sunrise and sunset cannot be predicted with any sort of accuracy. In this world, the sun can be in the air for a while, it can burn too hot, or it can disappear, and nobody can figure out how it works. Wang starts to get into the game and its world, and when he figures out the game’s secret – it leads to a group who has given up on humanity’s ability to save itself at all.
Liu very effectively bounces back and forth between these threads, as we reveals what the Red Coast project was, and its results – and how it led to the Earth-Trisolar Organization. In his portrayals of the Earth-Trisolar Organization, an organization which has given up on humanity has interesting parallels with Ye giving up on the sorts of things we take for granted within our family and from our society. The Cultural Revolution destroyed a lot of those receptors – and Cixin is not subtle in pointing this out. When the story gets into the nuances of the physics, and the devices used by the aliens (devices which operate at the subatomic level) – the idea is fascinating in an old school sci-fi way, but it also does drag. There are multiple chapters of flashback and straight exposition which brings a very interesting sci-fi story to a halt. These things are necessary of course, but it is an occupational risk.
Overall, The Three Body Problem is an engaging, fascinating look at a classic sci-fi story. In a genre where a lot of what you get exposed to is straight white-bread, a Chinese sci-fi story is a welcome change, even translated as this is.