I opened this book with some trepidation. I knew it won the Hugo Award last year but from the safe distance I watched from, last year’s Hugos looked like a toxic mess of political squabbling. Political choices are rarely good art, so I had low expectations of The Three-Body Problem. I am happy to say that it confounded them.
Given the political clash of last year’s Hugos, there’s a certain irony that the book that won it opens during the Cultural Revolution. A couple of pages in, a physicist is beaten to death for refusing to repudiate Einstein’s theory of relativity. I suspect that protagonists on all sides of the Hugo squabble identified with the physicist and none with the Red Guards beating him to death. Such is the nature of the ideologue.
The novel itself takes the form of a mystery story. Something is happening to the world’s leading physicists, who are losing their minds or occasionally their lives. Something that’s connected to the events of the Cultural Revolution in ways that no one understands. Physicist Wang Miao is recruited to investigate what is happening to his peers and rapidly finds himself learning more about it than he wants to know because what he’s seeing is simply not possible.
A counterpoint to Wang is Shi Qiang, a crude-mannered cop who, not being as immersed in the world of physics as Wang, is less disturbed by the fact of the impossible than by the question of who might be doing it and why. Shi’s approach to the problem and to life in general contrasts with the introverted Wang, which makes for an entertaining pairing of characters. When Wang is racked by existential angst at seeing the universe behave in a way that his whole life’s experience tells him is impossible, Shi is there to get him consolingly drunk.
Cixin Liu pulls off the difficult task of writing a hard science fiction novel that doesn’t demand knowledge of either science or science fiction. Nor does it demand a knowledge of Chinese history or culture, which is fortunate because I have very little of either. Translator Ken Liu has done a masterful job of rendering it in very readable English, with the aid of a few judiciously placed notes to explain cultural references where necessary.
At the heart of the story is the eponymous Three Body Problem. In 1887, Henri Poincaré showed it’s impossible to calculate the trajectories of three bodies in orbit around one another. More than a simple problem of theory, the Three Body Problem illustrates that even according to Newtonian physics, even a relatively simple set of observations need not lead to a reliable prediction.
Wang is plagued by that concept, and by the Three Body Problem itself which is obviously important long before Wang works out exactly how it relates to the problems with physics and physicists he keeps encountering.
It didn’t take me more than a few pages into the novel before I realised that whatever the political convolutions that led to The Three-Body Problem receiving the Hugo, it thoroughly deserves it. I am now wondering if it stands out because it wasn’t a product of Anglophone science fiction politics. If there’s one political message to be taken away from this novel, it’s in the first pages: when a cultural revolution demands victims more than it values truth, nobody is going to win.