Rob Heaton
Robert Heaton


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Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu - the Cultural Revolution, in space

12 Oct 2015

The first two-thirds of Cixin Liu’s “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy show the wonderful things that happen when you take a fascinating premise, add another fascinating premise, then several further fascinating premises, and don’t really have any room for anything else. “Three Body Problem” and “The Dark Forest” star the Trisolarians, a technologically advanced alien race living light years away from humanity, in a three-sun solar system. The chaotic orbital dynamics of such a set-up make the destruction of their civilization by either extreme heat or extreme cold inevitable, which they are quite keen to avoid. Due to one woman’s total dick move, they become aware of the existence of a relatively stable, non-immediately-doomed planet name “Earth”, and they set out with all due haste to exterminate its inhabitants. Earth has 400 years to respond, and nine hundred of my next thousand words notwithstanding, these are two of the most fun and intense books I have read this year.

The translations are explicitly intended to preserve the linguistic rhythm of the originals, and Western readers are warned that they may find this jarring. Personally, I don’t believe that I did. However, I did start second guessing how many of the numerous perceived deficiencies in the prose were due to my unfamiliarity with the conventions of Chinese sci-fi, and how many were just bad writing. Either way, at some point it is reasonable and essential to say “maybe this is just how Chinese sci-fi works, but in that case Chinese sci-fi sucks.”

Let us examine the characters. There aren’t any. Apart from Big Shi, a gruff ex-police plucked directly from the scripts of every film noir ever and for whom I have a lot of affection, and Ye Wenjie, a survivor of the Cultural Revolution who may have personally caused the total annihilation of all life on earth, every other person in the story is first and foremost an interchangeable driver of plot or spouter of titanic blocks of exposition. Wang Miao, the main character for all of Three Body Problem’s 500 pages, is a gifted nanotechnologist, but his only other identifiable characteristic appears to be having a narrative camera strapped to his head.

However, criticizing the Three Body Problem for lacking deep and sympathetic characters would be like criticizing your local library for its lack of quality prostitutes. You’re completely missing the point, and if that’s what you’re after then you should just visit my experimental literary brothel. Andy Weir’s writing in “The Martian” is deeply, hideously and conclusively terrible, but the fundamentally incredible premise of rescuing a man stranded on Mars makes up for it infinity times over. In the same way, Cixin Liu’s series contains tens of fascinating and (to my relatively inexperienced scifi brain) completely novel ideas, each of which could drive an entire book on its own if you wanted to waste the rest of the pages with deep and evolving characters. With a minimum of meaningful spoilers, some of my favorites are:

  • “Sophons” - alien controlled particles that prevent humanity’s advance in fundamental physics
  • The Three Body Game itself - an alien PR exercise disguised as a haunting computer game
  • Millions of Qing Dynasty-era soldiers simulating a Dell Computer by waving flags
  • Wallfacers - 4 people tasked with marshaling all of humanity’s resources to defend against an imminent invasion without telling anybody what their plans actually are

These are books carried entirely by their plot, which is stronger than five Dwayne The Rock Johnsons combined by science into some kind of single super-Dwayne The Rock Johnson. There were only one or two points in the books where I felt any serious inclination to roll my eyes with implausibility, and any events that go too far into crazytown are confined to non-central sub-plots. An otherwise entirely sane sociologist does leave his very real and very wonderful girlfriend for an imaginary woman he knows that he literally made up, but as long as he does so far away from the main thread and in the privacy of his own home, he can do whatever he wants. Liu is completely callous with his characters, and sees no need to give them the traditional development arc of tension build-up, resolution, growth. Wang Miao is the star of the show for the entire of Three Body Problem, and simply vanishes from the set of The Dark Forest. He doesn’t die, retire or become otherwise incapacitated. He simply isn’t relevant any more. Other seemingly important characters die and leave the stage all the time, making the books read like a dispassionate, global and totally awesome history of the Trisolarian “Crisis Era”.

Stories tend to flounder if they escalate too quickly - where do you go once the stakes are the lives or deaths of everyone on the entire planet? Previously I had believed that the solution was subtle pacing and creating emotional bonds between reader and protagonist, but Liu appears to violently disagree. He threatens to blow up the world on page 20, and then somehow maintains and even raises the tension for another 1000 pages (and all the way to the end of book 3, inshala). In The Dark Forest, the Trisolarians are going to arrive at and destroy earth in a little over four centuries’ time. Humanity and the reader are forced to work out how to properly reason and think about something that will have zero direct effect on anyone’s life for many generations, at which point it will kill everyone. Liu deals with the moral and ethical implications surprisingly compellingly.

No one could claim that the plot is subtly conveyed. Falling only slightly short of a villain explaining their master-plan to the hero whilst lasering off their testicles with extreme prejudice, information tends to be revealed in dense, unforeseeable blocks of author-surrogate exposition. Histories are recounted aloud for no discernible reason, characters draw back the curtain on each other’s master plans in great and entirely unnecessary detail, and transcripts of alien conversations are conveniently found on happily and irresponsibly unencrypted hard drives. There are no clues; there are no foreshadowings. But again, the content of the heavy-handed storytelling is so fantastic that this does not matter. Criticizing the Three Body Problem for lacking nuanced, sophisticated drama would be like criticizing a morgue for not having a giraffe. You’re asking for something that is both unnecessary and liable to get in the way, and if that’s what you’re after then you should just visit the funeral zoo I’m opening up next year, once I’ve got signoff from the regulators.

As should be abundantly clear by now, Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest are not without their numerous and potentially critical flaws. But as long as Cixin Liu has enough mind-bending ideas left to fill the third and final installment, we should shut up and let him do whatever he wants.


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