Sunday 25 February 2024

The Problems with The Three-Body Problem

"They are coming. And there is nothing you can do to stop them." The trailer for the Netflix adaptation of Cixin Liu's (Liu Cixin's) The Three-Body Problem superbly conveys a sense of existential dread. Scientists dead after a crop of mysterious suicides? Count downs (counting down to what?) imposed on the vision of leading physicists? The star field flickering in the night sky, as if portending some hideous, monstrous evil? At a glance Netflix has done a good job capturing the terror that stalks the novel during its best moments. Unfortunately, all of them are crammed into the first 80 or so pages.

Spoilers below.

After eight millions copies sold, plenty of people have said plenty of things about The Three-Body Problem. I'm no different. The seriousness with which the trilogy begins sits uneasily with its daft premise. We open during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie witnesses her astrophysicist father get beaten to death by a troupe of Red Guards after refusing to condemn the basics of the physical sciences as bourgeois. Dubbed the daughter of a class traitor, she is forced to join a labour brigade felling forests in Inner Mongolia. An accomplished scientist herself, she is betrayed by a close comrade and is found in possession of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Given the choice between a trial and getting drafted into a secret project, Ye chooses the latter. It's gradually revealed that this is part of an effort to leapfrog the West and the USSR by being the first to contact an alien civilisation. And, using the sun to amplify her signal, Ye becomes the first human to communicate with an alien world.

The first section of the book is very good at ramping up the tension as it flits back and forth between Uncle Mao's SETI efforts and the present day mystery of our suicidal scientists. The main guy in the 21st century is Wang Miao, a nanotech specialist working on super strong materials. While taking photos he discovers that, no matter what camera he uses, a count down is imprinted on them. And this only happens when he's the one taking the picture. Spooky. Terrifying. What's happening? And this is when the great pacing stumbles into a drunken stagger. Wang is invited to play a new video game called Three-Body. This is an immersive puzzle solving game in which the player has to save civilisation by predicting the orbital dance of the three suns its planet orbits around. The three-body problem in physics believes this is impossible to compute with certainty as the interaction of the gravitational dance between three objects can only result in a chaotic system. The game ends when one of the suns scorch the surface, seemingly sterilising the world, or when it's thrown out on a long freezing orbit. Wang is able to make some partial breakthroughs in the game and is invited to become part of a select group of players who are on a mission.

There are some real issues with The Three-Body Problem. The writing is flat and the characters wooden. As Matt rightly argues this has more to do with Liu's style, informed by the influences of Clarke and Heinlein than the quality of Ken Liu's translation. The second issue is the physics. Some reviews have gone into great detail about the issues of using higher dimensions to fold a super computer into the size of a proton, which the aliens fire at Earth to disrupt our particle accelerators and harass our scientists. This should prevent humanity from progressing technologically so we could easily see off the colonisation fleet when it turns up in about 400 years. Fair enough, but there's one glaring physics problem that should be obvious to everyone, including those like me suffering from a Maths allergy. In trying to calculate the orbits, it seems Wang - and Liu - have forgot they're computing a four-body problem. The three suns and one planet because, though much weaker, its gravity would tug on all three stars and add to the overall complexity of the system. And if that wasn't bad enough, one particular alignment with the suns see the planet partially ripped apart, creating a small moon that now orbits the home world. We now have a five-body problem. For an author that prides himself on didactic flourishes, this is embarrassing.

The other issue is the aliens themselves. We don't have descriptions of them, save an ability to dehydrate tardigrade-style to wait out the heat and the cold. But we do get a sense of how their civilisation works and it turns out the initial suggestions of eldritch terror was a waste of time. In their communications with us, in the scenes in which their fleet and their multi-dimensional computers are constructed, Liu imagines them no different to us. Their government is a quasi-feudal/totalitarian regime with Bond villain-esque qualities. Via their proton-sized computers, which are quantum entangled with machines on their own planet, the aliens - dubbed the pulpy-sounding 'Trisolarians' - can keep real-time tabs on what the governments of the Earth are doing. I guess because the colonisation fleet is out of sync due to its travelling at a tenth of the speed of light that time dilation and discrepancy between human and Trisolar time, and fleet time will become something the future volumes play with.

The Three-Body Problem has come in for a lot of stick for being an apologia for Chinese authoritarianism as well. Liu has publicly been supportive of the government, and in his The Supernova Era faithfully reflected the party's (then) view of video games as promoters of violence and anti-social behaviour. But such hackish loyalty is not present here. You might say his obvious distaste for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution are very party line, but who - apart from hard Maoist hold outs - would celebrate that as a glorious episode? You could make the case Trisolar civilisation survived cycles of disaster by building an authoritarian regime and forcibly subordinating the individual to the collective. And in the Three Body game (which, you might have guessed, is based on the scenario faced by the Trisolars) there are North Korean mass game-style displays of totalitarian power, but their collectivism is shown to be monstrous and other. Indeed, Liu's critical take on the Cultural Revolution, which got published because in the Chinese edition these scenes were located in the middle of the book and censors were too lazy to read that far, fits in with the tone of his other work. For instance, 2005's Ball Lightning has China losing very badly to the United States in a war and is devastated when it accidentally unleashes a weapon that completely shreds its electrical infrastructure. Liu may publicly toe the party line, but his work, at least what I've read of it, is ambiguous.

That isn't to say The Three-Body Problem isn't a morality tale. You could say it is two. The first is an extreme exploration of the law of unintended consequences. Because of her experiences, Ye nurtures a nihilistic grudge against humanity in general. So when she receives a reply from a lowly pacifistic Trisolar radio operator urging us to not reply because of the danger his species poses, she goes ahead and does so anyway hoping they'd turn up and wipe humanity out. Who knew the Cultural Revolution set our species on the road to subjugation and extinction? The second is an SF staple, and one we've recently encountered: the defence of rationalism. Unlike Le Tellier for whom the threat to reason comes from within, for Liu it's the aliens' computers playing tricks with us by creating nonsense results in particle accelerators, and enveloping the Earth in a two dimensional screen to screw with our perception of the cosmic microwave background. The traitors recruited through Three Body also run disinformation and anti-science campaigns to lower the general intellect. A comment on foreign, and particularly Western (American) cultural imports to China and their dumbing down effects? A warning where anti-intellectual culture could lead? Liu is far from the the first to make such warnings.

For a nowhere-near-as-clever-as-it-wants-to-be novel, there are lots of interesting threads worth picking at. Just be aware that the literary quality isn't great, ignore the poor treatment of one the most famous problems in physics, and the aliens are as unimaginative as anything you'd find in the dullest Star Trek episode. If you can overlook these excruciating issues, you might enjoy.

1 comment:

JJ said...

I just wanted to say thanks for the SF insights. Although I like your political work, it's like having a diet of only steak.

I did try to read one of his books, but I found it so boringly written and the characters so flat I gave up.