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The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

three-body-cover.jpg[It's very hard to write about this book without committing SPOILERS. Consider yourself warned.]

This is the third novel I've read as I get ready to vote for the Hugos, and as much as I liked The Goblin Emperor and Ancillary Sword, I do believe The Three-Body Problem will get my top vote. I'd be tempted to vote for Ancillary Sword, but Leckie got the Hugo for the first book in her trilogy last year. Even so it would have been a tough choice, because The Three-Body Problem really punched my sensa-wunda buttons. It's a first contact story, but it takes its time getting there. In the meantime it's many other things, including a chilling tour of the Cultural Revolution and a survey of some of the wilder and weirder realms of modern physics. It's also the first book in a trilogy, making all three of the Hugo nominated novels I read members of trilogies, which is actually mildly bothersome to me, but I digress.

The two main characters in the novel are Ye Wenjie -- an astrophysicist whom we first meet during the Cultural Revolution when she watches her scientist father beaten to death by Party fanatics -- and Wang Miao -- a nanotech researcher who four decades later gets pulled into investigating inexplicable occurrences in the scientific world. The novel proceeds as a kind of scientific history and mystery until we gradually learn of the existence of an alien race from a three-sun system (thus the three-body problem) who have an unseemly interest in Earth's rather more stable solar system.

The Three-Body Problem develops an incredible sense of scale. At one point late in the book the alien Trisolarian scientists discuss how a proton can be unfolded dimension by dimension until it is as big as the entire physical universe. What if it is unfolded even more, the scientist is asked, and he says that further scientific research is necessary. That's what the whole novel feels like: an unfolding of dimension after dimension, with the scope of action getting larger and larger. The personal is cosmic, to paraphrase the old feminist line. Ye Wenjie's alienation from humanity because of the Cultural Revolution is an almost literal alienation, and it turns her personal suffering and grievance into an existential threat to humans. This aspect of the novel reminded me of Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed at times, but because it grows out of real human history and then explodes into something with interstellar implications, it feels both more real and more fantastic.

The alien race are fascinating as well. We first learn of them through an online video game called Three Body that Wang Miao is invited to play by the scientific group he's investigating. We don't know initially that the game is based on real history and cosmology, and it seems like a strange, non-chronological mash-up of human history, cultures, and scientific breakthroughs. Eventually we find out that the hodgepodge of historical human figures in the game are avatars for Trisolarians, and that much of the bizarre world-building within the game, such as the ability of characters to dehydrate as a way of hibernating during the chaotic conditions frequently created by three suns, are biological facts of the alien race. The catastrophic cycles that Trisolarian civilization is subject to, where basically a cosmic reset button is hit and they have to start again from scratch, again and again over the course of thousands if not millions of years, is not just a crazy rule in the game. (Is Liu also commenting on the ups and downs of Chinese history here?) It's stated explicitly that no humans really know what the aliens look like, and all representations within the game and within the novel are a kind of guess or projection. The Trisolarians are in some sense truly unknowable, at least at this stage of the story, and the sense that they could be some form of dream reminded me of the way H.G. Wells treats the lunar aliens in First Men on the Moon as hallucinations.

This is a brain twister of a book, but I'm not sure how much of that is conceptual and how much of it is the strange narrative structure that shifts between Ye Wenjie's and Wang Miao's points of view, then adds the alien point of view late in the story, which is one of at least two sections that are epistolary in the sense that the are supposedly being read from a transcript but which then transform into a kind of omniscient narration that seems to know more than the transcript should know. Which is to say that some of the structure of the novel is at best difficult but probably really just clunky. There are also long passages of dialogue between characters without even a "so-and-so said" to help guide us along, let alone any attempt to characterize the speakers. But I actually didn't mind that, or the lack of characterization in general except for Ye Wenjie and one rogue cop, because this is a novel of ideas, and the ideas are compelling in themselves.

But it's more than just the smart discussion of scientific ideas, including ideas about the limitations of science. Ye Wenjie's grievance against humanity and history can also be read as a grievance against the indifferent universe. For as much sense of wonder as Liu brings to his cosmological speculation, there's an equally powerful sense that human suffering is just a blip on the cosmic scale, but also that we ain't seen nothing yet. It could get much, much worse. It's not a pessimistic view, but it's a breathtaking form of the cold equations. I have no idea where the story will end up in the rest of the trilogy, but the set-up feels a little like Greg Egan's Diaspora, where eventually humanity is completely lost in the infinite scale of the multi-dimensional universe. Unfold a few more dimensions of that proton, and it's bigger than any human scale devised.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 6th, 2015 11:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this review. I've been hesitant to pick this one up because all the reviews I've read indicate that it's mostly a novel of ideas and that the characters and character development are sketchy at best.
Jun. 7th, 2015 03:52 am (UTC)
It's definitely a novel of ideas with mostly sketchy character development, so a lot depends on how interesting you find the ideas. However, I also found the Chinese setting completely fascinating. And Ye Wenjie is a pretty fascinating character, even if she's the only character with much depth.
Jun. 7th, 2015 04:19 am (UTC)
I really do appreciate the thorough review and explanation - might help overcome my hesitation.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 7th, 2015 04:50 pm (UTC)
Well, I will say that it changes dramatically as it progresses, but of course I don't know whether it changes in a way that will ultimately grab you.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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