Book review: Three body problem

This book, by Cixin Liu, easily secures a place among the top 20 sci-fi books I have read. The book was 400 pages, but was very engaging. I felt sad when I found that I had finished book. I was happy again when I learned the book has two sequels. I am looking forward to reading the sequels.

The book started in a very engaging way with the discussion of cultural revolution. This was engaging for me because 1) I didn't know much about this period in Chinese history, and 2) I am an academic and I was aghast by what has been done to the academics and intellectuals at that period. I couldn't fathom such an ignorance was possible. But given the path Turkey has been going down during the past 10+ years, and given the descent of US politics to such a path, I  followed these descriptions in horror. I couldn't imagine things could get that bad and stay that bad that long.

The importance of basic science was very well emphasized in this book. The book had a meta message. It starts with cultural revolution where science was shunned/repressed, and after the events escalate in present day earth, the world is also in a place where science is repressed/undervalued. I did enjoy those parallels.

The book included cutbacks and forth to a VR game the protagonist played, called "Three body" game. This reminded me of the back-and-forth cuts in "Ender's Game" with the game Ender was playing on his device, and in Diamond Age with the stories the girl's book told, and the prelude sections in Godel-Escher-Bach book. The cut-back techniques used here was excellent. The fictional characters in the game referred to prominent scientist, and the game showed some parallels to the progression of science on Earth as well.

Cultural revolution 

Since I didn't know much about China's history, I first thought the cultural revolution descriptions in the book were fictional. It has got to be because it is so surreal how people bought into this stuff and how the entire country chose illiteracy over literacy and ceased to function for 10 years. Secondly, I thought, how come Cixin Liu, a Chinese author, write freely about this period and criticize it sharply. It turns out it is OK to criticize cultural revolution and Red Guards provided that you do not blame Chairman Mao for it. Even though he started the cultural revolution to purge intellectuals (who must be corrupted by Western influence), apparently he was innocent and unaware of the extent of the purge. (Four ministers in the party got blamed for the events afterwards.) This is of course absolutely ridiculous. What is sad is that crimes and madness of this magnitude goes unpunished and everyone was (or had to be) OK with it. But such is life. Unfortunately, as I get older, I shed my unfounded faith about the good in humanity----which is also a theme explored in this book.

But for this mass struggle session, the victims were the reactionary bourgeois academic authorities. These were the enemies of every faction, and they had no choice but to endure cruel attacks from every side. Compared to other “Monsters and Demons,” reactionary academic authorities were special: During the earliest struggle sessions, they had been both arrogant and stubborn. That was also the stage in which they had died in the largest numbers. Over a period of forty days, in Beijing alone, more than seventeen hundred victims of struggle sessions were beaten to death. Many others picked an easier path to avoid the madness: Lao She, Wu Han, Jian Bozan, Fu Lei, Zhao Jiuzhang, Yi Qun, Wen Jie, Hai Mo, and other once-respected intellectuals had all chosen to end their lives.
“Relativity is part of the fundamental theories of physics,” Ye answered. “How can a basic survey course not teach it?” “You lie!” a female Red Guard by his side shouted. “Einstein is a reactionary academic authority. He would serve any master who dangled money in front of him. He even went to the American Imperialists and helped them build the atom bomb! To develop a revolutionary science, we must overthrow the black banner of capitalism represented by the theory of relativity!” 
- “Should philosophy guide experiments, or should experiments guide philosophy?” Ye’s sudden counterattack shocked those leading the struggle session.   
- “Of course it should be the correct philosophy of Marxism that guides scientific experiments!” one of the male Red Guards finally said. “Then that’s equivalent to saying that the correct philosophy falls out of the sky. This is against the idea that the truth emerges from experience. It’s counter to the principles of how Marxism seeks to understand nature.”                

