A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

The Three-Body Problem: Review

The following post was taken from my Goodreads review, and contains spoilers pretty much right from the first sentence:

Over the course of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, we are gradually introduced to the Trisolarians, an intelligent species that evolved on a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. The erratic and unpredictable environmental conditions that result from the three-star systems create a species that is remarkably durable, adaptable, and efficient, capable of building huge civilizations in decades and surviving multiple environmental catastrophes. They have built a space fleet, can perfectly communicate with alien races, and possibly are able to access the upper levels of 12-dimensional space. And yet, after eons of existence, none of the Trisolarians’ civilizations have been able to solve the three-body problem, the formula that would allow them to reliably predict the movements of their 3 suns.

The problem, instead, is solved by Wei Chang, an indolent math prodigy from Earth, who by his own admission is naturally lazy, and requires large amounts of time to reflect and meditate before arriving at his most astounding deductions. The Trisolarians’ environment forced them to become a fearsomely efficient and advanced species, but it never could have produced anyone like Wei Chang. The characteristics that allowed him to solve the three-body problem could only arise on a planet like Earth, which is environmentally stable enough to give intelligent beings the time and leisure to think.

This great irony, that the environmental factors responsible for our evolution may interfere with our ability to overcome them, is the novel’s great insight. But the best sci-fi doesn’t limit itself to creating a compelling scenario—it also illustrates how that scenario applies to our own world. To his credit, Cixin Liu is smart enough to show how the path of human evolution has likewise created problems that humans seem singularly unfit to solve. Our own planet’s regular solar path has given us an abundant ecosystem, and allowed us to grow unchecked…but the ease of that growth has prevented us from finding ways to curb it, and is now destroying the biodiversity that initially helped make it possible. Our capacity for imagination and empathy has allowed us to place a value on life and invent concepts like law and sanctity. But then we turn around and kill people to preserve these concepts that are founded on the intrinsic value of human life.

This sense of humanity pushing itself toward a doom it can see but not avoid repeats itself throughout Liu’s novel. Remarkably, for a Chinese author who seems to be on relatively good terms with his government, Liu uses the excesses of the Cultural Revolution as the primary exhibit for this tendency. The Party line on the Cultural Revolution is that, whatever atrocities may have been committed during the revolution, it was ultimately justified by the emergence of a strong and unified China. Most countries have a similar line about the various acts of murder and plunder that allowed them to achieve their current position in the world. Liu looks at things through the other end of the telescope, showing how the achievements of the Cultural Revolution were built atop a pile of dead bodies and ruined lives. Whatever the struggles of history may have achieved, Liu seems to argue that they create a bleak portrait of humanity, enough to make humans in the present despair of our ability to break the cycle of violence.

Not everything about The Three-Body Problem works. The ideas of the novel are so big that it doesn’t allow for characters who are more than placeholders, and even standouts like the delightfully irreverent policeman Da Shi seem to be there more for what they represent (in Da Shi’s case, a practical everyman viewpoint of science and people). The main character is a nanomaterials expert, and the narrative’s lone attempt to depict that technology, while horrifying and innovative, also seems hilariously impractical, rather than the stroke of genius the book seems to consider it (I couldn’t help but think, “but what if the computer is in the back of the boat?”).

But the central concept is so strong, and the sense of anguish at the world’s fate so well-captured, and both are so relevant to a world that seems increasingly precarious and unsustainable, that I’m inclined to give the ideas the day on this one, and forgive its tendency to make its protagonist little more than a bystander. While the background story is compelling, its relegation to the background is probably the right choice—we all know the background story, and live it every day.

Interested in reading this? I’m an Amazon Affiliate, meaning that I link products from Amazon, and if anyone clicks those links to buy the product, they pay me a commission. If you’re interested in getting The Three-Body Problem, just follow the link below:

The Three-Body Problem

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This entry was posted on 24 September 2019 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , .
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