The three-body problem refers to the longstanding physics problem of predicting the motion of three different celestial bodies. While this is well understood for two bodies, like the Earth and the Sun, it turns out that adding a third body makes the problem much more complex. So complex, in fact, that in most cases a solution is thought to be impossible. Liu Cixin's science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem, first published in China in 2006 as 三体 (Three Body) and recently translated into English by Ken Liu, uses the problem both literally and figuratively in a story about first contact.
The novel starts during the Cultural Revolution with the murder of a physics professor by fanatics while his young daughter, Ye Wenjie, watches. Though she survives the worst of the unrest and grows up to become an astronomer, she is held in constant suspicion by the Orwellian authorities of the era. Accused of counter-revolutionary beliefs, she is eventually saved from prison only by her assignment to a secret military project called Red Coast. The leadership there doesn't trust her, but they need her expertise. She doesn't trust them either, but as she grudgingly begins to work on the project she finds an unexpected opportunity to get revenge, both for her father and for her own mistreatment.
Although the novel starts with Ye, her sections are a flashback from the present-day storyline centered around Wang Maio, a nanomaterials researcher. He is asked by police to infiltrate a mysterious group called Frontiers of Science, supposedly a sort of scientist debate club interested in determining what knowledge, like a general solution to the three-body problem, might be forever outside science’s grasp. Although its members are themselves influential scientists, Wang is told that authorities in both China and other countries believe Frontiers of Science is somehow connected with a diverse set of events that seem to be targeting scientists, most notably a string of apparent suicides of many top scientists around the world.
A substantial part of Wang’s investigation involves Three Body, a massively multiplayer game that Frontiers of Science members are known to play. The game uses VR technology to simulate a strangely altered Earth where seasons and even the length of days are unpredictable. Sometimes the sun vanishes for years, while other times it seems to draw close to the Earth. Humans survive the resultant extremes of cold and heat only because they can be "dehydrated" and put into storage during unreasonable weather. Predicting the movement of the sun is therefore a major concern of the state, and Wang watches and even participates as a procession of great philosophers from human history apply their ideas to the problem with little success.
Taken as an attempt to describe a game that could actually exist, these Three Body segments don't really work. Although supposedly a massively multiplayer game, it’s extremely murky which of the people Wang encounters are human players, and there is conflicting information about the degree to which Wang’s actions affect the experiences of the other players he meets. The game's central puzzle of predicting the movements of the sun would also be solved (to the extent it could be, at least) in about thirty minutes by a crowdsourced Internet solution, but though the game is said to be somewhat popular there is no hint that it is ever discussed except within the confused framework of the game itself, where characters propose solutions to a nation’s ruler in hopes of a reward. But the Three Body strand of The Three-Body Problem is, for all its implausibility, a great deal of fun. Since the historical figures are characters in a game, not historically accurate renditions, Cixin Liu has license to parody both their personalities and their cultural representations in slapstick arguments. But by taking the greatest hits of scientific history and situating them in a different context, he also is able to explore the extent to which an answer that made sense in a particular time and place in our history would make sense in different circumstances. The flavor of it is hard to capture in an excerpt, but here’s a conversation between the protagonist, Isaac Newton, and the twentieth-century computer theorist John Von Neumann:
“Why did you come to the East to build a computer?” Wang asked Von Neumann.
Von Neumann and Newton looked at each other, puzzled. “A computer? A computing machine! Such a thing exists?”
“You don’t know about computers? Then what did you have in mind for completing the vast amount of calculations?”
Von Neumann stared at Wang with wide-open eyes, as though his question made no sense. “Using people, of course. [. . .] Instead of mathematicians, we’ll use common laborers. But we need many of them, at least thirty million. We’ll do mathematics using human-wave tactics.” (p. 208)
The game is something of a sideline from Wang’s attempted infiltration of the Frontiers of Science, which involves talking to various scientists, including the now elderly Ye Wenjie from the novel’s other narrative thread. As he does so, he begins to encounter progressively more inexplicable phenomena that seem to indicate supernatural forces are against him, forces beyond the capability of science to understand. It was these phenomena, unexplainable by science, that caused other scientists to commit suicide, but Wang is kept from complete despair by Shi Quang, a cynical police officer whose proud lack of interest in science means he is totally unconcerned by the possibility he lives in a fundamentally irrational universe.
All the ingredients are in place for a truly great science fiction story. Ye’s experiences among science-fearing radicals in the Cultural Revolution and Wang’s encounters with the supernatural are each harrowing in their own way, and the story is leavened by the thoughtful and comedic Three Body segments. But the pieces are greater than the whole, because the story depends for its effect on a sympathy with both Ye Wenjie and Wang Maio that it doesn’t do enough to achieve. To hold back certain revelations until the end of the story, much of Ye’s actions and emotions at Red Coast are obscured, making her a cipher for much of the story. And Wang is unfortunately little more than a plot device, a character who walks around experiencing the plot and feeling things because the plot requires it. For example, early in the story we are told he is taken with a brilliant young female scientist named Yang Dong.
In his imagination, Wang placed the figure [of Yang Dong] that lingered in his mind at the far end of the valley. Surprisingly, it made the entire scene come alive, as though the world in the photograph recognized the tiny figure and responded to it, as though the whole scene existed for her.
He then imagined her figure in each of his other photographs, sometimes pasting her two eyes into the empty sky over the landscapes. Those images also came alive, achieving a beauty that Wang had never imagined.
Wang had always thought that his photographs had lacked some kind of soul. Now he understood that they were missing her. (p. 59)
This is all well and good, but Wang feels this way after seeing Yang Dong for a couple seconds a year before the story begins. If Wang were a real person one would think a powerful infatuation of this sort would affect . . . something. His relationship with his wife, perhaps, or his interest in his work. Instead, this episode is recalled when he learns Yang Dong has committed suicide so that Wang can feel emotionally implicated in the Frontiers of Science mystery, but it’s never mentioned again. Little is said about his life, in fact. His wife and co-workers are never named and get about a half dozen lines between them. There’s no sense that Wang is a person who exists when the plot doesn’t require him to be there. Yang Dong also turns out to be Ye Wenije’s daughter, but her mother’s reaction to her daughter’s suicide is never revealed, despite the eventual revelation that all the suicides are to some extent Ye’s fault. The narrative just seems to forget about Yang Dong entirely.
Another problem is that the suicides of the scientists, and Wang’s own feelings of despair, feel more than a little overwrought. Contrasting Ye Wenjie’s loss of faith in humanity due to the irrationality of the Cultural Revolution with Wang Maio’s loss of faith in science due to the irrationality of the phenomena he experiences is a great idea, and the modern day suicides echo those of many real-life Chinese academics in the Cultural Revolution. But while committing suicide in the face of constant public abuse and humiliation is understandable, the modern day scientists seem to give up very easily. One of the scientists Wang meets references an Isaac Asimov short story, but everyone would have been better served reading Arthur C. Clarke and remembering his famous dictum about sufficiently advanced technology. Shi Quang even invents an “ultimate rule” that, in translation anyway, echoes Clarke’s phrasing: “Anything sufficiently weird must be fishy” (p. 133). By the end of the novel, the supernatural phenomena regarded by the world’s greatest scientists as completely inexplicable are explained in about five pages.
The science is very convincing and up to date, but as a science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem feels like something written in the days of Asimov and Clarke. Devotees of hard science fiction will find a lot to like, since many modern science fiction novels don’t have even half the ideas on display in The Three-Body Problem, but the characterization is too contrived for the story to have the emotional impact it deserves.