The Holy War for the Soul of Science: a Review of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem

The more transparent something was, the more mysterious it seemed. The universe itself was transparent; as long as you were sufficiently sharp-eyed, you could see as far as you liked. But the farther you looked, the more mysterious it became.

Even though I am ethnically Chinese, my experience with Chinese literature is severely underfed owing to my inability to read Chinese. I grew up with classical Chinese tales like Journey to the West and Legend of the White Snake being dripped down to me in the form of comics by Taiwanese cartoonist Tsai Chih Chung. I was taught about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by a set of manhua an aunt lent me. I absorbed most other stories in Chinese literature via films and TV series, or have them filtered through to me via books written in English by mostly white, western authors. The only non-graphic Chinese novel I have ever read is a version of Journey to the West translated by Anthony C. Yu, so my engagement with Chinese literature is nowhere near as rich as I would like. I have literally not read a single contemporary Chinese novel until an Indian friend recommended Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem to me.

The Three-Body Problem (2008) by Liu Cixin

It is uncontroversial to say that The Three-Body Problem is probably the most well-known and popular work of Chinese sci-fi in the world, by the virtue that most people (myself included) would not be able to name another. Ken Liu, who is an accomplished and celebrated author himself, translated Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem. As I am already a huge fan of Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series, I felt like I was in good hands diving into this. Even though I cannot read or write Chinese, I do speak and understand verbal Mandarin and Cantonese—so while I may not be able to gain as much as a reader reading Mr Liu’s work in the original untranslated text, I daresay I would still probably gain more than an average non-Chinese person reading the translated book. And I am very thankful that Ken Liu have supplied the book with ample translator footnotes to help me hobble along, especially when it comes to Chinese history in the past century (which plays a key role in influencing the plot of this book).

While The Three-Body Problem‘s setting belongs to the sci-fi genre, its plot is structured like a mystery or thriller. From the beginning, we follow Ye Wenjie who lost her father to the brutalities of the Cultural Revolution and somehow found herself recruited for her knowledge in astrophysics to work in the secretive Red Coast Project in the late 1960’s. The true nature of the Red Coast Base where Ye Wenjie was posted was unknown to her and to us, and it was only revealed to us bit by bit throughout the novel.

At the same time, Mr Liu set up a parallel storyline in modern day which follows another protagonist, a nanomaterials researcher named Wang Miao, who found himself embroiled in a worldwide mystery where many eminent physicists have committed suicide. A suicide note left by one of them is the primary clue. It said,

All the evidence points to a single conclusion: Physics has never existed, and will never exist. I know what I’m doing is irresponsible. But I have no choice.

These suicides were just the yawning entrance of the rabbit hole Wang Miao would fall into as he continued to experience inexplicable phenomenons that severely violated his trust and confidence in science. His only key to the heart of this mystery was an enigmatic VR game that he could access at http://www.3body.net, and an organisation called the Frontiers of Science which attempts “to use the methods of science to discover the limits of science, to try to find out if there is a limit to how deeply and precisely science can know nature—a boundary beyond which science cannot go.”

I will not reveal what the solution of the books’ mysteries is, but I found it to be ultimately satisfying because while some of the science described in this book are impossible (at least at our current level), they still sound deeply plausible. Liu Cixin and Ken Liu have done a stellar job in distilling the scientific information required for us to follow story into digestible chunks—chunks that any layperson can swallow, providing if they pay enough attention. That aside, I do think the book falters a little in presenting its revelations in an organic way, and the story often slows clumsily down to a halt to provide exposition. And as someone who have been following astrophysics news regarding the discovery of exoplanets in far away star systems that exist in Goldilocks zones that may be able to support life, I wondered why SPOILERS (Highlight to Reveal): [the Trisolarans would go through so much effort to wage war on Earth. Wouldn’t it be easier for them to aim for other uninhabited exoplanets? Exoplanets which do not host organisms that possess the capacity to resist them?]

I also found that I share Mr Liu’s profound love for the beauty and grandeur of science, and his abhorrence of anti-science charlatans, and I was pleasantly surprised to find Mr Liu echoing a sentiment I am very much familiar with,

Take those frauds who practice pseudoscience—do you know who they’re most afraid of?”

“Scientists, of course.”

“No. Many of the best scientists can be fooled by pseudoscience and sometimes devote their lives to it. But pseudoscience is afraid of one particular type of people who are very hard to fool: stage magicians. In fact, many pseudoscientific hoaxes were exposed by stage magicians. Compared to the bookworms of the scientific world, your experience as a cop makes you far more likely to perceive such a large-scale conspiracy.”

If there is anything that resembles a philosophy in life for me, it’s scepticism, and I learned scepticism as a tool and philosophy from individuals such as James Randi, a stage magician turned professional sceptic who is famous for debunking quacks and pseudoscientists. I am almost certain that Liu Cixin was directly referencing him. Randi also created the famous One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge which offers to pay out one million US dollars to anyone who can demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under stringent, agreed-upon scientific testing criteria (and to date, no one had managed to collect on it). Indeed, Randi himself proved that he can run rings around scientists when he infiltrated a psychic research lab with two fake psychics in his Project Alpha, and even though the two fakes were told to admit they are frauds if they were ever asked, they were never found out because it did not even occur to anyone to think to ask them. Reading this passage was an emotional moment for me because less than 4 weeks ago, we lost Randi and I feel that the world is all the dimmer for it.

The Three-Body Problem is a book that goes to bat hard for science. Personally, I am not a fan of sci-fi that portrays scientists as bumbling fools or amoral misanthropes. I do not like stories where scientific advancements are depicted in a negative light like Jurassic Park or Frankenstein, and while I agree in principle that scientists must not be so preoccupied with whether or not they could without stopping to think if they should, I feel that this sort of fiction ultimately contributes to the fear and mistrust of science in a way which is damaging to human civilisation. We are already seeing it with the anti-GMO and anti-vax movements. We see how some world leaders and corporations work to suppress concerns about climate change, and even with the advent of a global pandemic like COVID-19 this year, far too many people are ignoring expert advice, refusing to wear masks or socially distance themselves from others. What will ultimately prove to be our undoing as a species will come wearing the cowl of anti-intellectualism and the celebration of ignorance as a virtue, and it is something that thinkers have warned us for decades now, long before the advent of Donald Trump and the age of fake news. In fact 25 years ago, Carl Sagan wrote,

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995) by Carl Sagan

For this alone, I have a great respect and appreciation for The Three-Body Problem, a novel which stands as a powerful rebuke to anti-science and anti-intellectual ideas. Sure, there are villainous scientists who can be subvert science for unethical or even evil purposes, Liu Cixin reminds us that the way we deal with science-based problems is not by shunning science, but to embrace it as the solution. Thematically, I find The Three-Body Problem to be similar to Dan Brown’s Deception Point and also China Miéville’s Kraken in that they also present conundrums that defy scientific explanation, and can potentially overturn everything the protagonists know about science, but I feel that Liu Cixin did a better job than either in the clarity of his message. And even though Mr Liu answered most of the major questions of the book by its end, the ending was still very much a wide open door—a door which I am happy to step through to enter the Dark Forest beyond.

Rating: 4.5/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

One thought on “The Holy War for the Soul of Science: a Review of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem

  1. I enjoyed this book a lot, too.

    Thank you for writing about James Randi. I felt his loss deeply, and there was little to no coverage of his death in the news. I was first exposed to critical thinking through his work, and it changed my life. A candle in the dark, truly.

    Like

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