March 13, 2017

SHI REVIEWED | The Three Body Problem (Part I)

Print More

I am not a sci-fi person, but I started reading The Three Body Problem due to several timely developments. Over winter break, I visited my friend in China and learned that this is the “Hunger Games” equivalent of what’s trending in China. This semester, I decided to take Astronomy to fulfill a distribution requirement. Two weeks ago, NASA announced the discovery of seven earth-sized exoplanets around a nearby star. I couldn’t have picked a better moment to read and review this book.

The Three Body Problem is the first book of a sci-fi trilogy written by Cixin Liu in Chinese and translated by Ken Liu into English. Set in the Cold War era, the novel tells the story of a Chinese government-backed project in search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The term “three body problem” refers to the calculation of how three objects move in relation to each other under a set of physical laws. Physicists have used the term to refer to the Sun-Earth-Moon triad. Halfway through the first book, it is still unclear to me what this title signifies. By Part II of this review, I will try to have an answer.

One of the themes that Liu presents in the novel is the tension between the conservation of the natural environment and the inexorable advance of scientific technology. Early on, one of the main characters, Wenjie Ye, reads Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Published in 1962 to document the environmental damage of pesticides, the book became an icon for the environmental movement in America. Liu’s allusion to this historical movement sets the stage for broader questions about the relationship between nature and science.

Closely related to the juxtaposition between nature and science is the relationship between humans and the universe. Many of the main characters are highly educated physicists and theorists. Despite their expertise, they are constantly confounded and astonished by what they do not know. Moreover, no one has the full picture of their role in the SETI project or what it will achieve. We meet the nanomaterials researcher, Wang Miao, who finds himself decoding numbers to discover a cosmic countdown of some sorts. He feels as if the universe has a plan, but he does not know what or why: “He seemed to have turned into nothing but a simple timer, a bell that tolled for he knew not whom.” We learn of the Red Coast Base, a top-secret SETI task group, that shoots its signals into the unknown, a seemingly futile effort: “Our call was like the buzzing of a mosquito in the sky.” Liu’s colorful metaphors situate the insignificance of humans against the magnificence of the cosmos. Yet I harbor suspicions that our main characters, both enchanted and tormented by their own scientific prowess, will play a larger-than-life role in this story.

The most haunting development so far is the message that the Red Coast Base sends to space to be read by any extraterrestrial beings that it can reach. After several drafts, the final message is prepared and transmitted to the universe. It begins by way of introduction,

“By dint of long toil and creativity, the human race has built a splendid civilization, blossoming with a multitude of diverse cultures…”

and then transitions,

“…But our world is still flawed. Hate exists, as does prejudice and war. Because of conflicts between the forces of production and the relations of production, wealth distribution is extremely uneven, and large portions of humanity live in poverty and misery.”

This message sounds like a transcript of a speech to be delivered at a UN summit in the 21st century. Indeed, it seems as much a message for the countries of the world today as it is for an extraterrestrial civilization. It is a poignant account of human history, and perhaps more revealing, the human condition. It asks the reader to consider questions that are outside of ordinary conversation: what would an outside civilization think of us? What is our collective history as human beings? Who decides how it should be told? While I am not personally interested in the commotion surrounding SETI research, I am gripped by the difficult questions that must follow.

It’s been reported that Barack Obama enjoyed the The Three Body Problem because it gave him some perspective. Stirred by the book to ruminate on the fate of the universe, he noted, “my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty.”