Desperate times call for escapist measures. Former US president Barack Obama, in an interview with the New York Times earlier this year, talked about escaping into the world of the “three-body problem” to provide a respite from petty Congressional tussles. Who really cared about what the Congress does or doesn’t do when aliens are about to invade?

Few would disagree that since Obama left the scene, the world situation has become increasingly dire and the desire to escape to someplace else, even if the place is about to be invaded by aliens, has never seemed more tempting.

As I settled down to read The Three-Body Problem (coming to a theatre near you later this year), the first of Liu Cixin’s best-selling, Hugo-award winning trilogy, translated from Chinese by the American writer Ken Liu, a Hugo winner himself, it struck me, an on-and-off genre fiction reader, how hard science fiction seems to be a largely Anglo-American endeavour. As if on cue, my daughter sat on the other end of the sofa reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but I held fast to my theory anyway.

From the days of HG Wells and Aldous Huxley through the many Strange and Astounding magazines of the inter-war period to the Age of the Big Three (Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein), this was a genre shaped by motion pictures, air travel, the two world wars, the Cold War and the space age. Full of spaceships, aliens, robots, galactic empires, post-apocalyptic Earth and the ever expanding universe, these books proudly identified themselves as genre fiction refusing to worry about the literature label that the rest of the world aspired to.

The machines and robots in these books typically had more character than all the humans put together but we didn’t care as there were enough ideas – omniscient machines, psychohistory, laws of robotics, first contact, space colonies, questions of entropy – to keep the inner geek in us happy and entertained. Like most grown-ups though, I had crossed over to the soft and speculative side long back but the idea of an original Chinese hard sci-fi series, especially one recommended by Obama, was too good not to try.

Warning: spoilers ahead

At the heart of the The Three-Body Problem is the idea that our friendly neighbourhood aliens with superior technology may not be friendly after all and they are more likely to attempt to eliminate the human species as soon as they come into contact with us. This isn’t a particularly new idea, unless Cixin somehow missed seeing Independence Day in his younger days, but don’t fear. There is not much of Independence Day in this book.

The book begins with a flashback to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China, where scientists and intellectuals are being persecuted by student gangs. Young astrophysicist Ye Wenjie watches her father being publicly murdered by Red Guards for holding on to imperialistic theories such as Relativity and the Big Bang. She is then sent to a labour camp where between hours of mindless work meant to set her free, she is befriended by a reporter who gets her into trouble with the authorities.

Before she is prosecuted, however, she is rescued by two young men and whizzed away to a top-secret military base whose purpose is not very clear. So far, other than for a few allusions to the future importance of Ye Wenjie, there is no sign of aliens. If anything, given the current intellectual climate or lack of it, this world is not at all different from the times we inhabit.

The darkness, and the games

Cut to the near future, where Wang, a nano-materials researcher, finds himself in the middle of an international investigation into why scientists – especially theorists and physicists – seem to be committing suicide in droves. The deaths are usually preceded by a period where they question everything they know to be true about the universe. Wang, a completely void plot device with no agency whatsoever, is drawn to a virtual reality game in the process of investigation and from this point on, the book finds its pace and footing.

The game episodes are easily the most fascinating chapters in the book; they are also awe-inspiring in the sense that if the film studio pulls these scenes off, we know where the technical Oscars are going next year. The game is set in a strange world that goes through extreme periods of heat and cold (Chaotic Era) and where civilisation progresses during the in-between temperate times (Stable Era). No one knows, or can predict, when a chaotic era will arrive, but they know for certain that it leads to collapse and civilisation has to begin all over again, usually from scratch, during the next stable era.

After a few episodes, Wang gets the question right – the game world is a Trisolar world and the problem then is the same as the famed “three-body problem” in physics, which is to work out the trajectory of three bodies interacting with one another under a gravitational force. Liu Cixin draws into each episode characters from Chinese history and culture, and the best of them all is one involving a duelling Newton and von Neumann convincing Emperor Qin – of terracotta army fame – to use this entire force as a giant computing machine. (No, the problem remains unsolvable.)

Trailer: 'The Three Body Problem'

Slippery slope

Things move quickly but somewhat unevenly from here. It turns out that the Trisolaran world is actually real and it is only about four light years from Earth. Ye Wenjie, who lost faith in humanity long back, had opened up our world to the Trisolarans during her time at the base though she knew well that it wouldn’t end well for Earthlings. The Trisolarans, by now, have realised the impossibility of trying to predict the course of the suns and are focused on invading other habitable planets. It will take about 450 years to get to Earth but they need to make sure that humans didn’t make significant technological advances during that time. They develop a three pronged strategy to achieve this.

One, drive scientists to suicide by showing them sufficiently advanced technologies which is indistinguishable from magic. Since none of these pure-science types read Arthur C Clarke, they fall for it and either go mad or commit suicide. Two, the Trisolarans send a couple of supernatural protons who can, among other things, jam all the particle accelerators on the planet, making sure no advances can be made in this area.

Three, they sign up humans amenable to their cause using the virtual reality game as a recruitment device. As is to be expected with humans, the original group splits into various cults mirroring our religious outfits, and fight with one another. With this level of fighting it is difficult to see how this conspiracy is a secret kept away from the rest of the world, but somehow it has been until Wang blunders into it.

Here, Liu Cixin explores his other central idea – regardless of the magnitude of the first contact event, it is the long waiting game that may be more dangerous. The first of the trilogy ends on a depressing note with some of the leaders of the cults being wiped out by the good guys only to realise that we can do nothing to the all-powerful protons, so we may as well resign to our fate. There is a silver lining though – the knowledge that while we may be but bugs in comparison to the superior aliens, bugs tend to survive.

Science of the matter

The Three-Body Problem is an exciting book from a hard-science perspective – there is actually a lot of science in it – the titular three body, nano-blades, the sun as amplifier – most of which is up to date and explained in a straightforward manner that makes it sufficiently comprehensible. Of course, Liu Cixin does stretch the science a bit, especially with the supernatural protons, but then that is the whole point of science fiction.

There is also a significant amount of sociology in here – of censorship, climate change, first contact, moral dilemmas of industrial societies – some of it simplistic but interesting nevertheless. Beyond this, there is the novelty of a narrative like this being rooted in Chinese history and culture rather than the Anglo-American one we are used to. In this context, Ken Liu’s translator’s notes at the end explaining Chinese puns and references makes for interesting reading.

Yes, there are too many characters, very thinly drawn and all over the place but it doesn’t seem to matter very much – that this is not a book about individuals and internal angst is clear from the start. This is a “collective” book, about the future of humankind and in a perverse way, it makes sense that there is no individual to root for or to relate to here.

I am saving the other two books in the series for the next executive order from the US president, or the next Indian election, as those are times when an alien invasion is clearly the most appealing of choices available.

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu, Head of Zeus