Thoughts: The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

Spoilers spoilers spoilers! If you want to read this book, don’t read this post.

I’m skipping a book here (Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation) because I’m going to meet up with friends and discuss it at a later date, so forgive me.

I picked up The Three-Body Problem because Spuggy had already done so, and he recommended it, and my TBR will never be too long to accept a recommendation from people I love.

It’s… weird. A lot of it was probably lost on me, both scientifically and culturally. But I could not stop reading it. Spoilers spoilers spoilers.

I was trying to think of Chinese books I’ve read in translation, and came up with two: Journey to the West, which I’m still about halfway through, and Shanghai Baby, by Wei Hui (translated by Bruce Humes). Isn’t that weird? Such a huge country with such an amazing literary tradition, and I’ve read a grand total of two books from there. Other books by Chinese authors or about China I’ve read have either been written in English or written about Chinese experiences in other countries, the US or UK (Xiaolu Guo and Amy Tan come to mind).

So I know next to nothing about China. I went to Leeds University, which has a big, well-respected Chinese department and a wealth of library resources, and bounced right off it.

And I don’t know that much about science, either, when it comes down to it.

The Three-Body Problem covers a lot of history, starting from the Cultural Revolution and ending… contemporarily? In the near future? It’s hard to tell, as there isn’t much in the way of sort of “time landmarks” in the modern part of the story, and as it’s a sci fi novel, the scientific development doesn’t exactly match up (I don’t think? The V-suits are logical extensions of current VR gaming tech. Nanomaterials seem to my unscientific self to be much-discussed but not really present in the outside world), making it hard to pinpoint where exactly in time we are. Do we have to worry about aliens now, or will we in the near future?

Interspersed with the real, or plausibly real science is fantastical science that the aliens have at their fingertips (do they have fingers? We don’t know yet!), and the reason they have access to the ability to unfold protons into various numbers of dimensions and we don’t is that we haven’t progressed far enough to see the secrets of the universe yet. And the reason we haven’t managed to do that is that the aliens are sabotaging all our experiments. This relies on essentially science-as-magic, which doesn’t bother me much – not a scientist, and willing to suspend huge amounts of disbelief for fiction that I deem enjoyable – but might bother people who understand more of the science he’s bending.

During the course of the book, our modern protagonist, Wang, comes across an online game called Three Body. Weirdly, this was the part that most brought me out of the story. You want to unfold protons into huge geometric shapes? Fine! Use your nanomaterial to cut through a giant cargo ship? Please do! But this game just didn’t make sense to me. I know, it’s a really stupid thing to get hung up on, and part of me wonders if it stood out because it was something that I actually did understand, and so I exaggerated its importance. But either way, I was never sure how the game worked. It was halfway between an MMO and a single-player and also just a massive cutscene. The game seemed to progress without Wang’s having to be there, but it also seemed to progress individually for different players.

Anyway, not so important.

The game was a lure to find people who could begin to understand its context (not the titular three-body problem, but people who could independently come to the conclusion that the problem was the three-body problem – the world of the game is set on a planet which orbits in a solar system with three stars, which causes totally unpredictable chaos). Once they progressed to a certain point in the game, players were approached by the secret society who had made it, and informed that the world of Three Body was in fact a real planet, and the game’s ending, where the people of Three Body had decided the only way to survive was to find another planet to live on, had really happened. Those aliens were in fact coming to Earth right now, would be there in 450 years.

The story is so dense it’s hard for me to summarise without just retelling the whole thing. The game sections were frustrating (it was a very frustrating game) but I nevertheless enjoyed the frustration. There was a sense of mystery there that I rarely come across in books, and the same goes for the Trisolaran sections. The symmetry between the Watcher’s and Wenjie’s experiences of first contact was thoroughly enjoyable. There was something almost fairytale about the Trisolaran sections. Lots of rule of three, Goldilocks-style progression, and in general just a very odd society depicted according to its own unknowable rules.

I’m aware of the foolishness of stating this despite not having read nearly enough sci fi or Chinese literature, but it does read differently to modern Western sci fi in ways that are hard to put my finger on. Different cultures and languages have different touchstones and norms, which can lead to this sense of exoticism or poetry in translated works regardless of their original reception in the source language (anyone who’s read Japanese pop lyrics in translation can attest to trite nothings in one language looking like utter poetry in others), and the same goes for story structure and narrative arcs. Ken Liu, the translator, said in his note that he tried to remain faithful to the source text while making it understandable and not overly-literal (we all know what happens when that balance isn’t there) and only added information related to Chinese historical events, which were all approved by Cixin Liu (no relation). In general his translation goals are very similar to mine, which is always nice to come across.

Another interesting little coincidence I noticed was the plot point of scientists committing suicide upon finding that there is no point in science anymore. This is something that came up in Ted Chiang’s short story collection, Stories of Your Life And Others, in the story Division By Zero, when a mathematician essentially disproves mathematics and falls into despair. It didn’t really do it for me then, and I have to admit, it didn’t do it for me here either. At first I thought the scientists realised the aliens were coming, or had uncovered some awful truth. But it turns out they had just discovered that physics was useless (due to alien sabotage). The problem is, most of physics is perfectly fine? This is a very hypothetical, abstract sort of despair, and is hard to empathise with. The other problem is that I don’t know if every scientist in the world who came up against this wall would necessarily commit suicide. Some people would be able to deal with it, surely. Some people would delude themselves, or be in denial, or accept it, or be inspired to hunt for greater things, or anything other than immediately kill themselves.

These are relatively small niggles to have about what is really a vast, dense book. And I wonder if it holds even more meaning to a Chinese audience, or one more familiar with Chinese history than me. The translator leaves in the references, even Mandarin-specific ones, to politics (words that are avoided because of accidents of hanzi or possible interpretations of certain compounds) and explains them, but this is far from a native speaker’s reading of the same thing, where the link would be instinctive. This isn’t to disparage Liu the translator – he did the absolute best he could, and I appreciated his use of footnotes, which seem to have fallen out of fashion in translation, as though they’re admitting defeat. But not everything can ever be translated.

I didn’t find some of the political stuff… shocking? I mean, it’s horrible from a human rights perspective, but I’m familiar enough with Chinese history and other dictatorships to have a vague idea of how such dictatorships are maintained. Even today China bans various words from social media; that’s quite regularly reported on, and often the banned words have links as tenuous as “sunspots” to actual seditious thought. Just as the people who are punished by such a regime have such tenuous links to actual troublemakers.

The Three-Body Problem is really quite political for a book that’s come out of China. Cixin Liu is apparently very beloved, so maybe he can get away with saying things that other people perhaps couldn’t, or maybe he’s clever enough about the political stance of his books. The Three-Body Problem is quite explicit that the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution (such hollow cruelties, as well, repented as soon as enough time has gone by) led directly to the betrayal of the human race. But is Wenjie a victim or a villain? Can we understand her motivations or do we deplore them? That’s where the ambiguity seeps in. If Wenjie is an outright villain, then the government is right, isn’t it? She was politically blacklisted because she was someone who would betray the human race. And if you want to argue that she only betrayed the human race because of her treatment by the government, then you could equally say that she, seemingly alone, had within her the seeds of that betrayal anyway.

Perhaps I’ll have to read the other two books to find out. But most likely it’s a question that no one but the reader can answer.

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