Making Earth great again

Three Body cover

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

Surrounded by the hype of a national campaign season, the Beamers retreated to contemplate matters international and interstellar, the threat of actual aliens invading as depicted in Cixin Liu’s novel, The Three Body Problem.  Given the nature of the book embedded in Chinese culture, we had the enjoyable task of viewing the aliens from a series of viewpoints that were distinctly non-local. 

Three’s a Crowd

Liu’s novel, the first of a trilogy, is an international bestseller, with a film adaptation about to be released in July in China.  Translated by Ken Liu (no relation, but himself an award-winning sf author), The Three Body Problem covers a standard sf situation, first contact (and invasion), in a manner that recalls and comments on sf books from the 1950s.  No surprise to see Isaac Asimov name-checked, both for one of his stories (“The Billiard Ball”, an sf mystery) and for the plot of his best known short work, “Nightfall”.  Liu postulates an alien civilization struggling to survive the gravitational upheavals of the Alpha Centauri system, in which 3 stars chase around in a confusing dance that frequently changes the orbit, or even the shape, of the planet on which the Trisolarans live.  Alerted by a message sent from Earth (reflected off our Sun), they plan to abandon their dangerous home for the comparative paradise here.

Smart People, Foolish Choices?

Which leads us right into the first dilemma: how do we understand the motivation of Earthlings who actively wish for and support an alien invasion?  Chris opened the discussion by quoting from the book a passage in which Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist held in dishonor during the Cultural Revolution, explains that any civilization advanced enough to travel between the stars must be advanced as well in their moral development.  Does education and intelligence add up to sound morals?  Amid loud booing of this thought, I tried to pose some arguments to support Ye Wenjie, based on both classic science fiction (“Better living through Science!”) and classical Greek philosophy (“No sin save for ignorance”).  But the crowd was not buying any of it.  Still, Ye Wenjie, who watches her father being beaten to death by 4 young female Red Guards, has a lot of reason to distrust human authorities.  And, mixed with an American billionaire who finds humans to be intolerant and selfish possessors of planet Earth, Ye has the means to undermine human societies in anticipation of a New World Order being imposed.

Plus, we did need to make a distinction between the character, the book, and the author, as all three have differing takes on Ye’s philosophy.  While none of us would agree with her or the most extreme members of her movement who seek the extinction of humanity, the book clearly offers opposing views and characters, particularly Wang Miao, a nanotech researcher, whose latest discovery could help humanity build a space elevator.  The author, too, in his afterword, explains his personal hope that, instead of embracing the stars, humans learn to embrace each other and maybe be a bit cautious about getting help from the heavens.  Liz wondered if there were other sf novels that posited the extinction of humanity as a desirable outcome.  None came to mind, though humanity is not always the hero of the tale.  And the heroes in this book come with as much moral baggage as Ye and her compatriots.

Those Who Do Not Condemn the Past

Kathy found the scene of Ye confronting the 3 surviving Red Guard to truly demonstrate how author Liu could present both the victim and the victimizers in sympathetic light, where no one escapes without some blame.  Or, as I added, the issue of stopping the floating base for the alien sympathizers, which entails slicing up the ship as it passes through the Panama Canal, an act made possible by Wang’s nano-thin super-fiber, but which also causes the innocent Canal pilot to be killed along with the traitorous humans.  Would any of us veto the plan, to save an innocent life?  No one offered.

East Meets 1950s West

In spite of these more contemporary traits, though, the book as a whole feels retro.  The science in it is welded hard to the plot, a circumstance that did not please some Beamers, like Fran and Kathy, who did not enjoy being baffled by terminology.  Chris was curious and confused about the actual orbital mechanics, as the famous “three body problem”, known to students of Newton’s laws of motion as an unsolvable conundrum, is not necessarily a household idea outside of planetariums.  Even the more scientific minded, like Liz and Kevin, were nonplussed at the amount of technobabble that was whipped out to explain away or to enable (as needed) plot points.  Still, the unfolding of a proton, whether it makes realistic sense or not, was pretty cool, we agreed.  And Kevin (a mechanical engineer) did cackle appreciatively over the mechanical, 30,000,000-person “CPU” that the Trisolarans devised.

More troubling, though, is the lack of engagement in the motivation of the characters.  Alan and Kevin found themselves following along for the plot but not connecting with any of the characters, all too cold and distant.  With one exception, as police captain Shi (“Big Shi”) Qiang, was roguish enough and clear-headed enough to earn our favor.  But, aside from the captain, who does serve as the irrepressible booster for humanity (“Is the technology gap between humans and Trisolarans greater than the one between locusts and humans?”), the other characters feel more like philosophical types than fully realized people.  Ye Wenjie, especially, moves in puzzling arcs that involve murder (of her husband), suicide (of her daughter), and affection (for the neighborhood children).

The pacing of the book was also problematic for us.  Donna enjoyed the slow build-up and the introduction of the major events of the Cultural Revolution, but others thought it too slow.  And Nick was upset by the graphic violence and the oppressive political atmosphere, all too clearly embodied by Ye and her father, denounced, betrayed, and abandoned to hard fates (exile, and death, respectively).  The hardest sections were the introduction of the virtual-reality computer game, Three Body, which I felt was the author’s attempt to introduce his aliens in a manner that would not involve omniscient narrator fiat.  Still, though the game was intriguing to some Beamers like Fran, most of us found the repetitive nature of the game scenes to be hard to endure, even if in some ways it mimicked the Trisolaran frustrations.  Better to tell and not show in this case, we felt.

Ever the Twain Shall Meet

One aspect of the book that may have worked too well (at least in light of the translator’s comments) was the language, which did not appear to be from a work in translation but read instead like native English.  A native English that was rooted in Chinese history and culture, too, so the orientation of the book is distinctly foreign, but the language flows and feels very familiar.  In some cases, the retro feel of the book may also mask the translation, as a more formal diction can be both from contemporary Chinese speech or from older sf dialogue.  The Chinese, it seems, live in a sf world, too.

While we might not be the ones who voted a Hugo for The Three Body Problem, the Beamers appreciated the chance to look through culturally distinct eyes at several classic sf motifs (like the issue of the obsolescence of the invading fleet that will take 450 years to arrive at Earth, a drawback that appealed to Nick’s sense of justice).  Even if we do not continue on with the rest of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series (the second volume, The Dark Forest, having been published in August in the US), we liked having our event horizons broadened, and now are considering other non-Anglo sf works to peruse.  We have sampled Japanese (Haruki Murakami) and Polish (Stanislaw Lem) and anti-colonial (We See a Different Frontier).  Russian sf and the Strugatskys could be next.





    1. Books currently under consideration, Stardate 2016.04.15 | Beamer Books
    2. Three suns delivered in dazzling drone-style | Beamer Books
    3. The revolution will be televised, but on “mute” | Beamer Books
    4. Hail to the Chief (reader?) | Beamer Books

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