The revolution eats its children first. The Red Guards didn't get punished, but they didn't prosper either.
“Of the four of us, three had signed the big-character poster at the high school attached to Tsinghua. Revolutionary tours, the great rallies in Tiananmen, the Red Guard Civil Wars, First Red Headquarters, Second Red Headquarters, Third Red Headquarters, Joint Action Committee, Western Pickets, Eastern Pickets, New Peking University Commune, Red Flag Combat Team, The East is Red—we went through every single milestone in the history of the Red Guards from birth to death.” 
“Then, we were sent to the wilderness!” The thickset woman raised her arms. “Two of us were sent to Shaanxi, the other two to Henan, all to the most remote and poorest corners. When we first went, we were still idealistic, but that didn’t last. After a day of laboring in the fields, we were so tired that we couldn’t even wash our clothes. We lay in leaky straw huts and listened to wolves cry in the night, and gradually we woke from our dreams. We were stuck in those forgotten villages and no one cared about us at all.” The one-armed woman stared at the ground numbly. “While we were down in the countryside, sometimes, on a trail across the barren hill, I’d bump into another Red Guard comrade or an enemy. We’d look at each other: the same ragged clothes, the same dirt and cow shit covering us. We had nothing to say to each other.”  
“Tang Hongjing was the girl who gave your father the fatal strike with her belt. She drowned in the Yellow River. There was a flood that carried off a few of the sheep kept by the production team. So the Party secretary called to the sent-down students, ‘Revolutionary youths! It’s time to test your mettle!’ And so, Hongjing and three other students jumped into the river to save the sheep.
The cold winter of the Cultural Revolution really was over, and everything was springing back to life. Even though the calamity had just ended, everything was in ruins, and countless men and women were licking their wounds. The dawn of a new life was already evident.  
Science and technology were the only keys to opening the door to the future, and people approached science with the faith and sincerity of elementary school students.


From here on there are big spoilers. Read on the rest, only if you have read the book. It is a great book, and you shouldn't spoil your enjoyment by reading my discussion of the plot.

The cultural revolution days set the background for Ye Wenjie, one of the key figures in the story, and her choice which affects the fate of humanity. From Ye Wenjie's days working on the radio observatory at Red Coast, the book skips to the present day, to another protagonist Wang Miao, a nanotechnology professor who was contacted by a secretive "Frontiers of Science" group. After that Wang starts seeing a countdown in his camera and then in his eyes/retinas. At this point things escalated quickly. The pace of the book went from slow to uncomfortably fast. At this point, I was convinced  the only explanation for this "miracle" is the simulation hypothesis (that we are living in a simulation), because no natural force can pull of this miracle.

Later I learned that Ye Wenjie did invite Trisolarians (an alien race living on a planet 4 light years away) to invade the Earth. Then I started to wonder how the book will be able to explain this countdown timer miracle as a technology of the alien race. But the book delivered on this at the end. The answer was the sophon project, a 2-D supercomputer folded into a 11-d proton! This was simply awesome!

I really liked the reveal of three suns as the cause of chaotic and stable eras in the Trisolarian planetary system in the Three Body VR game. The game also revealed details about the Trisolarian society. Their society was interesting. It is an autocratic and very socialist society (maybe sort of hinting back to the Chinese government again).

Shi Qiang, or detective Da Shi, was a very interesting character. The ship slicing scene with nano-wires was unreal. It was very gory, and I don't think it was warranted. (After I read this, I had a nightmare about it.) But how could the people on the ship not detect the problem earlier. If they see other people getting sliced 10 meters ahead, they can easily run back, sound an alarm and warn others. Also why didn't the sophons warn the ship about the trap? Given that they are super-AI and omnipresent and omniseeing, they had a good chance to detect this, no?

