Liu Cixin’s ‘The Three Body Problem’ is a wonderful mix of science fiction, political history mixed together into a detective drama. It’s the first in a three volume set.
Set in China from the Cultural Revolution to the near future, it’s full of clashing perspectives, scientific speculation and a set of characters ranging from the heroic to the psychotic. The author has found a way of raising confronting ethical and political problems without engaging directly with the politics of Communist China. Hard to summarise, it sweeps up environmentalism, science, oppression, militarism and complex family histories into a fast moving imaginative world.
The mind of one of the main characters – Ye Wenjie – has been twisted out of shape by her experience of watching her scientist father beaten, tortured and killed by Red Guards in 1967, although she lives on in a niche tolerated by the authorities and leaves a defining mark on humanity.
The story is centred on a real world mathematical challenge, stretched and elaborated by Liu over the novel. This maths problem has defining implications for humanity and our planet.
Most of the characters are scientists, officials or both, but my favourite character is the hardnosed detective Shi Qiang. He refuses to get lost in the speculations and hopelessness of the main character and instead centres his thinking on something that remains pretty consistent and predictable – the behaviours and motivations of people through time.
As he says: ‘Buddy, when I work at night, if I look up at the sky, the suspect is going to escape. […] To be honest, even if I were to look at the stars in this sky, I wouldn’t be thinking about your philosophical questions. I have too much to worry about! I gotta pay the mortgage, save for the kids’ college, and handle the endless stream of cases […] You think that’s not enough for me to worry about? You think I’ve got the energy to gaze at stars and philosophize?’
Despite Shi Qiang’s grounded detective mind, The Three Body Problem forces you to philosophise while also making you reflect on whether humanity can cooperate in the face of existential challenges. It also provides insights into how different political systems and ideologies can affect and shape individuals, and how periods of history like that experienced in China under Mao leave a long trail into our own times.
It’s also simply a deep, involving read that takes you out of your own world and place.