Hello Decipher friends! We hope you are experiencing a mild August, despite the chaotic-era climate shifts of our present ecological disaster. This week, Decipher City and our friend-guest and Chinese history enthusiast David Bradshaw discuss The Three Body Problem, a science fiction novel written in 2008 by Liu Cixin. The book received the Hugo award in 2015 for its portrayal of an isolated young scientist in revolutionary China who makes a devil’s bargain with a race of technologically-superior aliens that reside on a chaotic planet approximately 4 light years away. Enmeshed in the book are references to Chinese philosophy and history, particularly from the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution, that create the context and motivation for the characters (those on earth, anyway).
This book is an interesting mix of historical fiction and science fiction, and thus it hits a lot of themes that come up in our research. Cixin, whose dark sense of humor and witty juxtapositions create an engaging read, alternately ponders the hubris of scientific certainty and the onslaught of ecological crisis (caused by a combination of development, technology, and ideology) while subtly criticizing utopian schemes for social progress that go dramatically awry.
Since we sometimes get excited, nerd out, and go off on tangents, below is some exposition in the form of a few key narrative points from the story to help y’all follow along.
The Three Body problems’ main character is Ye Wenjie, a young and traumatized physicist living in Mao’s revolutionary China. When her father is killed by Red Guard youth and she is sent to work at a remote military base, she loses faith in her society and in humanity in general, and uses her acumen in physics and technology to send out a message to an alien race, inviting them to come and conquer Earth and remake it. As it turns out, the society that receives the message (the Tri-Solarans) are struggling to leave their own chaotic and violent planet and thus see her message as an opportunity: they have superior technology to the peoples of earth, and they will come and colonize it for themselves.
The book follows various people from the three groups of humans that are aware of the Tri-Solarans: the Adventists, who believe that the aliens ought to destroy all of human society because of the unethical ways in which it has treated the earth and the non-human species on it; the Redemptionists, who believe (incorrectly) that the aliens will help reform humanity, who worship the Tri-Solarans as gods, and who practice their odd form of spirituality by playing a Game called Three Body (named after the three suns that cause Trisolaris to be unstable) and recruiting new members in its virtual space. Finally, there is the Survivalists, who seek simply to…survive, potentially by selling out other humans to the aliens.
Enter the nano-materials scientist Wang Miao and the disgraced cop Da Shi (Big Shi). They have been tasked by the Chinese military to infiltrate these alien-supporting societies, get the dirt on them, and help the government defeat them. They perform the role of the point-of-view characters that explores the world of the Trisolarain cults and allies, gathering pieces of information as they go and relaying to the reader in the process the story of Ye Wenje’s first contact. In the meantime, back on their own planet, the Tri-Solarians scheme up ways to interfere with the technological progress of human beings. ‘Project Sofon” allows the Tri-Solarans to send programmable protons to function as quantum entanglement disruptors/walkie talkies, which interfere with experiments, create confusing visualizations, and just in general mess with a handful; of targeted humans.
The book ends with an anti-climactic standoff between the military and the Adventists. What we learn, in the end, is that science and technology can both save us and harm us, that reaching out in the dark jungle of space for another living society can potentially have dark consequences–and that this was just the first book in a three book series suggestively titled “The Remembrance of Earth’s Past” (while we haven’t yet read the other two books, it doesn’t sound like it turns out good for us!). Check out the links at the bottom for more information on China during the cultural revolution and the author.
1.A first-hand account of the Cultural Revolution from a a teenage Red guard member who later became a journalist: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/07/mao-little-general-horror-cultural-revolution
2. A fictional period novel of the Cultural Revolution (David mentions the book at about 15:18): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronicle_of_a_Blood_Merchant
3. A recent Interview with author Liu Cixin: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/06/24/liu-cixins-war-of-the-worlds
4. The Perry Bible Fellowship Cartoon about historical anachronism we reference at 29:21 (these guys are great): https://pbfcomics.com/comics/now-showing/