The Three-Body Problem: a step too far?

I started reading the science fiction of Cixin Liu for a simple if tragic reason. I have always preferred my Iain Banks with added M, and when both of his voices were silenced as inappropriately as they were, I realised I needed a new science fiction habit. Banks and Liu are as different as can be, and nobody would ever confuse Liu’s miserablist epic of the human future with Banks’s amazing invention of The Culture. Banks was better at irony, and was far more of an optimist about the future of the human race. But they both look creatively at massive volumes of time and space, and manage to have some credible people in there, even female ones. For me, the creation of characters I actually care about is the big test for any author vaguely in the world of science fiction.

The other reason I got interested in Liu relates to the time I have spent in East Asia – Japan, Korea, Taiwan and mainland China – in the past decade. Liu’s work is set in the approximate present (it starts in the cultural revolution) and deep into the future. It is placed in a world where China has become more dominant, but where Americans and plenty of others are also present and important. It’s a welcome perspective that someone needed to take. At this point, by the way, wild applause for his translator Ken Liu, himself a novelist.

Liu’s magnum opus so far (he’s only 53) is The Three-Body trilogy, of which volume one is the Three-Body Problem, named after one of the canonical conundrums of celestial mechanics. If there are only two bodies in the universe, maybe a star and a planet, it’s easy(ish) to work out the future movements of the two from their initial starting point. Introduce a third object, and the calculation gets a whole lot trickier.

In contrast to many previous science fiction authors, Liu regards the universe as a place that’s full of life. And unlike Iain M and many others, he portrays most of that life as genocidal or indeed mundicidal, a term I am pleased to see that Word underlines. Slight spoiler alert: in the first two volumes, war breaks out between the naïve but well-intentioned Homo sapiens and the murderous civilisation of the Alpha Centauri system. (Heaven knows what he makes of the recent discovery of a possible Earthlike planet in this star system.) It needs a massively brilliant plot twist for us to avoid extinction. However, it also becomes apparent that the evil Trisolarans of Alpha Centauri are the least of our worries. They actually plan to leave some of us alive. The real problem is the entire universe, which is a “dark forest,” hence the title of volume two, filled with civilisations that would rather obliterate any possible new arrivals in the universe than ask questions about their intentions.

Liu isn’t afraid of turning on a lot of science, and his inventiveness is astounding. He messes with dimensions, with the velocity of light, with time and space travel and many other big themes. And the handy invention of human hibernation means that his leading characters can appear throughout a plot that runs for centuries, and far more in the final volume.

There is apparently a Chinese-language film of Volume One of the trilogy with a 2017 release date, but the second and third books may prove trickier. In the era of movies about Middle Earth, Mars or Hogwarts, you may think anything can be faked on screen. But the challenges here would be far greater. And the real issue is not about technology. The problem is that the film-makers would have to trample the plot very badly to turn up any sort of feelgood ending. Anything resembling a true rendition of the books would make The Hateful Eight look like Disney. On the other hand, it would be a great project for the endlessly ambitious Chinese movie industry.

In the end, was it worth ploughing through three volumes of ingenious but largely spirit-lowering stuff that we must all hope has no prophetic value? For me, yes. But I prefer Liu’s short stories, such as The Wandering Earth and (even more so) The Longest Fall – the same amazing mind, but a lot less “blow your brains out while you still have them” content.



About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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