Sunday, October 11, 2015

"The Three-Body Problem" - Liu Cixin

Liu Cixin's "The Three Body Problem" is a most amazing work of science-fiction. Here's an excerpt from the Locus Online Review:
"The novel begins as a politi­cal horror story, set during the more shocking excesses of the Cultural Revolution in 1967. Ye Wenjie, a young astrophysi­cist, witnesses her father beat­en to death by youthful Red Guards, simply for insisting on a standard model of quantum mechanics, which they view as ‘‘reactionary idealism.’’ Though this brutal opening chapter is short, it sets up not only an impor­tant aspect of Wenjie’s character for the rest of the novel – including an action she takes which may imperil the world – but also much of the novel’s ideational structure, which returns again and again to the question of science as a reliable model of reality.

For US readers, the anti-intellectualism of the Red Guards may come as something of a shock – but it’s not as though we haven’t seen impassioned denials of science for political and ideological reasons here at home. Wenjie herself survives, but is exiled to a remote logging camp, where she is betrayed by a colleague and given a choice between prison and participating in a secret research project located near the camp, which we soon realize has something to do with a SETI effort on the part of the Chinese govern­ment.

Decades later, an aging and reclusive Wenjie is sought out by a young nanotech researcher seeking clues to a series of suicides among physicists, the most recent of whom is Wenjie’s daughter Yang Dong, who left behind a cryp­tic message that ‘‘Physics has never existed, and will never exist.’’ A line like that is cat­nip for just about any hard SF reader, and The Three-Body Problem delivers on the promise in ways that are at times stunningly inventive and at times contrived.

Physics experiments, even under the most controlled conditions, are beginning to yield apparently random re­sults, and the researcher, Wang Miao, begins to wonder if there might be a connection be­tween these events, Wenjie’s earlier activities at that SETI installation, and even an addic­tive online game called ‘‘Three Body,’’ set in a world that alternates between random peri­ods of chaos and limited times of stability – caused by the three suns that give the novel its title, and that reflect the three-body problem of classical physics and the difficulty in predict­ing the orbital mechanics of such a system.

Suddenly the novel begins to open up from its violent beginnings and more ruminative middle sections. We learn that those ancient SETI signals had been intercepted by an im­periled alien civilization in just such a three-body system, the Trisolarans, who now see the colonization of Earth as their best chance at survival. (If this sounds like a dreaded spoiler, it’s already there in the book’s jacket copy.) We find ourselves in the middle of an alien invasion narrative, albeit an invasion that may not arrive for centuries, given the distance. This pretty clearly sets up a problem for the second novel in Liu’s trilogy, while a dramatic point-of-view shift late in the novel seems to set us up for a third, which promises to be radically more science fictional than this one.

In fact, Liu has been prepping us for this sling­shot as far back as the opening chapters, where he says of Wenjie’s betrayal by her colleague that ‘‘historians would all agree that this event in 1969 was a turning point in humankind’s history.’’ That’s the sort of pulpish narrative hook that makes you want to dare the author to deliver, but Cixin Liu does, causing us to not only to wonder whether physics might ac­tually be ‘‘destroyed,’’ but what those Triso­larans are actually up to. If Tor (or someone) doesn’t follow up with the next two volumes in this series, it will be a crime against trilogies (a line I never thought I would write)."
The purist in me blanched as the author seemed to confuse his gravitational attraction forces with his gravitational tidal forces in a couple of game-scenarios; but despite the wobble I remained hooked on a plot which continually defied prediction. Reminiscent of Stanisław Lem, this is not the kind of science-fiction anyone in the west is writing.

Part 2 of the trilogy, "The Dark Forest", arrived on my Kindle app an hour ago. And the Chinese are making a film of "The Three-Body Problem" due for release in July 2016.


Note: in reading this book, it helps to know that in Newtonian mechanics, the three-body problem is chaotically intractable. For normal planetary/stellar dynamics, general relativity doesn't add anything, but in fact the three-body problem in GR is even worse (look under 'Geodesic hypothesis').