A celebration of science as saviour

Cixin Liu’s award-winning book meditates on why aliens might not look kindly on earth unless humanity uses science to unite

Published - February 04, 2017 03:17 pm IST

The Three-Body Problem; Cixin Liu trs. Ken Liu, Speaking Tiger,₹599.

The Three-Body Problem; Cixin Liu trs. Ken Liu, Speaking Tiger,₹599.

Imagine a three-dimensional sniper taking aim at a flat, two-dimensional target. With incredible precision, he deftly strikes the target with a series of bullets, each exactly 10 cm apart. Unknown to him, a two-dimensional civilisation flourishes on the target. The intellectuals of that dimension stumble upon the evenly-placed bullet-holes and are puzzled. They come to the conclusion that it is a law of their universe that every 10cm, a hole will be formed, not imagining that this was the work of a sniper.

Here’s another one: There’s a farm full of turkeys. Every day the farmer feeds the turkeys exactly at 8 AM. The turkey intellectuals study this phenomenon and propose a new law that every day at 8 AM, food will appear in their corral. But unfortunately for them, the next day is Thanksgiving and instead of feeding, they are all slaughtered.

These two cheerful thought-experiments are trying to tell us something subtle but with far-reaching implications: our experience of the universe is limited and what we can glean from our tiny human perspective, including our fundamental laws of physics, might simply be accidents or worse, the capricious acts of some terrifying, unknowable super-being.

Both these scenarios make an appearance in The Three-Body Problem , the first book of an award-winning science fiction trilogy by Chinese author Cixin Liu (pronounced Tsuhshin Liou).

Liu is China’s biggest and most-feted science fiction writer. He’s won the China Galaxy Science Fiction Award nine times, the Nebula award twice and the prestigious Hugo award (the first translated author to do so). Though the book was originally published in 2008, the English edition, translated by another award-winning author, Ken Liu, was only available for American readers in 2014. It is being distributed in India by Speaking Tiger.

Liu’s book gets its name from a 17th century mathematical problem discussed in Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica . The problem deals with the calculation of the movement of three massive bodies subject to their mutual gravitational effects. As you might be able to tell, Cixin Liu is a geek. His book is peppered with scientific, mathematical and technological references.

From nanomaterials and space elevators to quantum entanglement and cosmic radiation, logic gates and motherboard architecture, Liu leaps from idea to idea with the passion of a true believer.

This celebration of science has led a number of reviewers to peg the book as hard science fiction, a sub-genre that is characterised by an emphasis on scientific accuracy and technical detail. This is misleading.

While Liu is very enthusiastic about the physics in the book, it is not strictly accurate. Liu extrapolates further than current science has gone and imagines a fantastic new world to explore. But he is no techno-utopian and his optimism isn’t naïve.

Liu’s book, and his broader outlook, is rooted in the bloody history of China’s Cultural Revolution, a purge of capitalist and traditional elements by Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the Communist Party. Liu was a child during the revolution and was sent away by his parents to their ancestral village of Henan. Growing up and learning about the violence of that era has clearly impacted him.

The book opens with a depiction of a mass ‘struggle session’ — a public rally designed to break down ‘enemies’ of the revolution through humiliating abuse until they confess to their crimes.

A physics professor is being tried in this particular session: his theories are deemed to be reactionary. His death sets off a chain of events that will endanger the survival of the human race.

From this dark starting point, Liu goes on to paint a suspicious view of what might be ‘out there’. He sees no reason why extra-terrestrial life, if it exists, will look kindly on Earth.

Rather like men when they land on new continents, an unthinking genocide might follow first contact with any alien race.

Liu sees this understanding as a rallying point for global unity, a call for people from all countries to come together and work for the common good of the human race. He dismisses the despairing thought experiments that he mentions in the book and advocates a greater commitment to basic science research. Liu believes that only with greater progress in the fundamental sciences will humanity advance and hopefully come together to save itself, from external threats and man from man.

Thomas Manuel is the winner of The Hindu Playwright Award 2016.

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