With a gritty take on alien contact and with references to China’s turbulent past, Three Body Problem is one of the greatest achievements of modern science fiction.
Who will you support when you meet an impossibly advanced civilisation? The flawed humans or the advanced aliens? When ET does contact us, will we meet someone benign or someone hostile? What will we do if it is the latter? These are the questions raised by Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award winning masterpiece, Three Body Problem.
Set in the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution in China, we see people killing their comrades, students shaming their professors, and couples abandoning their kids. It was a time of tremendous upheaval, as Chairman Mao’s rebellion and factionalism led to the death of millions, leaving scars that still haven’t been healed today.
This grounded background sets the stage for our protagonist Ye Wenjie’s motivations, setting off a conflict spanning many light years and lasting many generations – something that no one could have foreseen, least of all Ye Wenjie.
You can’t help but empathise with the choices that the Ye Wenjie makes. After all, humanity is responsible for one of the biggest mass extinctions in Earth. We’re making a mess of our planet through pollution and global warming. And we just can’t stop fighting ourselves. Is it wrong to think that only help from elsewhere could save us from ourselves?
Three Body Problem uses clever techniques to make us understand the history and motivations of the aliens. The most important of these is when a character plays a computer game set in a fantasy world, with characters based on the great scientists, kings, and philosophers. But despite the human characters, something seems really off about the game. For starters, there is no proper day and night cycle, and extreme weather could end up killing you. This leads to characters having to enter hibernation, so that they can weather the severe conditions. This otherworldly strangeness makes you suspect that the game has a deeper meaning.
Soon, the metaphorical nature of the game becomes evident, and we finally get to understand the nature of the Trisolarian civilisation — the aliens in the story. Even though the Trisolarians are the villains, this explanation gives them a strong motive so that we understand why they did what they did, in much the same way as the Cultural Revolution helps explain why Ye Wenjie did what she did. The story has morally grey characters on both sides. As Cixin Liu recently said in an interview (see this Reddit post), talking about why Three Body Problem cannot be adapted by Hollywood:
Hollywood sci-fi films, stories, and background premises can be complex and convoluted, but their themes can’t be complicated and must present a dichotomy like the Chinese saying: ‘make the black and the white clearly separated.’ Three Body violates this most fundamental principle.
There is also a decent amount of hard science in the book, if the title of the book didn’t give you any indication. The Three Body Problem refers to a problem in physics about the orbits of 3 masses—say, stars. While with 2 masses the orbits may be stable and predictable, with 3 bodies it becomes quite chaotic and unpredictable. In the latter case, you still might get short periods of stability, but it is surrounded by vast stretches of time when there is complete chaos.
A person in a planet orbiting a triple star system will face rollercoaster-like temperature swings. For some years there may be moderate temperatures and flourishing lives as the stars are neither too far nor too close. Then, as the chaotic era approaches, the flames of the stars almost lick the planet. The person simply burns into a crisp.
This cycle of actual Chaotic Eras and Stable Eras also reflects civilization and instability across human history. The stable and chaotic eras don’t just haunt the aliens, they also haunt any society. And nowhere is this more evident than in China. Marred by death and famine in one century, and prosperity and growth in the next, China’s history is full of Stable and Chaotic Eras.
Perhaps, the aliens in Three Body Problem aren’t that different from humans.