Monday, August 07, 2017

[Books] Book Look: The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin.

Longtime readers may know that -- as a rule -- I am not enthused by "genre" fiction. It can work well as a fun distraction, but it is almost always too riddled with cliche, manipulation, and exposition to be of any literary value. But there are exceptions and The Three Body Problem is one of them.

In summary, the The Three Body Problem is a very original story in the alien invasion genre. It is a bit of a slow burn as we follow the the plot of the alien contact through flashbacks over the course of the book, not getting the full picture until the later stages. The aliens, it seems, live on a planet that has three suns. This arrangement causes massive swings in climate such that there are varying periods of seemingly random lengths during which the inhabitants can live. The defense they have evolved against this is the ability to "dehydrate" -- essential mummify themselves until the climate resumes in a livable state. The livable periods can vary from a few hundred to thousands of years, but with each livable period civilization must be rebuilt. Eventually one of the civilizations manages to discover a planet nearby (Earth) and is able to construct ships to take them there. There is no question this is an invasion as they are in cahoots with a group of quislings on Earth and have more or less stated their intentions. This is where is gets interesting. There are a group of scientists who are dedicated to defending the Earth, a group of quislings who wants to welcome the aliens as our new overlords who will educate and advance us since we are failures, and lastly a group of quislings who welcome the aliens as destroyers -- believing humanity is such a destructive force that it would be better wiped from the Earth entirely. Did I mention the author is Chinese?

Over the past few years I have read a fair bit of popular Chinese fiction and one thing that I find interesting is how the hellish spectre of the Cultural Revolution hovers over the Chinese mind. The initial contact with the aliens is by a woman whose life was destroyed and whose soul was shredded during the Cultural Revolution. She receives a message from an alien dissident that warns her that exposing Earth to his kind will result in invasion and possibly the genocide of humanity. She thinks about it and reveals herself anyway because the notion of value and meaning to human life has been so thoroughly ripped from her by horrific experiences. Couple this with the idea that a group of nihilists (interestingly, philosophically rooted in environmentalism) could grab power to the point where they might achieve total destruction and you begin to see how this story would spring from a mind that had the horrors and insanity of the Cultural Revolution to draw on.

Still, this is science fiction. So there are equal parts interesting ideas and implausible plot points, luckily a lid is kept on the technical blather. But the characters here are a cut above. Liu has a keen eye for motivations. The tragedies and triumphs are well fleshed out from a human standpoint. The prose and dialogue are solid, not drone-y or tone deaf as is the case in most sci-fi. It made for a fascinating and compelling read. At the conclusion of a chapter, it's not often I am chomping at the bit for the next, but that was not unusual here.

Because of our current era, everyone who reads this will likely see it as a parable for a danger they see on the horizon. In the afterword, Liu specifically notes that it is not a political book, and you will certainly not find a down-the-line litany of symbolism for this cause or that. For example, the good guys are clearly pro-science and the nihilists are anti-science, however the nihilists are also environmentalists while the good guys are, shall we say, human-chauvinists. If you want to you'll be able to twist and turn the ideological conflicts to validate your feelings. I suggest you don't, or at least you look for large philosophical themes over direct addressing of the issues of the day.

So should you read The Three Body Problem. I would say yes. Even if you hate sci-fi, the you'll likely connect with the characters. If you love garden-variety sci-fi, there is enough of an action novel of ideas to keep you going. There is a good chance, though, you'll find something more, either emotionally or intellectually. By the way, at the book's close, the aliens are about 400 years away. There are two sequels. I am on the fence about reading those. I fear they will take a turn for the worse -- i.e. be conventional. I might want to let this one sit just in my head as is.