By Mark Alpert
After I read an interesting novel, I like to devote some time to thinking about it, contemplating what I liked about the book, what I didn’t like, which characters were the most intriguing, and which plot twists were the most exciting. It’s a useful exercise for a writer. Plus, it’s fun.
This week I finished reading a trilogy of science-fiction novels by Chinese author Liu Cixin: The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End. The novels were published in China between 2008 and 2010, and the English translations came out between 2014 and 2016. The first book in the Three-Body trilogy won the Hugo Award and the third book won the Locus. Former president Barack Obama called the series “wildly imaginative.” (Wow, a blurb from Obama! Very nice.)
I was hooked from the start, because the first chapter was so unusual for a sci-fi novel. It portrayed a scene from the Cultural Revolution, the fanatical anti-intellectual movement that devastated Chinese society during the 1960s and 1970s. Ye Wenjie, a student in Beijing, sees her father, a physics professor, beaten to death in a public square by frenzied Red Guards. Afterward, she’s exiled to the countryside, but soon she’s assigned to work at a military base on a mountaintop where there’s a huge radio antenna. Eventually she realizes that the purpose of this base is to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.
(Warning: there are some spoilers ahead, but this sci-fi trilogy is so packed with inventive surprises that I don’t think revealing a few of them would truly spoil a reader’s enjoyment of the books.)
The intended point of the novel’s first section is that Ye is devastated by her father’s public execution and develops a very low opinion of humanity in general, so low that she becomes actively nihilist. To be honest, the author doesn’t quite succeed in this task of showing the character’s development. Ye comes across as somewhat numbed by the traumatic events of the Cultural Revolution, but I never sensed her secret thoughts, the formation of her new moral philosophy. In retrospect, Liu could’ve done a better job of portraying the mental leap that Ye made, the seeds of the radical actions that she would take later in the book. Perhaps the author didn’t want to tip his hand, telegraph the surprise he’d planned? As all novelists know, this is a tricky balance. You don’t want to give away the store, but at the same time you also need to build a foundation for an upcoming plot twist, to ensure that it doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere.
In any case, the surprise is powerful. The radio antenna at Ye’s base receives a signal while she’s working alone on the night shift, a message from the Centauri star system, which is our solar system’s closest neighbor (about four light-years away). The extraterrestrials — called Trisolarans because the Centauri system consists of three stars gravitationally bound to one another — have detected radio transmissions from Earth, and their first response is a dire warning from a Trisolaran pacifist who knows all too well the aggressive intentions of his fellow aliens. He urges Earthlings not to respond to any radio messages from Trisolaris, because doing so will reveal the exact position of Earth’s solar system. But because of Ye’s disdain for the human species, she responds anyway: Come here! I will help you conquer this world. Our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems. We need your force to intervene.
This message puts an epic story in motion. Even for a highly advanced civilization, the task of conquering another star system isn’t easy. It’s extraordinarily difficult to accelerate spacecraft to even a small fraction of the speed of light, so it’ll take the Trisolaran invasion fleet hundreds of years to cross the void between their star system and ours. Most of the Three-Body trilogy focuses on the Earth’s desperate efforts to defend itself, building its own space fleet during the 21st and 22nd centuries and concocting various strategies to outsmart the Trisolarans. Those efforts are hindered by a fifth column of traitorous Earthlings who, like Ye Wenjie, believe our planet would be better off under alien control. The motives of the traitors seem perverse, but they’re also strangely familiar. As this week’s events in New Zealand showed, our species has no shortage of deluded fanatics.
The three novels, particularly the first one, have some weaknesses. The quality of the writing isn’t stellar (pun intended), although this might be the result of the translation. Many of the characters aren’t fleshed out; Wang Miao, the main point-of-view character in the first book, is practically a blank. I also didn’t get a good sense of what the Trisolarans are like, which is probably the biggest missed opportunity in the trilogy. The novel’s human characters (and by extension, the reader) learn about Trisolaran culture and biology through a virtual-reality computer game that the traitorous Earthlings play; this game, called Three Body, shows that much of Trisolaran history was shaped by the chaotic movements of the three stars in the Centauri system, which alternately boiled and froze the aliens’ home planet in a wildly random pattern. To mitigate the damage, the aliens tried to learn to predict the orbital movements of their three stars, but they never succeeded; as any physicist can tell you, the Three-Body Problem is notoriously difficult to solve, even with a powerful computer. This dilemma helps to explain why the Trisolarans are so eager to conquer our solar system, which is a stable, orderly paradise compared with theirs.
Unfortunately, this fascinating fictional premise doesn’t apply to the real-life Centauri system, which consists of two sun-like stars (Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B) that orbit their center of gravity in a predictable way, and a much smaller red-dwarf star (Proxima Centauri) that orbits the other two at a great distance, also very predictably. (Because Proxima is so much smaller than A and B and so distant from them, there are no mathematical difficulties in this particular Three-Body Problem.) The chaotic orbital dynamics might apply to a planet orbiting relatively close to A and B, but not to the stars themselves. This error would’ve been very easy to fix, so it’s a shame that it crept into the novels. I noticed a few other mistakes in the trilogy: a stellar explosion in the Centauri system wouldn’t be visible from Earth’s northern hemisphere; twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon, not fifteen; Pluto and its moon Charon are tidally locked with one another, so the moon would appear to be stationary to an observer on Pluto’s surface. (Liu Cixin, if you’re reading this, please allow me to vet your next manuscript. I’m good at spotting these astrophysical errors!)
But Liu’s story is too good to be ruined by a few factual mistakes. The trilogy becomes more and more compelling as the narrative progresses into the 23rd and 24th centuries. The human characters discover that the Trisolarans aren’t the only threat they face. In fact, the whole galaxy is packed with technologically superior species competing for the Milky Way’s resources, and most of these extraterrestrials have no qualms at all about exterminating potential rivals. Any emerging civilization must hide its presence; if it sends out too many radio signals, a more advanced species will swiftly destroy the upstarts’ star system. In the Three-Body trilogy, the universe resembles a dark forest in which hunters are lurking everywhere and the prey must stay silent to survive. This fictional scenario is a clever solution to the paradox named after physicist Enrico Fermi, who famously wondered why humans haven’t observed any signs of extraterrestrials in a galaxy that should (statistically at least) be full of them. We haven’t seen any aliens, Liu says, because they’re all hiding.
Here’s another reason why I liked this trilogy: it shows a future human civilization that blends Western and Eastern influences. In Liu’s novels, China and America remain separate nations, but scientists from both countries team up against the Trisolaran threat. Their cultures intermingle too; people born in future centuries have names that combine English words and Mandarin characters. I visited China several years ago to research one of my novels (Extinction), and I came away with the strong hope that America and China can learn to peacefully coexist. We don’t need extraterrestrials to seal our doom; if we’re not careful, we’ll stumble into an apocalypse all by ourselves.
Want to see another weird connection between fiction and real life? My new novel THE COMING STORM was foreshadowed thirty years ago by a conversation I had with a certain New York real-estate mogul who later decided to run for president. Read this for the details.