The only science fiction I read so far was an adolescent's version of H. G.
Wells's 'War of the Worlds.' Not very impressed. I enjoy some movies of the
genre, though, e.g., the Alien franchise and The Matrix. In fact, I liked the
scripts of the latter so much that I could do an impression of Agent Smith.
So when a new friend highly endorsed works by Mr. Liu Cixin, I was intrigued.
Later, I remembered that my nephew raved about "The Three-Body Problem"
(TTBP) by the same author a few months ago. My friend soon brought me the
English version of the trilogy where TTBP was the first.
Before finishing chapter one, I started to feel lucky to be born in the 70s and
thereby have dodged crash-landing in the unspeakable atrocity of the Cultrual
Revolution. The fighting scene between the Red Guard factions, the persecution
of Prof. Ye, the betrayal of his wife and daughter, and his other daughter Wenjie's
heart-rending life afterwards painted a vivid, if a bit crude, picture of what
it was like. (This was of special interest to me because similar things could and
might have happened to my family.) Wenjie's early experiences, i.e., before giving
birth to her daughter, were so dark that they led to her attempt to invite extra-
terrestrial beings to reform the human race. That's my one-sentence summary
of the book. Everything branches from this central theme.
Mr. Liu seemed to have nerds like us in mind as he wrote. I enjoyed the tales
including the human computer made of Qin Shihuang's phalanxes, a Monte Carlo
simulation (I actually coded such a simulator as an undergrad) to solve the three-
body problem, the turkey story which I heard first from Taleb, and in the end the
nano filaments slicing the tanker. The author portrayed the absurd era brilliantly.
Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" was referred to as "a toxic piece of reactionary
propaganda" and directing a radio beam at the sun could set off a political
landmine as the life-sustaining star was hogged as the symbol of Chairman Mao.
Mr. Liu seemed well-versed in physics, too. Physics didn't interest me as much,
however, and I skipped most descriptions of the nine-dimensional proton computers,
the actual three body problem, etc.
I learnt a few new words, including syzygy, thanks to the great translation from
Mr. Ken Liu. "Adventists" and "Redemptionists" are names aptly picked for two
factions among people who want to see the aliens invading the earth. I applaud
the author for his environmental awareness and the village scene where Ms. Ye
nursed her new-born daughter. Overall, it was a good read.
On the other hand, the book entertains like WuXia novels. By telling an engaging
story appealing to some parts of our brain, it helps more to escape than
navigate the real world. It doesn't seem to seek to teach or to spur.
Every major role boasts knowledge, status or talent and most likely all three.
The players are mostly colorless, hard-to-love one-dimensional geniuses, famous
this, well-known that, or members of top organizations, be it the Tsinghua U or
the fictitious "Frontiers of Science." The only one with some common touch is Shi,
the police captain. But even he has special skills that complement the intellectuals'.
The elitism feels suffocating. The book is so Chinese in that it pays so little
attention to the common Chinese. I guess I shouldn't expect otherwise.
For a story where mankind's survival is at stake, I would wish to see more and
more worthy sides of humanity.
Last, reading it rarely made me laugh. (In contrast, Murakami's "The Elephant
Vanishes," which I was reading in parallel, was a pure treat.)
All the rants might sound ridiculous for a fantasy work. Maybe I'm just not into
Sci-Fi. I have heard that the test if one really likes a book is whether he would
return to it. I will want to reread The Three-Body Problem, but maybe more to learn about history.