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Hugos Review 2015: The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin (Cixin Liu)

If you’re at all tied in to the genre fiction world, you’ll likely have heard of The Three-Body Problem. It was already on my reading list for some time before it was added to the list of Hugo nominees; it’s been getting all kinds of buzz, including being a pick for the io9 book club a few months ago. Annalee Newitz’s review starts with the line “If you love computers, this novelĀ  should be on your must-read list.” This framing made me suspect that I might not be the book’s intended audience, and after having finished it I can confirm that supposition; if not for its Hugo nomination, I might have put it down unfinished. But at the end, I’m glad I read it, and I won’t be at all upset if it takes home the Hugo this year.

A quick summary for those who’ve missed the buzz: The Three-Body Problem is a novel by Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin. Liu has won China’s Galaxy Award (China’s highest prize for science fiction) nine times; his first book was published in 1999; and The Three-Body Problem is, as near as I can tell, the first of his works to be translated into English. The translator, Ken Liu (no relation), is a well-respected sci-fi writer in his own right, whose short story “The Paper Menagerie” swept the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards in 2011. Three-Body Problem is the first in a trilogy, and the other two books are out in China but have not yet been translated.

At its heart, The Three-Body Problem is an idea book. It raises fascinating questions about the salvation (or salvageability) of humanity, the importance of technological progress, and human tribalism, while also exploring complex ideas from math and science, particularly physics (the English language title refers to a term from classical mechanics). It’s most definitely hard science fiction, which isn’t my usual bread and butter. Big chunks of the book are spent explaining complex physics concepts (both real and fictionalized). The characters are also flatter and more peripheral than what I tend to prefer in my reading. That aspect of the book reminded me a bit of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which I set down unfinished because I found it too much like a set of political essays presented by talking heads. Liu Cixin has said in interviews that he was inspired by American science fiction authors from the “golden age” (Arthur C. Clarke is one I’ve seen cited in several places) and this book definitely captures the feel of that era — a classic sci-fi story in most any sense of the word, with the possible exception of its location.

When the book opens, we’re in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution, where a young woman has just seen her father killed for continuing to teach (and proclaim his belief in) Einstein’s theory of relativity. But most of the story takes place in the near future; the main character, Wang Miao, is a researcher developing a new nanotechnology who starts having strange experiences. Scientists he knows are killing themselves because they say the laws of physics are no longer working as expected. When he takes photos with his fancy new camera, there’s a countdown on the negatives when they’re developed. And when he starts trying to explore possible linkages between these phenomena, he finds himself drawn into a MMORPG called Three Body (the book’s Chinese title) that depicts a world with massively unpredictable seasons and weather, whose people are able to dehydrate themselves to survive great heat and cold, but which has also had to reinvent its civilization from scratch thousands of times when the planet’s been destroyed by natural forces of one kind or another. Wang is fascinated by the game, which he eventually realizes is simulating life in a tri-solar system (where the planet is sometimes in stable orbit around one star, subject at other times to the heat and gravitational pull of two or even all three stars at once, and sometimes thrown far from any of them). But he can’t shake the feeling that there’s something deeper going on…

I struggled with the first half of the book, where Wang is going from place to place and person to person trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on. But once Liu started to tip his hand about what was causing the strange phenomena, I was hooked — at least conceptually, if not always in execution.

Warning: spoilers for the book’s central ideas and plot arc beyond this point.

What Wang and the readers discover in the second half of the book is that the online game, Three Body, is part of a grand movement that’s been organized by the supporters of an alien civilization from Alpha Centauri (which, incidentally, is a binary star system with a third star close enough to influence the orbit of any planets, whose denizens have survived through dehydration methods remarkably similar to those used in the game) who have started the process of invading Earth. Their fleet won’t arrive for four hundred years, but to make sure that humans don’t outstrip them technologically in the meantime, they’ve sent ahead a fleet of sentient, self-replicating protons (the explanation of this aspect of the Big Plot is is the high-powered physics stuff I was alluding to earlier) to mess with the laws of physics as they’re currently understood, and basically stop human scientific advancement in its tracks.

Wang also learns that the aliens first became aware of Earth because the young woman we met in the book’s first chapter, Ye Wenjie, later became involved with China’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence; when she received a response to China’s Voyager-type initial contact message, warning that the aliens who’d received China’s signal would destroy human civilization if they could pinpoint which planet the first contact had come from, she sent word back to the effect that “humans aren’t worth saving. Come take our planet and do better.”

In the decades since, the human supporters of the “Trisolaran” aliens have fragmented into two main groups, those who view the aliens and their world through a quasi-religious lens (and are less inclined to actively work in support of the invasion than in attempting to solve the three-body problem and allow the Trisolarans to live in peace) and those who see them as the ones who will come to rid Earth of the corrupt human influence. This is where my sociologist brain really began to appreciate the story; Liu does some fascinating work with exploring the range of human reactions to the knowledge that another “superior” culture is out there, and that it’s coming to destroy the human world. Several characters offer interesting takes on the idea that human civilization feels worthless now that they know that it’ll all be over in 400 years. There’s a great moment at the very end of the book where a common analogy for advanced civilizations — that Trisolarans are to humans as humans are to bugs — is turned around, and a character points out that humans and bugs have been at war for millennia upon millennia and the bugs aren’t beaten yet.

In his “Big Idea” interview on John Scalzi’s website, Liu suggests that much of Chinese science fiction portrays aliens as inherently noble-minded, and he felt it was more realistic to posit that any civilization advanced enough to enter space would view any other civilization it found there as a threat to its existence. I think this is a fascinating idea, and one that I hadn’t seen in science fiction before. And as you might guess from my summary of the central plot threads, it’s not the only element in the story that made me feel that way.

So if you like hard science fiction and aren’t too bothered by lightly-developed characters, this is almost certainly going to be a home run book for you. And even if you don’t fit that profile (and especially if you read primarily Western authors), I’d still recommend you check it out purely for the uniqueness of the core concepts. This one might not be my kind of book, but it’s still a very worthy contender for the award.