Liu Cixin’s ‘The Three Body Problem’ holds a mirror to human society

Liu Cixin’s 'The Three-Body Problem' combines science with a study of history and philosophy

Updated - January 22, 2018 07:05 pm IST

Published - January 22, 2018 05:55 pm IST

 Liu Cixin

Liu Cixin

To call The Three-Body Problem , the English version of the first book of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Chinese author Liu Cixin, a science fiction novel, would be selling it short. The book packs in a study of Chinese contemporary history, delves into the realms of philosophy and religion, and a lot of science and extraterrestrial intelligence in a space opera that reminds one of the Star Trek or Star Wars trilogy, albeit in book form. The title is a reference to the three-body problem in orbital mechanics. The book is one of the most popular science fiction novels from China.

The Three-Body Problem starts off in the age of China’s cultural revolution, when academics are prosecuted for promoting science and teaching it to students. In this political climate, Ye Wenjie, the young daughter of a physics professor, witnesses her father beaten to death by fanatics. This event sets into motion a series of incidents, as an angry Wenjie ends up in a top-secret lab where she discovers a clear message from an extraterrestrial intelligence, and faces a question: can she take up a mission and work towards eliminating a morally irredeemable human race and usher in a new beginning by helping extraterrestrials take over Earth? Her decision and its ramifications make up for this well-written tale.

 The cover of the book

The cover of the book

Unlike video games and films — think Independence Day in popular culture, where aliens suddenly appear from nowhere and begin destroying the world — in The Three-Body Problem , the enemy civilisation (Trisolaris) tries to win over scientists and the intelligentsia with the aid of a computer game, and an invasion is set much in the future. The premise of the game helps the reader understand more about the world of Trisolaris and the reasons for this group of aliens looking for another planet. It is very fast-paced and involves complex scientific theories and explanations that are put forth well.

However, at times, the explanations are a little far-fetched, and seem to take away the focus of the quickly-unfolding action in the book.

What is it?

The book also touches on the contemporary issues of scientific progress being questioned by a variety of groups, and in a way, does question the motivations of such groups. Most of the action in the book happens in China, as a young physicist manages to uncover the secrets of the three-body game and humanity learns about an impending invasion of the planet, 450 years in the future. The desperate Trisolarians, fleeing a home planet that is uninhabitable due to the presence of three suns, also send sophons, a particle that allows them to spy on Earth and puts scientific research on lockdown on Earth. This renders the Earth and humanity sitting ducks, for the invasion four-and-a-half centuries in the future.

There are secret societies, multiple lessons on Chinese history, a multitude of physics theories, alongside the damage that humanity has wrought on Earth, that form the narrative of this novel. It not only offers us a glimpse of life in China in the cultural revolution, but also a precursor of the new China that sees itself at the centre of the world.

Also fascinating were the reflections on sociology, on the questions of being human and what sets us apart from other species on the Earth that this book makes an attempt to understand, with the aid of a fictional tale. However, what the book lacks is a set of strong characters. Apart from Wenjie, the nanoscientist Wang and his friend Shi, the other characters do not leave you with much of an impact. The Three-Body Problem holds a mirror to human society, despite being a work of fiction.

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