The Cultural Revolution was a brutal period in Chinese history. At its height in 1967, the Red Guards, a paramilitary student movement personally devoted to Mao Zedung, fanatically worked to thoroughly destroy the four-olds of Chinese culture: old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. Books and art were destroyed, streets were renamed, temples and shrines were demolished – and the populace was very forcibly reeducated.
No one was safe during this period. Anyone who showed any signs of independent thinking was a legitimate target, which meant that the universities were the first to fall. Several notable professors were killed or committed suicide. The rest faced public humiliation and torture. And over 17 million students were sent to the countryside to learn the peasant lifestyle. There were also several massacres, and one instant of massive cannibalism. All-in-all it was one of the darker periods in human history, and it makes for a very powerful opening segment in Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, a book that repackages a very familiar message in what could have been a powerful story.
The Cultural Revolution and Dead Physicists
“In the face of madness, rationality was powerless.”
The book opens with two scenes from the cultural revolution. Faction infighting results in the killing of a 15 year-old female Red Guard, and Physics Professor Ye Zhetai is tortured, and then beaten to death by teenage girls. His wife had already denounced him for spreading the teachings of the reactionary Einstein, and Ye refused to recant his belief that experiments should guide philosophy and not the other way around. His daughter Ye Wenjie witnesses everything from the courtyard.
Two years later, Ye Wenjie is in the greater Khingan Mountains being retrained as a woodcutter. There China’s exiled youths, both Red Guards and their victims, get to engage in massive pointless deforestation for a state that wants them out of their way. While there, she is exposed to Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, a book that attempts to address the negative environmental effects of pesticide and also has a profound impact on Ye. It also lands her in hot water, and she finds herself permanently exiled to a secret military base.
Fast forward to the present. Ye is temporarily out of the picture. The protagonist is now Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher who is being asked to infiltrate The Frontiers of Science, a top secret organization of scientists and intellectuals. Several physicists who had gotten too close ended up committing suicide, but there is hope that Wang, who has actually been invited to join, will be able to uncover something. After much deliberation, Wang accepts, and that’s when things start becoming weird.
A Very Obvious Mystery
“By the time you’re my age, you’ll realize that everything you once thought mattered so much turns out to mean very little.”
The Three-Body Problem is a book that did a very good job of captivating me and then losing me. It captivated me through it’s beautiful writing, powerful imagery, and strong grounding in the Cultural Revolution. The opening chapters are absolutely brutal and do an excellent job in exploring the character of Ye Wenjai. The mysteries teased in the first half of the second part are also tantalizing, but then the mysteries are eventually revealed and everything kind of falls apart.
This has to do with the fact that The Three-Body Problem is a plot driven novel, not a character driven novel. The only character I could have seen myself falling in love with was Ye Wenjai. However, she is mostly abandoned after the first part, and when reintroduced, she is fifty years older and no longer a compelling character. The other characters Wang Miao, and also his detective friend, Da Shi, have a role to fill. They need to move the plot forward by solving the mystery that is threatening the world. And they are developed enough to be able to fulfill this role in a way that kind of makes sense. Of these three, only Ye Wenjie experiences any significant character growth, but for me it was too little and too late. The other two, kept the ball rolling at a mostly reasonable pace.
Half-way through the book, the mystery is revealed. I thought this was a little too fast, and that it should have been a bit more challenging, but once I discovered why the mystery was revealed, it all made sense, and I ended up being profoundly disappointed. Cixin Liu took an idea that has been rehashed to death in countless novels, movies, comic books and tv series and gave it a new science fiction packaging. It was an absolutely beautiful packaging, which should have been very powerful and very moving, except this was done using the template of a story that I had already read and viewed way too many times – and I still had to read the second half of the book to get to the very predictable end.
And yet I still think this book has a lot of things going for it. In addition to historical fiction and mystery, you’ve also got hard science fiction and a bit of space opera. The hard science fiction comes from the actual three-body problem, which is borrowed from actual physics and classical mechanics (I am not qualified to address its authenticity). And, the space opera, for me at least, comes from how this book manages to remind me of Triplanetary by E. E. Smith: there is a grounding in the historical past to set up an epic future confrontation, and there is also the use of some fake science to keep things interesting (revealed in the final chapters). I definitely don’t regret reading this book, and will eventually read the other two books in the trilogy because I want to see how Liu is going to wrap things up!
Be The Solution
The Omer today is foundation in kindness, both themes that the book engages in. Humanity has shown itself time and again capable of great acts of evil: towards other members of the human race, and also towards nature itself. In the Three-Body Problem, we see this on a massive scale in the Cultural Revolution, one of many violent chapters in our history as a species. We also see this in petty evils that take place on a day-to-day basis. And this raises the question of whether there is something fundamentally wrong with us as a species, something that is beyond repair that only some form of external intervention will be able to fix, whether divine or other third-party force. Except that those who ask the question need to realize that they are part of the solution.
Those who are capable of understanding the problem are living proof that there is hope for us as a species. The fact that so many of us feel the need to make things better and work so hard in so many different ways to bring about a better future (even if we can’t agree on that future) is proof that there is something fundamentally good at our core. We just need to learn how to better bring it to the surface. In The Three–Body Problem this is shown through unsolicited and unconditional acts of kindness, and it doesn’t take that much to see that we are surrounded by such acts on a daily basis. Proof that we are capable of doing things right.
About the Author
Cixin Liu is the most prolific and popular science fiction writer in the People’s Republic of China. Liu is an eight-time winner of the Galaxy Award (the Chinese Hugo) and a winner of the Nebula Award. Prior to becoming a writer, he worked as an engineer in a power plant in Yangquan, Shanxi.
Ken Liu (translator) is a writer, lawyer, and computer programmer. His short story “The Paper Menagerie” was the first work of fiction ever to sweep the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards.