First published in China almost a decade ago under the title 三体, Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem has finally been brought to audiences in l’anglosphere (at least the l’Amérique du Nord part). This is due to the efforts of translator Ken Liu, publisher Tor Books, and the China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation. In this novel, Liu grapples with a classic SFnal question — how might contact between two civilizations of vastly different technological ability go? — and the answer is, rather unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with terrestrial history, very poorly for the less advanced civilization.
For Professor Wang Miao, the affair begins when he is questioned concerning a recent wave of suicides involving the scientific community of which he is a part. The true roots of the affair, at least as far as Earth is concerned, go back decades, to the brutal excesses of China’s Cultural Revolution. While Wang works on unraveling the mystery from the perspective of the 21st Century, the reader is shown the series of events that led a cabal of Terrestrials to plot against their own species in the name of something greater.
After witnessing her father’s murder at the hands of ideological extremists, the brilliant young Ye Wenjie was consigned to the Inner Mongolia Production and Construction Corps. The true purpose of the Corps was to station warm bodies where they could be thrown in human waves at invading Soviets but as it happened, the Sino-Soviet conflict never boiled over into war, which is probably just as well for the Northern Hemisphere. What Ye and the rest of the Corps actually did was fell an astounding number of trees, transforming forests into desolation.
A well-meaning colleague allowed Ye to read his translated copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, something that would have a dramatic effect both on Ye’s world view and her career prospects. Silent Spring was a strictly controlled text during the period of the Cultural Revolution and Ye broke the law by reading it. Exposed by the same fellow whose copy she read, Ye is labeled an enemy of the revolution and arrested. By good luck, she avoids a conventional punishment by accepting what she expects to be a lifetime of service at the top-secret and heavily guarded Red Coast.
Good luck for Ye, that is. For humanity as a whole, Ye working at Red Coast is the worst possible luck we could have had, because Red Coast is not the military facility it seems to be, but rather China’s effort in the field of SETI. Affronted by humanity’s brutal treatment of nature and the victim of a long series of betrayals by her fellow humans, Ye is about the worst possible person to be making decisions about human-alien relations.
By the time Wang is drafted into the investigation, the Trisolarians — aliens whose hostile homeworld has denied them luxuries like compassion or mercy — all too aware of Earth and the technological primates currently in control of that clement planet. The suicides are only the early manifestation of the Trisolarians’ grand plan, a scheme that if unchecked will doom scientific progress on Earth. And … there does not seem to be anything that humans can do to foil the Trisolarian plot.
A note about the cover: I have no ill-will towards the US cover (which demonstrates that the artist actually read the book) but I like the original Chinese cover more for some reason.
I was aware that Chinese SF existed, but was not at all familiar with it, so I had no idea what to expect from this novel. What I found was an odd mixture of elements that look modern to me and other elements that could have come straight out of American pulp SF from the 1930s. Even more oddly, at least to my eye, is that the bifurcation between modern and archaic elements runs right along the human-alien division. Liu’s account of the history of Earth in the last few decades would fit into recent American SF, even though it is told in a pretty meat-and-potatoes style. As soon as the author’s gaze falls on the Trisolarians, his work veers into a grand mode, like something Edmond Hamilton could have written, offering dramatic events little inhibited by plausible physics.
It is true that much of what we see of the Trisolarians is highly metaphoric, related in the form of a computer game that borrows heavily from human history. There are a few scenes set on the actual Trisolarian homeworld and they don’t contradict the physical details we are given about that world: because there are three stars in the Alpha Centauri system, the terrestrial world there has been subjected to variations in climate far more extreme than anything Earth has experienced. Generally speaking, the idea that a habitable world around either of the two large stars there would be subjected to comparatively rapid climate changes is perfectly reasonable; Alpha Centauri A and B have a fairly eccentric orbit around each other and might be a perfect place to observe the Lidov–Kozai mechanism operating on a terrestrial world orbiting A or B ; other, equally exciting possibilities also come to mind. That said, the specific details of protracted eccentricity pumping would be very different from the chaotic calamities to which we see the poor Trisolarians subjected.
Actually, even if the reality of Trisolarian history is very much toned down from the version the game provides, it’s impressive that there’s anything more than single-celled life on that world. It seems clear to me the history we see isn’t just a succession of civilizations rising and falling, but entire species dying with their civilizations as climate turns against them.
On a perhaps not entirely unrelated note, I got the impression that the novel views environmentalists with deep suspicion. The various ecology-minded people are not presented entirely without sympathy, whereas the Inner Mongolia Production and Construction Corps’ activities are described with scorn. But, because the environmentalists place a higher value on other species than they do on humans, they are ready-made quislings, convenient cats-paws for any glibly opportunistic aliens. The environmentalists may mean well but so did the fanatics of the Cultural Revolution. In this instance, the consequences of Ye’s betrayal of humanity will be much worse for the Earth as a whole than the Cultural Revolution was for China. One wonders how the PRC Ministry of Environmental Protection feels about the implication that environmentalists are … suspicious.
Granted, given the scale of the universe and assuming no hard limits on technological development in our near future, it is very unlikely any civilization we encounter in the stars will be at exactly the same level of development as we are. Given how old the universe is, and the fact that civilization on Earth only goes back a few millennia, the odds that we will be more advanced than any aliens we encounter seem poor. This would suggest that humans will be at a significant disadvantage in most first contact scenarios. While it would be nice to think that technological sophistication goes hand in hand with a highly developed sense of compassion, it’s risky to assume that this is true.
This article over on tor.com offered an interesting exchange of views between Robert Sawyer and Cixin Liu about historical precedents for the events of this book, as well as an informative discourse on the history of Chinese SF.
I was not sure what to expect but I wasn’t disappointed in what I found. I am certainly curious to see how this specific example of Chinese SF plays out in the next two installments.
1: Alpha Centauri C is both low mass and extremely distant from A and B, so I couldn’t say how much of a role it could play in this interstellar ballet.