The Three Body Problem

This week’s reading was Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem [warning: spoilers].

Three Body Problem is a brilliant book. The core of the story uses China – and the Cultural Revolution – to illustrate how cruel, how brutal, and utterly backward humans can be – especially to intellectual thought and scientific progress.

Around this is, like a shell, is wrapped the actual three body problem: players in a mysterious computer game are trying to figure out how to accurately predict the sunrise and sunset on a planet which orbits three suns. In the end it turns out that the game is a simulation of a problem faced by an actual alien civilization; that, despairing of humanity, a bunch of scientists have invited the aliens to invade us.

And just as the act of contact makes us humans dream and fantasize about the aliens, the aliens, leaving behind their terribly unstable world, dream and fantasize of humanity and Earth. The book’s a huge hit in China – they’re even making a movie out of it.

Chinese sci-fi, like Chinese cinema, has a tone all of its own. The problems are novel, the approach is completely different, and the Three Body problem itself, which circles around the mathematics of predicting a planet’s movements, is leagues ahead of what most produce (it’s actually a four-body problem).

I do have a few complaints, though (and apparently so does Goodreads). The composition techniques are minimal, crude, almost spartan; characters are paper – just waiters serving up the intellectual desserts of the story. Even the story arcs are set up in an unexpected way – it’s not a smooth read. I don’t know if this is a characteristic of Chinese writing or the translation, but reading it feels like driving an old Mustang. You know there’s power under the hood, but it’s not a smooth ride.

Then there’s the three body problem itself that takes up so much of the book. In 1887, mathematicians Bruns and Poincaré ‘showed that there is no general analytical solution for the three-body problem given by algebraic expressions and integrals. The motion of three bodies is generally non-repeating, except in special cases.’

The three body problem is basically unsolvable by classical mechanics, except in some frankly strange and ridiculously rare configurations of the three bodies (see footnotes). As far as I can understand, we’ve even tackled this problem with quantum mechanics, but only by reducing the whole thing to a one-body problem (see Krivchenkov).

Thus, the search that takes up so much of the book is a fool’s errand (see footnotes). The set up for this fool’s errand is almost unbelievable. The scientists at the heart of this story, while having full access to the internet, seem to have no access to search engines or to previous research on the subject. Conversation feels unrealistic. The narrative is too full of deus ex machinas and characters that sound alike. This is a book that has never heard of ‘show, don’t tell’.

But there is a sustained sense of wonder, of philosophy, throughout the book, a sort of bookish drive that turns it into a strange balancing act. I don’t understand it, but I couldn’t put it down.

This is the kind of story built around an incredible idea, not the other way around. It’s the sort of story I grew up reading from Arthur Clarke and Phillip K. Dick – and it’s pushed me to look up an entire branch of math that I otherwise would have not found out about. There’s two more books in the series – I can’t wait to read them.

Further reading:

What is the three body problem?

Computing The Complex Singularities Of The Three Body Problem

Wired: this is the Only Way to Solve the Three Body Problem