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. Continue reading

Reading Chinese futures

In this age of communications and information technology, we take for granted that we have greatly expanded abilities to discover what other human beings are thinking and writing about the human journey. Often, however, a veil remains between continents and cultures. Too little translation is definitely an issue, but that may be just a symptom of too little listening to others outside our own comforting traditions.

I’m trying to break these habits, and I’m especially interested in reading more speculative fiction (SF) by female writers outside of the United States and Britain. What new visions and worlds do they reflect? What new solutions to problems or warnings or worries or hopes? I’d like to learn from their insights on the human condition, but I think the more interesting questions are out there on the far horizon. If we have more translations and access to SF works from other cultures, how will we influence each other and what perspectives will we hold in common regarding the shape of the future? Continue reading