Read the World: China

Where to begin? The Three-Body Problem is the first instalment of a popular Chinese science fiction trilogy by Cixin Liu* which has been translated into English by Ken Liu. It’s the first Chinese book I have read but the prose had a similar feeling to some of the translated Japanese books I’ve read.

It opens in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution. Scientists and those who show western, capitalist values are being tortured, imprisoned or killed. Ye Wenjie witnesses her father’s death at the hands of the Red Guard and the rest of her life will be marked by her association with a radical.

But Ye had the mental habits of a scientist, and she refused to forget. Rather, she looked with a rational gaze on the madness and hatred that had harmed her.

Four decades later, nanotech engineer Wang Miao is approached by the police to join a secretive group of scientists, which leads him to an online game. In this game he must join other scholars in solving an alien planet’s dilemma. Trisolaris suffers from extremes in temperatures, unpredictable seasons which halt all scientific progress until the stable season reappears. The inhabitants can dehydrate themselves, a kind of hibernation until temperatures become stable again.

Understandably one of the big themes covered is climate change, not only on Trisolaris but also the damage humans have done to Earth. I knew a little of the damage done in China by ignoring what was considered capitalist thought in agriculture although this focuses on the felling of forests, which everyone has been guilty of. It talks about technological progress and the search for intelligent life, and what that would mean to the human race.

It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.

I think you’ve got to have at least a passing interest in physics to enjoy this book, the science fiction is pretty hard and some of the physics went over my head. It is not a fast-paced alien invasion book at all, but some of it feels extremely timely. Slowly all the threads come together and things start making sense. I did enjoy reading a non-western perspective for once, it would be crazy to think only the US would be trying to communicate with extra-terrestrial life after all.

Considering the Three-Body Problem is an actual real world physics problem, I’m a bit confused as how the people playing the game didn’t get past the first stage quicker. The name is kind of a big giveaway! Is this a failure in translation and the problem has another name in Chinese? I only looked up the problem after reading the book, so it didn’t bother me at the time.

How wonderful it will be if the universe really contains other intelligences and other societies! Bystanders have the clearest view. Someone truly neutral will then be able to comment on whether we’re the heroes or villains of history.

*Note, some editions state the authors name as Liu Cixin but the edition I read used the western name order, so I’ve used that here.

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Book source: purchased