Three Body Problem - A Chinese Space Opera having aliens and string theory
Have you were wished for a book that has Asimov’s stories stretching across millennia and crises facing humanity to be solved like puzzles, Clarke’s detailing of mechanism of futuristic space crafts and equipment, Orson Scott Card’s ethical dilemmas faced by leaders – justification of evil and harm to certain sentient beings for greater good of humanity versus endangering entire humanity for sake of principles and last but not the least H G Wells’ use of ideas from science and dark outlook for humanity? If so, you have a Chinese Science Fiction author who gives you just that – Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy. Whoever says Chinese lacks imagination should read this series. And he is no Chinese American. He is a proper Chinese living in China, who has written the series in Chinese - the ones I read are English translations.
I was mostly into the golden age authors – Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, Heinlein, Dickson, Vance et al, Orson Scott Card being the only author I read from more recent times. Then suddenly came across a recommendation of the Three Body Problem, the first book in this series in an online forum. What first caught my attention was a non-Western Hugo and Nebulo winner. I was curious what kind of Science fiction would come from China. Also, the title intrigued. Thus, I ended up picking up the first book of this series. When I read it, I was so entranced that I had to pick up the second one. In many series usually a first book’s brilliance is not matched by sequels. But though not a Hugo winner, I found second one even better than the first and had me drawn like a magnet to pick the third. But after picking the third, I got lost in other books and it took me a year and half to get back to it. And indeed, what a read it was! The ultimate finale to this series! Many authors create a grand world and build up lot of expectations and lose the script along the way. Not so with this one. The end is appropriate to the series. Also, the author does not drag you through one story in multiple books like many of the fantasy authors. Like the classical SF trilogies, each of the book can very well work stand alone as well. The protagonists are also different – Ye Winjie and Wang in the first book, Luo Ji in second book and Cheng Xin in the third book. However, if you don’t pick it in sequence, some of the context may be lost and there might be a few spoilers. So, my recommendation is to pick this in sequence.
The first book starts like a historic fiction set in China during the time of communist revolution. And it follows the life of one Ye Winjie who struggles on against the oppression during the communist regime. Then suddenly we fast forward to recent time when scientists are seen to strangely commit suicide. Wang is one of the scientists who experiences mysterious occurrences and investigates along with an obnoxious police officer. This proceeds more or less like a thriller till the reasons for the occurrences and suicides is revealed – that is where science fiction steps in and the link back to Ye Winjie established. For more than half way through the book seems to be meandering meaninglessly but in the end, it all ties in neatly. So, one needs to persevere and stay on till the end. The story ends with immediate crisis averted and revelation of an alien ploy.
In the second book, we are in the future and humanity has to come up with a strategy to meet the alien threat. So they come up with a project called the wall facer project – four individuals with all earth resources at their disposal to face the alien threat. Reason why four individuals are required is because aliens can access all information on earth including conversations except what happens in minds of individuals. The main wall facer is Luo Ji, who seems like a drunk philosopher, who ventures into hedonism, ostensibly to confound the aliens. He seems like a bum almost till the end when he pulls out an ace from his sleeve to save humanity. In this book, we see couple of future eras and the sociological impact of the alien threat in the different eras.
Third book starts off not where second book left off but where first book left off. Here we are introduced to another project called staircase project at the same time as wall facer project. Protagonist Cheng Xin is a scientist on this project. In this time, they have technology to put people into hibernation and wake up without aging after decades or even centuries. So, she hibernates and wakes up from era to era. In this book, we see multiple eras through her eyes as she keeps waking up in different eras. Socio political situation is different in each era based on the situation with the aliens. In this book, a seemingly insignificant incident from the second book, involving four ships that escaped into the galaxy is continued as well and gains significance. The main conflict of this book is first enslavement by a known devil, the known aliens and moves to a greater threat – complete annihilation by the unknown devils – strange distant aliens.
Each book has a core puzzle that maintain interest. The puzzle in the first book is of course the three-body problem which comes as a virtual reality game. The puzzle in the second book is each wall facer’s strategy to overcome the alien blockade on earth. The strategy must be done right in front of alien eyes – so the three individuals called wall facers design their strategy to look like something but turns out something else. And supporters of the aliens must block this strategy. The third book has a small parable like story which has clues to how solar system can escape imminent destruction. These puzzles totally intrigues the readers like the strategies in the Foundation series and the video game in Ender's series.
The science is also quite fascinating in the books. Dimensional unfolding, quantum entanglement, the three-body problem itself, relativity etc. are advanced ideas that are not too often used in stories except as passing mention, are integral to this story. Whenever I read advanced popular science books, I have found dimensions beyond third spatial dimension difficult to comprehend. This book helped me visualize fourth spatial dimension and two-dimensional existence better.
The concept of dark forest is a fascinating idea to explain Fermi’s paradox of why we have not come into contact with aliens. The idea is when there are multiple hunters in forest and don’t have direct communication, the moment a hunter’s existence is revealed, the strategy of the other hunters is to immediately eliminate them. Reason being they are competing for same resources and none know the intention and power of the others. It is a world of kill or be killed. So, anyone who reveals his existence will be killed. Knowing they will be killed if they reveal their existence, the best strategy for every advanced race is to stay hidden. That might explain why we have not interacted with an advanced alien civilization – as they are staying hidden. Reason why no one has destroyed us yet is because we are still technologically too backward to reveal our existence to distant parts of the universe.
Overall a really fast paced reading with lot of interesting ideas. Additional reason to read this is it gives the Chinese view of humanity instead of the same old Western views. Though of course this book stands on pure merit without invoking diversity. A must read for every science fiction buff.