Book Review: The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu. Tom Doherty Books. 2006.

I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy. I’d like to think I’ve read most of classics, but I haven’t. I have several authors I haven’t read, like Ursula K. Le Guin and Roger Zelazny. Money I made mowing yards and doing odd jobs I spent subscribing to Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine and Analog Science Fiction. These magazines allowed me to sample their writings and I honestly didn’t get drawn into their stories. So, I didn’t invest in their books. Instead, I elected to read most of Isaac Asimov’s writings, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Greg Bear, David Brin, Gordan R. Dickson, and Frank Herbert.

In nearly all of the associated works by these authors, space travel is fairly commonplace. Clarke may be the exception as he had several works dealing with slower-than-light space travel. Slower-than-light space travel is fairly mundane, I guess; unless you want to read the nine book series by James S. A. Corey (Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham writing under the pseudonym of). Those books and the associated Amazon Prime series, “The Expanse,” are some fantastic story-telling at subluminal speeds.

Science in the United States supports a small effort, SETI, “Search for Extraterrestrial Life.” Perhaps the best known face of SETI is Seth Shostak. He appears on many science programs, videos, and documentaries about space and the universe. Neil de Grasse Tyson often speaks on aliens and what it would be like to meet them, and what they might think about us. However, the biggest stumbling block is traversing the vast distances between star systems. I’m not simply referring to traveling from Star System 1: planet 3 to Star System 2: planet 4 and vice-versa. Let’s begin simple.

Think about this: How many star systems are within 10-light years of Earth? How many are within 25-light years, or 50-light years? Now, what if Seth at SETI finally had his dreams come true and he received a message from a star system 15-light years away? Seth gets excited and he fires up his radio and sends a reply. Fifteen years go by for the message to strike Planet X and be received. Planet X aliens then reply and fifteen years elapse before Seth gets his reply. For Earthlings, 30 years have gone by and all we’ve done is send one message.

The aliens on Planet X are not very advanced – they don’t have FTL travel. But, they are more advanced than us in a couple serious ways. They want to come visit us and are very enthusiastic about their journey to Earth. They have to travel at subluminal speeds like everyone else so we can expect their arrival in a few centuries. No joke.

I make light of this scenario because I don’t want to give too much away. I found the first book in Liu’s trilogy really interesting and I didn’t want to. I had read some Amazon reviews and the reviewers trashed the science involved. There is some very interesting science involved, and the book’s title is emblematic of the science. For some reason, lately I get really miffed about bad science in science fiction books and the reviews put me off. My neighbor down the street pushed me over the edge so I credit Mark for being the tipping point.

The author, Cixin Lui.

The other aspect of Cixin’s story involves the Chinese Cultural Revolution and many of the social upheavals at work within Chinese society post-World War Two. As a person who also enjoys history, I found the intertwining of real events in Chinese modern history and this story of First Contact very intriguing. China has experienced insular times, and has experienced periods when no visitors, at least no American visitors were allowed. Opportunities to share science and research was very limited to non-existent. The purging of scientists, of academics, in favor of a return to rural cultural values stymied communication with extraterrestrials and interfered with the allocation of resources towards research and scientific activities. So often, science fiction has been based upon the interaction of Western society with aliens. What happens when and if this is not the case? What if, for some reason, Russia accidentally stumbles upon alien communication? Or, India?

The Three-Body Problem also involves augmented reality (AR) in the form of a video game. One of our protagonists, Wang Miao, jumps into an AR suit connected a simulation depicting another planet, and a civilization upon this planet. The civilization goes through horrific sequences of burning to death, freezing to death, and a few periods actually fairly temperate. The problem posed by this simulation is to determine what celestial events, or combination of celestial events give rise to such crazy climate events. The game, interestingly enough, is connected to our distant alien friends and provides us some insight as to why they might want to visit.

Let’s talk about this impending visit. Suppose Mr. Shostak gets a message indicating his message has been received and our guests expect snacks when they arrive … in about about six centuries. Why six centuries? Because our new cosmic pen pals don’t have FTL and must accelerate and decelerate using known physics (sort of). Heck, what will the aliens be like centuries down the road? Will they even make it? What if they hit an interstellar deer or something breaks down? These questions are not answered in this first book. The Three-Body Problem was unique and curious enough I bought the second, which arrived today. Maybe The Dark Forest has some answers.

Yep. After holding off on reading this book, I am glad I did. A refreshing viewpoint, refreshing histories, and some fascinating physics combine to make this book an interesting read.

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