Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

So, I’m going to try to do the impossible and write a spoiler-free review of “Three Body Problem” by Cixin Liu.

Oh my – apparently we do like our challenges, don’t we?

First off, I’m very glad this novel got back on the Hugo ballot, because there’s no way it should ever have been off of it.

TL;DR if you’re interested in the philosophy of science, the limits (or otherwise) of knowledge and what happens when intellectualism collide with politics, READ THIS BOOK. Oh, and there may be aliens 🙂

This review won’t spoil the ending, as I wrote it when I was about 80% of the way through the book.

Now, in more detail…

The titular three-body problem is a well-known difficulty in Newtonian mechanics. Essentially, the motion of three gravitating objects in orbit around each other, doesn’t actually have an analytical solution [Fn.1]. This is rather disturbing, because the Universe is packed full of systems containing three or more interacting bodies! (Apparently the Universe itself can cope with the three-body problem. Thank goodness. We’d be just a little stuffed if it couldn’t.)

This is relevant to the book, both directly and metaphorically. The book considers the possibility that there’s a limit to what we can know about the Universe – the three-body problem being one possible example of such a hard limit. It also considers the possibility of socially-imposed limits – what if we chose not to know more? What if outside forces didn’t want us to know more?

Another interesting aspect of the book is it’s setting. You don’t see much fiction in the West that has the People’s Republic of China as a backdrop. And you very rarely see work that treats China in a thoughtful and considered manner. “Three Body” is broadly positive about China, but it’s certainly not any hagiography. Interestingly, the opening scenes of the book occur during the Cultural Revolution, and the fear, passion and violence are on full show.

Another thing that intrigued me was that “Three Body” doesn’t spoon-feed you the plot. In fact, I can only think of one single thing that might constitute any sort of foreshadowing. This was initially disorienting, but I actually found it rather refreshing once I got used to it – most media seems to be so drenched in foreshadowing that half the time, you know exactly what’s going to happen many chapters ahead of schedule. In “Three Body”, every page has a surprise. Whenever you think you know what’s going on – you’re wrong!

Perhaps one weakness of the book is the characterisation. I’ve had trouble keeping all the characters separate, as some of them feel fairly similar. However, the key character in “Three Body” isn’t any of them – it is, of course, the Universe itself.
The science in “Three Body” is very hard. I’m well up for that, of course 🙂 I will note that there are two arguable flubs that I’ve seen so far, however one of them we can ascribe to artistic license and the other is now essentially universal in modern SF, so I’m prepared to let it go. (I’d say more about these, but they’re both very spoilerific, so I probably shouldn’t.) (Fn. 2)

Another very daring aspect of “Three Body” is that it actually contains an implicit critique of the Communist Party’s policies toward China. It’s subtle, but it’s definitely there. Given that this novel was originally published in China in 2008 – yeah. Wow.

Anyway I’ve probably said all I can without spoiling anything, except that this is definitely one that’s worth reading.

Fn.1 Strictly, there are several situations under which the problem can be solved. One is the restricted version, in which one of the bodies is treated as essentially mass-less in comparison to the others – this is where the idea of Lagrange points comes from. Also there do exist several other special-case solutions that people have derived, although their applicability to real-universe systems is arguable.
As to how we deal with it in the real world, people tend to use crank-the-handle numerical approaches to simulate planetary and stellar orbits. Whilst obviously not as good as proper analytical results, nonetheless these are good enough for most purposes.

Fn. 2 And lastly, this is an extremely spoilerific footnote, but scientific honesty as an ex-astronomer demands it. The depiction of the Alpha Centauri trinary system in this book bears no resemblance to the behaviour of the real star system.


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