Friday, May 14, 2021

Review: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Science fiction "First Contact" stories typically have two main threads: how do we define humanity or consciousness, and how would we politically respond to the discovery of a new intelligent race? When I picked up The Three-Body Problem, I had just finished The Left Hand Of Darkness, also a First Contact story, and although the theme was unintentional, the contrast was interesting. In The Left Hand of Darkness, gender is alien, and the main thread is the first type: what is it like to be human without gender? The main character's difficulty in adapting to this notion and his ingrained misogyny results in political difficulty in his diplomatic response.

The Three-Body Problem emphasizes the second thread: how would we respond to the discovery of a new race? It presented some new (to me, at least!) speculations: what if the first people to discover the existence of aliens were so despairing of humanity that they wanted humans to lose against an invading force? Having read a few books about the development of social movements recently, I got a bit of a kick seeing the author muse about the development of the Adventists versus the Reformist factions within this Earth Trisolaris Organization (ETO). Conversely, ironically, the first alien to learn of intelligent life on Earth was a pacifist who realized the best outcome for him or her personally would be to continue to eke out a meager existence at their watch post, and desperately warned Earth that to respond would likely be to bring on its own destruction.

Although this second strand was emphasized, there was a little of the first thread. The final reveal is that despite establishing continued contact with the ETO, the aliens view humans as insects: small beings to be quashed so that the Trisolaris people can survive. The main villain of the novel's climax decries humans' sense of superiority over other races:

Why does one have to save people to be considered a hero? Why is saving other species considered insignificant? Who gave humans such high honors? No, humans do not need saving. They’re already living much better than they deserve.

But it all felt a little hollow: all the characters were just paper cut-outs placed on a table, so that the author could present these ideas. There was no love, no warmth, no joy, no celebration of the things humans create or achieve outside of their scientific discoveries, no one to care about. Family members were introduced, then forgotten about or killed off when convenient. Even the main character was little more than a camera through which the reader could watch these ideas be discussed, the time to the end of the novel ticking down in the corner of their vision. Given this vantage point, I felt as indifferent towards mankind as the ETO Adventists.

I was disappointed! As the first Chinese novel I've read, it was a new perspective for me (although you might not guess it, with the American military swooping in at the end to defeat the villain, and the prominence of Western scientists). Indeed, the story started strong, hooking me with some fun mysteries. What was Red Coast Station really for? What was the timer Wang saw ticking down to? What caused the unusual, unpredictable chaos/stable cycles in the alien world? How can two photons block scientific progress? But I felt robbed of the joy of these discoveries. Wang's solution of the chaos/stable cycles was simply presented with no build to how he figured it out. The timer was just a psychological attack. The photon unfolding system was hypothesized by Shi Qiang with no explanation of why he would have any idea what subatomic particles might look like when unfolded, and the reveal of how they were unfolded is simply presented, without space for the protagonists to react. 

Outside of the mostly fascinating virtual reality sequences set in a fictionalized version of Trisolaris, the main camera character just bounces from Quest Giver to Quest Giver, with answers and questions presented to him. Join this organization. Watch microwaves at this time. Look at the sky with these goggles. Go visit this old lady. Ahh, are things confusing? Why don't you get drunk then take a nap. It was like watching someone play a science fiction Skyrim with a slightly better story.

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