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Book Review: The Three Body Problem

Since I was young, I have enjoyed a good science fiction story. Childhood’s End and Dune remain some of my favorite books. So I was happy I had time while working in Geneva to read The Three-Body Problem, a story that combines politics, religion, the environmental movement, an alien invasion, and spans decades of modern Chinese history. Thanks to my friend, Yee Chern Yap, for the recommendation.

On its surface, the book is about an impending alien invasion. The aliens, only being able to travel at a fraction of the speed of light, will not arrive for another 400 years. Humanity must grapple with this fact and prepare itself in the intervening period. The governments of the United States and China put aside their differences to unite against this existential threat. Globally, factions have developed, some welcoming the alien invaders while others plan to resist. However, the book richly covers the geopolitical state of China during the Cultural Revolution and its legacy on the characters up to the present day.

The environmental movement also plays an important role in the story. The author devotes a chapter to the effect the book, Silent Spring, had on one of the characters, Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist sent to the countryside to do manual labor: cutting down forests. Unfortunately, because of the book’s origin in the ‘imperialist’ United States, Ye ends up being imprisoned and ultimately rescued, setting the stage for the rest of the book.

The Cultural Revolution is a very personal event for my family. My grandfather was imprisoned as one of those who had associations with the Soviet Union. He had studied chemical engineering in Kiev and became suspect as relations worsened between the two communist countries. Reading about the struggle sessions and the persecution of the innocent reminded me of the stories my grandparents and parents would tell me about that period.

Although a work of fiction, the author captured the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and personalized it, an entire generation lost.

“At the end, and adult and a child stand in front of the grave of a Red Guard who had died during the faction civil wars. The child asks the adult, ‘Are they heroes?’ The adult says no. The child asks, ‘Are they enemies?’ The adult again says no. The child asks, ‘Then who are they?’ The adult says, ‘History.'”

There were a few political history nuggets strewn about the book, this was my favorite:

“One time, during a political study session, I announced that China should cease to be a separate country and join the USSR as a member republic.”

I’m not sure if that was genuinely a contemporary thought for the Chinese intelligentsia. This was the first time I encountered this idea.

Some other passages I liked:

“”More than three hundred years! A dozen generations. When this tree was but a shrub, it was still the Ming Dynasty. During all these years, can you imagine how many storms it had weathered, how many events it had witnessed? But in a few minutes you cut it down. You really felt nothing?” “What do you want me to feel?” Ma Gang gave a blank look, “It’s just a tree. The only things we don’t lack around here are trees. There are plenty of other trees much older than this one.” “It’s alright. Go back to work.” Bai shook his head, sat down on the stump, and sighed.””

“Everything was warm and intense: the heated kang stove-beds lined with thick layers of ura sedge, the Guandong and Mohe tobacco stuffed in copper pipes, the thick and heavy sorghum meal, the sixty-five-proof baijiu distilled from sorghum–all of these blended into a quiet and peaceful life, like the creek at the edge of the village.”

“From time to time, I would gaze up at the stars after a night shift and think that they looked like a glowing desert, and I myself was a poor child abandoned in the desert…The universe was an empty palace, and humankind the only ant in the entire palace. This kind of thinking infused the second half of my life with a conflicted mentality: Sometimes I thought life was precious, and everything was so important; but other times I thought humans were insignificant, and nothing was worthwhile. Anyway, my life passed day after day accompanied by this strange feeling, and before I knew it, I was old…”

Overall, I found the book enjoyable to read although I thought the description of the alien’s society mirrored too closely with humanity which made it less interesting. With that being said, I came away from the book feeling that maybe we do need an impending alien invasion to have humanity focus away from our meaningless infighting.

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