Review: Notions of environment, civilization and first contact in The Three-Body Problem

3bodyChinese author Cixin Liu brings us a first-contact story in The Three-Body Problem (TTBP) that is familiar, yet promises a fresh spin on the protagonists’ choices and the outcome. I debated whether or not to call this a review because I’m not going to talk about the writing itself, which I felt was somewhat uneven. BUT, if you’re interested in one humble writer’s impressions of some of the novel’s big ideas, read on. SPOILER ALERT: I will describe big pieces of the story here. You’ve been warned.

First, let’s sketch out the basic story. Set in China’s recent past and moving into the near future, three primary characters with very different personal motivations are faced with preparing for first contact with aliens that are on their way to earth. At times, trying to follow the novel’s physics made my eyes glaze over, but the effort was totally worth it. As a nonscientist, I feel one can best appreciate this novel when one understands the roles of the main characters, so here’s a summary.

The story begins with young astrophysicist Ye Wenjie witnessing the death of her father at the hands of red guards during the Cultural Revolution. She is emotionally broken and is accepts her confinement to a remote radio astronomy station. Used for her research and scientific talents, Ye gradually figures out that the station’s actual purpose is to hunt for signs of alien life in the universe and her research has direct bearing on this activity. Isolated and depressed, her only interest is whether or not her theory of using the sun as an amplifier for transmitting radio messages into the universe will work. After trying her experiment and not receiving any confirmation of its success, she mechanically moves through life until one night when she sees a new pattern in the monitored radio waves. She deciphers a message from space. That message is followed by a warning not to answer the first message. Ye disregards the warning and answers.

Readers are introduced to Wang Miao, a nanotechnologist, when he’s hauled to a secret meeting of military and political elites from China and around the world. These elites are inexplicably interested in a rash of suicides by scientists. This meeting happens many years after Ye responded to the alien transmission. Wang is told to infiltrate a shady group called the Frontiers of Science and is convinced finally when a contact, who is in the suspect group, implies that Wang’s research is potentially dangerous. Wang almost accidentally begins playing a virtual reality (VR) game that he discovered at his contact’s house. Wang is the reader’s conduit and translator of really complicated physics’ lessons throughout the novel and he is the pivot that knows the other two main characters.

Captain Shi Qiang, or Da Shi, is a coarse and self-aggrandizing cop who brings Wang to the secret meeting of the concerned world leaders. He is the one who has figured out that Wang might be the connection between several persons of interest, but he basically insults his way through all meetings and the blather about scientific bullshit that no one really understands. Da Shi disappears in the novel for quite some time while Wang is learning that his VR game may have more to do with the real worries of the Battle Command Center group than was clear at first. After the murder of Wang’s initial contact in the Frontiers of Science, Da Shi turns up again to investigate. At the end of the novel, Da Shi keeps Wang from total despair when everyone figures out what Ye has done and what the Frontiers of Science members are all about. His character represents the practical response necessary for dealing with the news that aliens are on the way, and they are going to eat your lunch.

Now, about these aliens….

Through Wang’s fascination with the VR game “Three Body,” we learn that there is an alien race on a planet call Trisolaris that is highly intelligent and developed, yet bedeviled by living on a planet that has three suns with absolutely unpredictable orbits (the three-body problem). The suns’ crazy orbits result in stable eras where the Trisolaran civilization prospers and chaotic eras where civilization is nearly wiped out. This turns out to be a real predicament for aliens who have been in contact with a few scientists on earth since Ye’s original transmission. Unfortunately, subsequent messages from them have not been reassuring in terms of how they are going to deal with humans once they reach earth.

News like this is hard to keep quiet. So the Earth-Trisolaris Organization (ETO), which is the real group hiding behind the Frontiers of Science, has been growing, and finally governments and militaries around the world are beginning to get suspicious. Among the ETO members, there are three responses to the news that aliens exist and they may (in 400 plus years) reach earth are: 1) Welcome. Humanity is in the toilet and we should be destroyed, so come as soon as you can; 2) Be our God. We will serve you and hope you will protect us from ourselves; 3) Let’s make a deal. Some of us will sell out other humans so we benefit from your time here on earth.

Which brings me to the three most interesting concepts in TTBP.

First is the treatment of earth’s environment. Everything that Cixin Liu writes (and Ken Liu translates into English) about the environment reflects a deep love for the beauty of this earth. From the haunting and desolate beauty of the Red Coast Base where Ye spends most of her life listening to howling winds and looking at a majestic mountain range, to the angry love of ugly little sparrows expressed by another character who is constantly planting trees, the novel brings readers back again and again to the beauty of our world. The deep irony is that the aliens are coming to earth because their own environment is screwed (Trisolaris goes through long uninhabitable stretches where everything burns or freezes). Liu’s writing style also is its most tender and lyrical when discussing elements of nature. But the beauty of earth is rapidly being destroyed. Trees are felled, ground is denuded and oil slicks spread. What I take away from TTBP is the very loud warning, albeit not a new warning, that we have ignored the magnificent bounty of the earth, and this reflects an incredible species’ blindness and gamble in a universe where there is not yet any scientific proof that there are other planets with our resources.

Then there are the author’s ideas about human civilization. Every facet of civilization, except science, is depicted as corrupt and degraded. This is a very Darwinian world where competition for resources and survival trumps every tender human instinct–even the love of a mother for her child! It is a very dark interpretation of humanity, where only the scientists seem capable of pursuing goals and ideas that may benefit people. So here’s the next big irony – it’s the scientists who have put the world at risk of first contact way before human civilization is ready to deal with the consequences!  This portrayal of civilization is believable because we have seen ourselves in this mirror before–thank you, Mr. Orwell.

Finally, let’s discuss the notion of first contact. The three responses depicted by the members of the ETO are the responses of scientists. I have trouble believing the attitude of the Adventists–those who welcome the aliens’ arrival and are willing to accept the end of the human race. Surely the disappointments and difficulties of pursuing science in organizations run by political operatives have not driven everyone insane! Although there are certainly some people in the real world who have given up on the species, this is a tiny fraction of people, and the rest of humanity would not let them give us all up without a fight.

As for the Redemptionists, again, I find it hard to accept that most of humanity would willingly accept aliens as new gods and worship them. In fact, I think the god-loving peoples of the world would be the first to rise up and smite those aliens without much hesitation. But maybe my doubts are fed by my Western cultural bias? Although it’s not fair to hold up any story as an example of a cultural perspective, I am intrigued by authors from non-Western cultures who can show us different or unexpected courses of action.

Then there are the Survivors. Those who are willing to do whatever they need to do to live with the aliens. Now that sounds like a good chunk of humanity and it seems to follow that human civilization as depicted in TTBP would be comfortable with this response even if it is going to lead to violent upheavals in societies.

The author has given us a world where all three responses to first contact are less than ideal. Fortunately limitations in space travel will delay the Trisolarans from arriving for a few hundred years. This window gives humanity just one other apparent option—scientific progress. What is fascinating in this world is an emerging sense that the beautiful pursuit of science is the best sort of morality our species can hope to adopt.

Okay, I’ll go along for the ride, Mr. Liu, but I hope I don’t go insane while trying to understand the Trisolaran’s descriptions of 11-dimensional space. I’m not so sure a scientific answer will satisfy me unless it somehow accommodates our precious, stinking humanity.  I’m putting my faith in the actions of Ye, Wang and Da Shi. I eagerly await the next book, and I look forward to learning if these characters will successfully counterbalance each other in the resolution of this fascinating series.


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