Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Three-Body Problem: Chinese science-fiction

I have just finished reading Liu Cixin's famous science-fiction trilogy, Remembrance of Earth's Past, better know by the title of its first book, "the Three-body Problem". This trilogy by a computer engineer from Shanxi province is one of the few Chinese science-fiction works to have been translated into other languages. It is also one of the few that have really piqued international interest, and rightly so.

The three novels in the series are high quality science-fiction, on a par with Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. They take an old question (what would happen if humanity came into contact with aliens?) and really run away with it in ways that are both unpredictable and astonishing, as well as scientifically sound. Some of the books' ideas are quite thought-provoking, like the one of the whole universe being a dark forest in which any civilisation that reveals its planet's location to outsiders risks imminent destruction (thus providing an explanation for the Fermi paradox), and the final image of a universe that is dying as a result of different civilisations constantly waging war with each other by turning the very laws of physics into weapons. 

The interesting twist, of course, is the fact that much of the series is set in China, and most of the characters are Chinese, even though you could often forget this. The setting makes itself felt most heavily in the first book, part of which takes place during the Cultural Revolution, and part in present-day China. The second and third books are set centuries in the future, and even though some of the plot still takes place in Beijing, which has now become an underground city, the location obviously becomes less relevant. There is the idea that in future humanity's global language will be a mixture of English and Chinese, but I could easily imagine an American science-fiction writer coming up with exactly the same unoriginal prediction. Apart from the scenes from the Cultural Revolution (a period which the author himself remembers from his childhood), most of the time the Chinese setting feels more like an accidental irrelevance to a series that could just as well take place in another country if the names were changed.

Having said that the books do draw from Chinese history and literature. For instance, there are the aliens who read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and can't understand the constant deception and trickery which the characters employ, since they come from a civilisation in which thoughts are always expressed openly. There is the appearance of Qin Shihuang, China's first emperor, as a character in the virtual reality game set up by the sect that want to assist the aliens in invading the earth. And there is the quixotic advice given by a Buddhist monk to one of the characters in the first book.

If you like science fiction the series is well worth a read. Among other things, it really makes you wonder whether humanity's amateurish attempts to broadcast messages disclosing its existence into outer space are really a good idea.

Liu Cixin and the fist book of the series


Richard said...

Agreed, fantastic series. I waited years for the English translation of the final book.
Is your Mandarin level sufficient to read the original?

Ji Xiang said...

I suppose I would theoretically be able to read the series in Chinese, but it would take me months, and I would have to make frequent recourse to a dictionary, especially for the technical terms related to space travel.