Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Book Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu and translated by Ken Liu


This is, quite simply, one of the best SF novels I've ever read. It's that rarest of beasts, a hard SF novel that's actually readable.

The story provides an interesting spin on the alien invasion scenario. A response to a signal sent out by a SETI equivalent in Culture Revolution era China is detected by scientist Ye Wenjie. The message she receives warns her not to respond, as the sender's civilisation is seeking to escape its homeworld for a more hospitable planet, and if she responds they'll be able to pin-point the origin of the signal and send their invasion fleet.

Reasoning that a sufficiently scientifically advanced civilisation must also have arrived at a high level of moral sophistication, Ye responds, hoping that the invading 'Trisolarans' will conquer the Earth and, being completely outside human history and thus far more objective about our state of affairs, will be able to offer solutions to humanity's problems.

The book initially spends a lot of time familiarising us with the insanity of the Cultural Revolution (don't think that this necessarily marks this book out as anti-establishment: the official Party line in China is that the Cultural Revolution was a disastrous error of judgement on Mao's part), as well as the possible consequences of extraterrestrial contact. Perhaps most interestingly, though, is the author's defence of reason and rationality. Indeed, there's so much scientific-Promethean sentiment in this book that I almost got an accelerationist contact high.

Early on, we learn that there's a growing movement claiming that our ability to understand the universe is far more restricted than had previously been supposed. Seeking to apply the scientific method to science itself, the Frontiers of Science movement hold that fundamental science has reached its limit. The particle accelerators around the world have stopped generating identical results, suggesting that at a certain basic level, the universe is utterly random and cannot be comprehended.

Furthermore, one character notes that there's a growing cultural hostility towards scientific and technological progress, a burgeoning strain of primitivism that pushes for the abandonment of the projects of techno-science in favour of a return to nature. What we learn, though, is that this movement is a product of the Trisolarans attempt to undermine our ability to offer resistance when they arrive. Shocked by how rapid human technological development has been in the last century, they work with their collaborators on Earth to frustrate scientific research, in particular fundamental theory. Indeed, even the lack of identical results from the particle accelerators is revealed to be part of their plot.

There's something quite classically SF about that, this strong feeling that it's only scientific rationality that will bring humanity triumph, almost clich├ęd in fact. Indeed, some of their human collaborators even view the Trisolarans in religious terms. Perhaps it's a little on-the-nose, but there's still something really quite pleasing, from an accelerationist perspective at least, about how the efforts to undermine technological and scientific enterprise is painted as a betrayal of humanity.

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