Selected notes from the book

“In China, any idea that dared to take flight would only crash back to the ground. The gravity of reality is too strong.” 
“Theory is the foundation of application. Isn’t discovering fundamental laws the biggest contribution to our time?” 
“At the same time, they want to ruin science’s reputation in society. Of course some people have always engaged in anti-science activities, but now it’s coordinated.” 
“Everyone is afraid of something. The enemy must be, too. The more powerful they are, the more they have to lose to their fears.”
After calming himself and walking to the other end of the long table, Wang said, “It’s actually pretty simple. The reason why the sun’s motion seems patternless is because our world has three suns. Under the influence of their mutually perturbing gravitational attraction, their movements are unpredictable—the three-body problem. When our planet revolves around one of the suns in a stable orbit, that’s a Stable Era. When one or more of the other suns move within a certain distance, their gravitational pull will snatch the planet away from the sun it’s orbiting, causing it to wander unstably through the gravitational fields of the three suns. That’s a Chaotic Era. After an uncertain amount of time, our planet is once again pulled into a temporary orbit and another Stable Era begins. This is a football game at the scale of the universe. The players are the three suns, and our planet is the football.”
Pan studied everyone meaningfully, and then added in a soft voice, “How would you feel if Trisolaran civilization were to enter our world?” “I would be happy.” The young reporter was the first to break the silence. “I’ve lost hope in the human race after what I’ve seen in recent years. Human society is incapable of self-improvement, and we need the intervention of an outside force.” 
“And it is this: The human race is an evil species. Human civilization has committed unforgivable crimes against the Earth and must be punished. The ultimate goal of the Adventists is to ask our Lord to carry out this divine punishment: the destruction of all humankind.” 
“Pan-Species Communism. It’s an ideology I invented. Or maybe you can call it a faith. Its core belief is that all species on Earth are created equal.”
They are sealing off the progress of human science. Because of the existence of these two protons, humanity will not be able to make any important scientific developments during the four and a half centuries until the arrival of the Trisolaran Fleet. Evans once said that the day of arrival of the two protons was also the day that human science died. 
Charcoal inside a filter is three-dimensional. Their adsorbent surfaces, however, are two-dimensional. Thus, you can see how a tiny high-dimensional structure can contain a huge low-dimensional structure. 
You will never be as good at it as criminals, masters of out-of-the-box thinking.                
“That flower may be delicate, but it possesses peerless splendor. She enjoys freedom and beauty in the ease of paradise.” 
The science consul said, “Project Sophon, to put it simply, aims to transform a proton into a superintelligent computer.” 
“This is a science fantasy that most of us have heard about,” the agricultural consul said. “But can it be realized? I know that physicists can already manipulate nine of the eleven dimensions of the micro-scale world, but we still can’t imagine how they could stick a pair of tiny tweezers into a proton to build large-scale integrated circuits.
A particle seen from a seven-dimensional perspective has a complexity comparable to our Trisolaran stellar system in three dimensions. From an eight-dimensional perspective, a particle is a vast presence like the Milky Way. When the perspective has been raised to nine dimensions, a fundamental particle’s internal structures and complexity are equal to the whole universe. As for even higher dimensions, our physicists haven’t been able to explore them, so we cannot yet imagine the degree of complexity.” 
The science consul said, “A sophon has been born. We have endowed a proton with wisdom. This is the smallest artificial intelligence that we can make.”
“As soon as we increase the dimensionality of this proton, it will become very small.       
“Princeps, the sphere we see now is not the complete sophon. It’s only the projection of the sophon’s body into three-dimensional space. It is, in fact, a giant in four-space, and our world is like a thin, three-dimensional sheet of paper.
Yes. I can see the control center, everyone inside, and the organs inside everyone, even the organs inside your organs.
“A sophon observing three-space from six-space is akin to us looking at a picture on a two-dimensional plane. Of course it can see inside us.”      
“It’s not exactly going ‘through.’ Rather, it’s entering from a higher dimension. It can enter any enclosed space within our world. This is again similar to the relationship between us, existing in three-space, and a two-dimensional plane. We can easily enter any circle drawn on the plane by coming in from above. But no two-dimensional creature on the plane can do such a thing without breaking the circle.” 
“After the two sophons arrive on Earth, their first mission is to locate the high-energy particle accelerators used by humans for physics research and hide within them.
The study of the deep structure of matter is the foundation of the foundations of all other sciences. If there’s no progress here, everything else—I’ll put it your way—is bullshit.”


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