The Three Body Problem
I just finished reading The Three Body Problem. It’s a fantastic book, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Below are some rough thoughts on the book. Probably only relevant if you’ve already read it.
It seems to have been born of two weighty lineages. The first could be said to originate with Dostoevsky. In particular, the famous Grand Inquisitor section from The Brothers Karamazov, or something like this:
Other books in a similar vein might be Brave New World or The Time Machine. In short, a tradition which speculatively considers the question of human freedom in relation to the question of the (im)possibility of ‘utopia’. Theses books consider the question from a more ‘universalistic’ perspective.
The second lineage of the book places it more firmly in late-twentieth century works which reflect, more concretely, actual 20th century histories of colonisation and genocide.
I’ve called both of these strands ’lineages’, but I’m just making this up as I go along. I’d say that, to me at least, the first group of texts - Dostoevsky, Huxley, Wells, etc. - represent studies/explorations of the general psychology of the human. The second set of texts, which might include works by people like Herzog (Fitzcaraldo, Aguire) or Bela Tarr maybe (Satantango), still aim at developing a general/philosophical portrait of the human, but do so against the backdrop of real 20th Century horrors and contradictions. The difference between the two traditions might be most strongly felt in the difference between the original context of the Flight of the Valkyries (the Ring cycle) and the use of it in Apocalypse Now. Wagner’s Ring cycle is arguably the most dense and complex cultural text ever produced in the West. But, compared to the real-life historical, political, geo-political, moral, psychological, etc, contradictions of the Vietnam war, the Ring Cycle seems like a fairy tale. The use of the piece in the film is like some kind of cultural-political short-circuit; too much is happening - the aesthetic apex of Western history is grotesquely and triumphantly overlaid on a horrific scene of mass murder carried out by the U.S. state. Indeed, the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard (of The Postmodern Condition fame) cited the Valkyries helicopter scene as an ‘acinematic’ moment - a moment of extreme material intensity that sort of ‘breaks’ the surrounding text/form.
Of course, it’s impossible to really evaluate/understand The Grand Inquisitor, for example, in a context where we haven’t witnessed first-hand the depths and depravity of the ‘free’ human spirit in the 20th century. For us, The Grand Inquisitor is extremely terrifying because of what it appears to foreshadow. So, maybe it’s not right to separate it from texts like Apocalypse Now or Satantango. Although these texts consider similar questions against a more visceral historical background, the Dostoevsky text also probably has this background implicitly factored in for contemporary readers.
Anyway, the point is that The Three Body problem seems to utilise both forms. On the one hand, it uses the horrors of the Cultural Revolution to ground a lot of its claims about humans, but on the other, it is also highly speculative and thought-experimenty like Dostoevsky or Huxley. This mix produces a strange effect.
I’ve only just finished the first book of the trilogy, so I’ve no idea where it goes (I intend to read the remainder as soon as possible), but this book, taken on its own, is extremely pessimistic. It’s pessimistic both in the same way that Dostoevsky is pessimistic (the pessimism that arises through rigorous philosophical reflection, also found in Schopenhauer) and also in the way that Apocalypse Now or Satantango is pessimistic (simply presenting the historical facts of the actions of both the U.S. and communist states in the 20th century). And, I guess it is also pessimistic in a third way - there is no ‘outside’ point to escape to, no benevolent civilisation or eden-like planet to travel to. Come to think of it, it is pessimistic in a fourth way too - even science cannot save us. This point is indirectly felt in the scene where the Solarians are testing their particle accelerator. This, quasi-magical, scene is like the supreme ’endpoint’ of science - absolute mastery over matter. Yet, the scene is framed in such a strange way. The ‘miracles’ produced by the experiments are simply inconveniences on the way to the true purpose of the science - paralysing and conquering another species. Even something like discovering a ‘sentient’ life-form/life-world within a single particle is taken up as a potential propaganda point - civilisations are destroyed all the time.
As a side note, I really loved how the booked framed scientific progress in terms of our relation to matter. Like, how stone tools and computers are all on the same interpretive/scientific level, since they operate on the bases of a simple model of a particle. Qualitative differences/leaps only occur once matter itself is ‘unfolded’ or unravelled more.
Anyway, this isn’t much of a review of the book. There is so much more that could be written about it. I just wanted to jot down my first impressions. One thing that I could say, maybe, is that the comparisons I’ve made, to Dostoevsky, Herzog, Coppola, Bela Tarr, etc., highlight that, even though the book is of course reflective of and woven of the cultural/historical fabric of China (the footnotes are so useful in this regard), its ‘form’ borrows a lot from ‘Western’ traditions. I may be wrong about these comparisons though. But, if the novel indeed borrows a lot from Western canons (which of also contain the majority of ‘classic’ science-fiction texts), then this may also explain its extreme pessimism. For example, both Fitzcaraldo and Apocalypse Now (via Heart of Darkness) deal with the question of the European colonisation of Latin America. They do so through the eyes of the ’enlightened’/‘free’ Western ‘man’. The result is a nihilistic, almost self-pitying portrayal of the European post-enlightenment ‘project’. But texts which deal with the same historical facts from an alternative (non-Western) perspective often do better in salvaging a kind of ‘hope’ from these situations. For example, Zama, by Lucrecia Martel, has a similar protagonist (the European, ‘free’ man) in a similar context, but here his contradictions are more clownish, more baffonish. The hope lies in the death of this ’type’ - due to their irresolvable contradictions - and the opening for alternative voices and perspectives on ‘freedom’. The history of Western civilisation has produced many aporias, as has the history of the modern Chinese state (The Three Body Problem also dramatises many aporia’s of contemporary civilisation) but, an aporia is not simply an ’end’ to thinking, it can also be a beginning of a new, non-programmatic from of thought.
Perhaps, in this sense, The Tree Body Problem is a little too ‘sincere’ about the death of human civilisation. At the end, it’s represented in the form of a ‘sunset’, a beautiful, but problematic, soul passing away into the universe.
That said, this image is preceded by the image of the persistent ’locusts’, the ‘remainders’ that can never fully be mastered/understood through science and technology. In this metaphor, perhaps, there is an alternative path for human civilisation. I can’t wait to see which path is pursued by Liu Cixin in the rest of the story.