The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

“It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.”  

Before I started The Three Body Problem I prepared myself for a hard-core science fiction book, one thick with technical jargon that would probably demand a lot from me. It was all of this. I definitely had difficult spots where I felt slightly overwhelmed, as heavy jargon is not my favorite brand of sci-fi. What pulled me through was the first fifty pages about the Silent Spring, a very bloody chapter of China’s Cultural Revolution. 

I was deeply moved by a young astrophysicist’s story, Ye Wenjie, as she witnessed the destruction of her family and then betrayal. The above quote is from Wenjie as she tries and grapples with how to move forward once you’ve seen the worst of humanity. A stroke of luck, due to her field of expertise, allows her to work on a secret government project involving radars (*winkwink*) called Red Coast Base. This is the first step towards the Trisolarians. 

The meat of the story takes place forty years later, and throughout it my mind kept going back to Wenjie. Technically Wang Maio is our protagonist, as we discover who the Trisolarians are and why the issue of the ‘three body problem’ is important through his story, but for me Wenjie is the emotional core. Her decisions set the course for humanity. 

“Contact as Symbol”

I kind of struck gold with The Three Body Problem as initial first contact is crucial to the plot, along with the beginnings of understanding an alien race. The book even discusses different theories about first contact!!

As Wang discusses different (fictionalized) theories in the book, there was one that really stuck out to me. Instead of being an unifying event, bringing different cultures together, First Contact would deepen the set-in fractures and could lead to disaster. Wang explains this is a part of the theory of ‘contact as symbol’ and ‘regardless of the content of the encounter, the results would be the same’.

For me this was the thesis statement of the book, as we see both individuals and groups project their own beliefs onto Trisolarians. Some, driven by their hatred of humanity, see them as rightful judges, that too long we’ve gone unpunished. Others see the alien race as living gods, ready to give everything to them. Our deep-seeded fears become reality before our eyes. 

Science and Morality

Over and over there’s talk of ‘saving’ and ‘punishment’, and one character even declaring that ‘[n]o matter what the Trislarans are like, their arrival will be good news for the terminally ill human race.’ These sentiments aren’t from religious zealots, but from scientists, corporate titans, and philosophers. The characters believe that since the Trisolarians are ‘superior’ to humanity, then their decisions and judgement must be better.

But does science make a society more moral?

I think we’ve all read (and seen) examples of science devoid of humanity and empathy. Dark things have been done in the name of science. While necessary (and at times wonderful), being superior in technology or scientifically advanced does not equate being morally just or right. Being superior in one area doesn’t make a society superior in all areas.

For me, the characters who so desperately want the Trisolarians to arrive believe that humanity is broken to the point where we can’t fix it ourselves. They actually have no clue what will happen when the aliens arrive, only blind hope.

There’s so much more I can talk about with TBP (the pendulum!), but I think this is a good start for First Contact month. I do have to say that  underneath the hard core science is a heartbreaking story. One about how an individual’s experience in a cruel society set humanity on a collision course with an unknown alien species. Can’t wait for book two!

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