I’m not sure why I decided to read The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. It’s most definitely not the type of book I usually reach for: it’s the first in a Chinese science fiction trilogy. It centres around Chinese scientists making contact with aliens in the era of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Sounds intriguing though, doesn’t it?
It was intriguing. Let me graphically illustrate my experience of reading The Three Body Problem.
There was lots of this:
That assumed you had a pretty good understanding of this:
All set in the context of this:
Meaning, that I spent most of the time doing this:
Which is not to say that I didn’t appreciate it. There is some really weighty commentary in this book about the Cultural Revolution, the importance of science and, most profoundly, about the declining state of humanity. But unfortunately for me, it is brought to life through large tracts explaining aspects of quantum physics and astrophysics, conversations with Isaac Newton and alien space travel through many light years.
I did find the characters a bit stick-figure-ish (apart from Shi Qiang, a police detective as smart and swaggering as any fictional cop) and the language was pretty stilted, but I could grasp the enormity of Liu’s vision. Cixin Liu explains his passion for science fiction in his postscript to the English edition:
I’ve always felt that the greatest and most beautiful stories in the history of humanity were not sung by wandering bards or written by playwrights and novelists, but told by science. The stories of science are far more magnificent, grand, involved, profound, thrilling, strange, terrifying, mysterious and even emotional, compared to the stories told by literature. Only, these wonderful stories are located in cold equations that most do not know how to read.
His faith in this genre is evident on every page of this book, even when I was skipping over some of the heavier science bits (‘cosmic microwave background radiation very precisely matched the thermal black body spectrum at temperature of 2.7255K and was highly isotropic’).
I doubt that this is best-written science fiction out there, but Liu’s ability to translate science, history and human frailty into a relatively cohesive narrative explains his legions of fans (including Mark Zuckerberg). I’m very unlikely to read the second and third of this trilogy, but when our extra-terrestrial cousins do inevitably land on earth, I will be more inclined to welcome them.