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Book Review: The Three-Body Problem (Cixin Liu)

“The Three-Body Problem” is a science fiction novel, of the “hard” subgenre, that has received a great deal of attention. Much of that attention is due to a political tussle among science fiction fans, where some believe that various unworthy writings have been exalted by the establishment merely to make a political point about supposed under-representation by authors of certain types, including non-American authors. This book was nominated for the top awards in science fiction, and won the Hugo Award. Whether it “deserved” the Hugo I can’t say, having little basis for comparison in my own reading. But I can say the book is very good—with some non-trivial shortcomings.

I very much enjoyed reading the book (some spoilers below). It has ideas of startling originality, such as the sophons (I particularly was intrigued by the description of the results of various levels of dimensional unfolding). It pulls the reader along. It makes the reader want to read the sequels. Reading it was time very well spent. Yes, Cixin uses the “deus ex machina” a bit too much. And numerous plot elements, even the most intriguing, seem shoehorned in—saying, in essence, “look at my brilliant idea!” Even so, these problems don’t really detract from an open-minded reader’s enjoyment—and such problems are typical of the genre.

There seems to be much debate about whether certain dubious characteristics of the novel, including the flat characters, are not actually failings but rather part of the nature of Chinese writing. One angle on this debate that I have not seen anyone note is a comparison to the science fiction of Cordwainer Smith (real name Paul Linebarger; died 1966), who wrote a variety of classics, including “Scanners Live In Vain” and “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell.” He was an army officer, spy and professor, of Asiatic Studies, with extensive Chinese expertise, including as a confidant to Chiang Kai-Shek. It is said that his stories, all of which I’ve read, are based largely on Chinese narrative structures, and I think, without re-reading them, that they have certain parallels to this book, including flat characterization and a certain “feel” that is hard to describe but is somewhat unsettling for Western readers. On this basis, I suspect that some criticism of “The Three-Body Problem” is indeed misplaced, or rather a criticism (perhaps correct) of Chinese literature more generally.

The writing is mostly smooth. The translator (Ken Liu) is apparently quite good; any infelicities may or may not be the author’s, so I will not focus on them. But what is not quite good is the editing, which produces several gross and nonsensical plot and fact inconsistencies that could easily have been avoided, in both Chinese and English. For example, in more than one place, it is stated that the maximum speed of the Trisolaran fleet is one-tenth light speed; how that relates to total travel time is also gone over (in a clunky expository fashion). But in another place the Trisolarans state to each other that the maximum speed is one-one hundredth light speed. Random Trisolarans who know literally nothing about humanity or any other alien race, and just found out humans exist, state to humans that the Trisolarans have no “literature, no art, no pursuit of beauty and enjoyment; we cannot even speak of love.” But the Trisolarans could obviously no idea what those are, if they lack them. The Trisolaran war strategy is to destroy human advancement by mechanically preventing further particle accelerator research—but at the same time, another key goal is separately stopping nanotechnology and therefore space elevators and therefore space defense, implying that merely stopping particle research is not in fact enough (and anyway it seems very doubtful that all further science depends on advancements in particle research). The Trisolarans explicitly consider humans “bugs,” yet at the same time are extremely fearful of their “terrifying ability to accelerate their progress,” relative to the Trisolarans’ own ability. The epidemic of scientists committing suicide is never given any real explanation. And so on. And on.

On a more positive note, something I have not seen remarked on elsewhere is that the book is largely an extended attack on today’s environmentalist movement, or rather on the (extremely prominent and important, and perhaps dominant) anti-human elements of that movement. The chief anti-human environmentalist philosopher today is arguably the odious Peter Singer (author of “Animal Liberation”), who thinks infanticide is great and humanity is a pest, among many other positions that mark him as evil. The billionaire chief human villain of the book relies on Singer’s book as his bible. The villain’s entire philosophy is anti-human (and pro-alien conquest). And he gets his comeuppance, which is to be cut into slices with no warning and no thought of giving him mercy, along with all his chief followers, and their movement is then violently and permanently crushed, to the evident approval of the author, and the very definite approval of this reader.

I find Cixin’s anti-anti-human message interesting because it’s so rare for an author to formally recognize the totalitarian and anti-human elements in much of today’s environmentalist movement. In fact, Cixin repeatedly and explicitly analogizes the anti-human movement in the book, which is a clear proxy for today’s environmentalists, to the different types of the worst elements of China’s Cultural Revolution (not that there were any good elements). Some in the book worship the aliens, some just want humans to disappear, and some suck up to the aliens hoping to gain advantage. (There are also clear, though probably unintentional, parallels to the famous 1941 Harper’s Magazine essay, “Who Goes Nazi?”) None of the environmentalists have anything to add to the correct position, which his “how can we kill all the aliens?” Frankly, I’m surprised the leftists who pushed Cixin’s book because it was non-Western literature did not find his obviously right-wing politics, in the context of the book, totally unpalatable. But it certainly makes the book different than the usual tripe pushed by social justice warriors.

Of course, as with nearly all science fiction, this is not great literature. Heresy, I know. “The Three-Body Problem” is basically memorable pulp. By that, I mean that great literature illuminates to the reader the human condition in some way, and evinces in its characterizations a keen understanding of human nature. It is therefore universal and timeless. Any other book is merely a more-or-less enjoyable diversion, or a textbook. Hard science fiction tends, by its nature, to pulp with a large dollop of textbook. It is written by geeks for those interested in how scientific facts and theories might play out under different circumstances. Its frame is science, not man. Nobody will remember this book in thirty years, much less a hundred. (Nor is there any reason to believe that the literature of each culture produces an equal amount, either absolutely or per capita, of great literature. In fact, a static, backward-and-inward looking society like China, philosophically focused on the Confucian desire to re-attain a mythical perfect past, has probably has produced vastly less great literature than European cultures, whether or not the social justice warriors want to believe that, which they don’t.) But hey, this book is still very much worth reading as a diversion. It just won’t change your life.

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