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The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin


The Three Body Problem

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Warning: contains spoilers!

The Three Body Problem (2008) is a science fiction novel from the Chinese writer Liu Cixin and forms the first part of a three-part trilogy along with The Dark Forest and Death's End.

The novel intertwines three threads: the story of a Chinese astrophysicist Ye Wenjie and her family during and and after the Cultural Revolution when she finds work at a secret research station, the Red Coast Base; the present day (or what appears to be a few years in the future, based on some technological descriptions in the book); and the journey of one of the present day characters, nanotechnology expert Wang Miao, through a virtual reality game, Three Body, set on the planet Trisolaris.

Wang is introduced to this game when he is recruited to help to solve a spate of suicides of scientists across the world, including Ye Wenjie's daughter. One factor the dead scientists had in common is that they have all played this game. Trisolaris is plagued by extreme weather and solar conditions: there are periods of relative stability called Stable Eras, interspersed by Chaotic Eras when the planet is exposed to extreme heat and cold and irregular day/night cycles. The inhabitants, while otherwise appearing human, have the ability to dehydrate their bodies for storage in order to survive the Chaotic Eras. Every so often the effects of the Chaotic Eras are so severe the civilization is destroyed completely and the Trisolarians have to start again from scratch. The objective of the game is to find a way to accurately predict and eventually find a solution to the Chaotic Eras; in the course of in-game centuries Wang meets rulers, philosophers and scientists from Earth history, such as Einstein and Mozi, to aid or challenge him in his quest. He eventually figures out that Trisolaris is a planet orbiting around three suns, and the solution lies in the three body problem of orbital mechanics. The complexity of the orbits of these three suns is why Trisolaris experiences these Chaotic Eras.

At the same time Wang experiences strange hallucinations in the real world. He starts seeing numbers - what appears to be a countdown - in photographs he has made with a pre-digital camera, and even starts to see the countdown in front of his own eyes. He visits Ye Wenjie, now retired and living in Beijing, who tells him to stop his nanotech research, and the countdown disappears when he complies.

Ye Wenjie's story leads from her suffering during the Cultural Revolution, which claims the lives of her family, to the remote Red Coast Base, a radio telescope research station where her education and skills give her some political refuge. Doing SETI research she discovers that although human-made radio signals are far too weak to go far into interstellar space, the mass of the Sun can be used to boost the signal and thus make interstellar communication a possibility. She is able to send out a message and receives a reply: a warning to stop transmitting as to continue will bring disaster to humankind. Wenjie conceals her discovery, even murdering her own husband and her superior officer on the base to keep it secret, and continues to attempt communication despite the warning: having witnessed how much suffering and destruction humans cause not only to each other but all other life on Earth, she believes that even should the aliens conquer humanity the world would be better off for it.

The civilization she has contacted turns out to be a planet in the triple star system of Alpha Centauri, our closest interstallar neighbour - the planet Trisolaris in Three Body (an interesting sidenote: in 2016 - 8 years after the novel was published - the Earth-sized exoplanet Proxima b was discovered within the habitable zone of one of the stars, but it's so far unknown whether this planet has a breathable atmosphere, let alone life). She creates a global secret society dedicated to aiding Trisolaris in its future colonization of Earth, with some factions desiring mere alien overlordship and others humanity's complete destruction; the society includes billionaires and media personalities with enormous financial resources and influence. They create the Three Body game to find potential new recruits to their cause. At the end of the game the Trisolarians abandon all hope of solving the three-body problem and decide to build a space fleet to leave their system and colonize another world. Those few players who reach this ending are approached and recruited by the human Trisolarian society. This world is, in reality, our own Earth, and the invasion fleet is due to arrive in 400 years.

Further revelations from the group's communications with the Trisolarians reveal that they are able to create subatomic "sophons" - intelligent protons - that they were able to send to Earth as an advanced scouting party and communicate in real time across interstellar distances through quantum entanglement. The sophons not only enable the Triasolarians to spy on humanity but also interfere directly in scientific research, for example by messing with particle accelerator experiments and causing scientists to suffer hallucinations such as Wang's countdown visions. They want to prevent Earth from acquiring advanced technology that would enable them to resist Trisolarian colonization; the human Trisolarian society for their part use their resources and influence to block and misdirect scientific and technological research.

We do not get much of an idea of what the Trisolarians themselves look like - as with the virtual reality game, they are presented to us in human form and their society in human terms of reference, although it is very unlikely they would resemble anything humanoid in appearance (their ability to de- and rehydrate at will indicates a very different physiology to humans, perhaps something similar to tardigrades). The Trisolarians are described more as an intellectual exercise reminiscent of the inhabitants of Flatland rather than the heavily-detailed alien species you tend to find in most sci-fi novels and franchises - perhaps we'll see more of their physical appearance in the subsequent novels in the series.

The novel also hints at a possible answer to the Fermi Paradox - given the abundance of potential life-supporting worlds in our galaxy, why have we not heard from the ETs? The Three Body Problem suggests that the galaxy is teeming with predatory species hungry to colonize inhabitable worlds, and species either learn to keep as quiet as possible or end up being either the conquerors or the conquered - so we haven't heard from any aliens because they are either dead or in hiding.

We end the book however with a slightly positive note: to the Trisolarians, humans are hopelessly primitive, merely bugs. But as Da Shi, the policeman working with Wang to uncover the Trisolarian conspiracy, points out: for all its efforts, humanity has never been able to eradicate the locusts, mosquitoes and cockroaches living in their midst. There is hope then that humanity will prove just as resistant and indestructable to the Trisolarians.