May 23, 2017


Friday, May 19, 2017

One star is better than three

By Nicolás Meyer
For The Herald

You should thank your lucky stars that our solar system has just one sun. While two might be survivable, three stars would cause such a monstrous mess all around them that the phrase ought to be about thanking a lucky “star,” in singular. That realisation lies at the heart of a devilishly ingenious, highly readable hit novel from China, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem. (The family name is Liu).

It so happens that an apparently simple problem, predicting the paths of just three objects after they start moving, is beyond what science can do — if the objects exert a measurable gravitational pull on one another (or a nuclear tug, if they’re sub-atomic particles). Calculating paths is easy with three billiard balls, say — but that’s because the gravitational pull among them is so extremely small it can’t affect their movements as far as we can notice.

Three suns would move in ways impossible to predict, and for “people” on planets around them it wouldn’t just be a problem of never knowing when it’ll be day or night. The stars would from time to time align in ways as deadly as they’re unforeseeable.

Liu has constructed not just a novel around this, but three: the present book is the first in a trilogy, although it can be read as a separate whole. (In this case, the trajectories of the following two can be safely predicted: they will sell hugely too). The plot involves a layered rivalry between Earth and a distant planet, Trisolaris, afflicted with three suns. Liu also throws in other elements, notably China’s Cultural Revolution, the human propensity to turn undecipherable forces into deities, and the issue of human progress in general, scientific or otherwise. So, although this suspenseful book is definitely science fiction, it’s more than “just” that.

Among the scenes that stand out is the operation of a non-electronic computer using millions of soldiers instructed to each hold up either a black or a white pennant, depending on what combination of black or white pennants they see two other soldiers raise. Or Chinese scientists risking trouble, in Mao’s time, with any experiment involving the sun, since the sun was also a symbol of the Great Helmsman himself. Or a scary inauguration of a nanotechnology “weapon,” even if it’s for a good cause. Or the fantastic unfolding of extra dimensions scientists believe are rolled up inside elementary particles.

Additionally, it’s fascinating to trace elements of Chinese thinking even in matters non-Chinese here. The idea of an endless row of civilisations rising and falling on Trisolaris, although grounded in the three-sun situation, is hard to see as unrelated to the Chinese consciousness of most of their history as one dynasty fated to follow another— i.e., unlike the Western view of history as a succession of stages, each one largely regarded as a step up, save for the (arguable) “Dark Ages” relapse. Although humour isn’t what this book is about, it’s funny to see Chinese scientists write a first draft of a message to extraterrestrials in Maoist terms: “Place yourselves on the side of justice, place yourselves on the side of the Revolution!”

Liu clearly has a thorough international grounding, but on occasion he can’t help making even Trisolarians sound like stilted Chinese bureaucrats: “Mr. Science Advisor, I apologise for the disrespectful way I have treated the Sofon project up to this point.”

The writing is straightforward. Still, it’s embroidered with many metaphors and similes, though close together in some sections and far apart in others. There are some lapses. Four small ones: a US colonel in the story would, given his lengthy, successful career, be a general — and on page 354, the author himself slips and calls him a general. “An old woman” turns out to be 60. A police commissioner, whose actions are always reported as observed by others, is disconcertingly followed through what he alone hears for just a few important lines. It’s inexplicable that he doesn’t arrest a key suspected killer.

Worse: after giving detailed, bizarro-plausible explanations of every other wondrous scientific trick pulled off, Liu blithely announces that protons have been caused to “extract energy from the void” to accelerate, without further elucidation.

Worst: why don’t all Trisolarians live underground? And why make special protons individually if they have the quality of... I can’t say without a spoiler.

Now, from an other-country perspective, not Liu’s, would it be interesting to see the effects of three powerful bodies on their surroundings as an allegory of the US, Russia and China?

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