Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

18 Aug 2015

(Novel) The Three-Body Problem by: Cixin Liu

(Reaction) Back to Basics by: Antonio Conejos

China accounts for almost 20% of the world’s total population. That’s more than a billion people. In this light it is not surprising then that Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem asks a simple question; can one life really make a difference? Does the individual matter? Or are we just cannon fodder for ideologies, movements, factions and parties.

For most of the novel the individual is subsumed by the group, ideologues and factions take over people and spit them out. Indeed the novel begins with Ye’s sister dying for ideology. Towards the end it is the former Red Guards who admit that the ideology they worshipped used them and spat them out, But so what if we’re back? We still have nothing… We can’t even find the worst jobs. No job, no money, no future. We have nothing.

It is precisely because of the despair that the individual cannot matter that Ye invites the Trisolaran civilization to come and invade Earth. Ye is fed up. She saw her father killed by ideology. She witnessed her mother perverted by ideology. She is a prisoner in a lonely research post because of ideology. Her betrayal of Earth is her final surrender to the forces which have pressed and attacker her for most of her life.

The message from Red Base One is a plea but it is also an admission. Man is irrevocably broken and no man can fix us. Ye believes we need a force outside of ourselves to reform us.

Evans, the true founder of the ETO, shares Ye’s abject doubt that any man can make a difference, The entire human race is the same, he complains to Ye. From West to East, ‘Everywhere, people are the same.

Indeed, the novel is bleak on the agency of individual people. Note how it depicts famous scientists and personages. The emperors and kings are all cruel, quick to murder people (though they are great organizers and are focal points for their empires). The scientists, brilliant though all of them are, prove to be useless; none of their discoveries or theories save civilization. Individual brilliance cannot win against the implacable force of nature. No one man can solve the three-body problem.

Three-Body the game places the most superlative of individuals, the ones most likely to be able to make a difference, and shows that they fail utterly. In the shadow of the pendulum, an acknowledgment that the Three Body problem cannot be solved, Einstein despairs. Civilizations before Einstein, Newton (vain, brilliant Newton) fled before a rare solar alignment rips the planet apart.

Brilliance is no match for nature, one man is powerless against the tide of fate.

It would be easy to conclude then that Three-Body (the novel) looks on human agency as futile.

But faced with the intractable the novel insists that an individual can make a positive difference in the world. This is the hope of the lone technician of Listening Post 1379. Faced with the exact same thoughts as Ye, the language in the novel for the technician parallels Ye’s thoughts precisely, he arrives at a different conclusion. He can make a difference. So he sends a message warning Earth, warning humanity away from his people.

The technician attempts a break from the ideology of his own people, proof that an individual can transcend the constellations of thoughts he has grown up with and been indoctrinated in. The technician himself is not even a superlative person in Trisolaran society, I’m an ordinary man living at the bottom of society.

He is stuck at a dead end job, dogged by the same fears ordinary humans have, In the last few years the listener had asked himself millions of times: Is this all there is to my life?... All that you have in this life is the endless loneliness in the tiny space of this listening post.

It is this completely ordinary person who dare to defy his king and entire civilization. When asked why, he simply replies, So, that my life isn’t wasted. The technician turns his back on his kind which he acknowledges prioritizes the collective over the individual, To permit the survival of the civilization as a whole, there is almost no respect for the individual.

Of course he does not succeed. Do we return then to square one then and conclude that the novel is arguing that the individual is irrelevant?

Even the Trisolarans though, the embodiment of the collective over the individual, acknowledge the primacy of the individual. The core of the Trisolaran plan is to negate the most basic principle of action. An atom can be broken down further into its components, solitary particles which combine to form reality. Similarly societies, movements, ideologies can be broken down into their most basic part: a single human life. People make up groups, it is the individual which gives groups their power.

Thus even Trisolaran civilization, the ultimate example of where an individual life does not matter, fears what an individual can accomplish. To deny mankind progress the Trisolaran’s inhibit the most basic part of reality. It is this most basic part, which is most powerful; just as in groups or movements that it is the individual which matters the most. Without individuals there can be no movements, without the ravings of a mad or brilliant person other people would not be inspired to revolt, coalesce into groups, unite under one banner.

The basic unit matters, whether it is the elementary particles of atoms or the lone individual in a crowd.


Man is a finite speck squeezed on all sides by distances and magnitudes so overwhelming they may as well be infinite. Look up at the sky and one sees stars infinitely far away, a universe receding and expanding. The universe grows bigger while we remain still. Aside from physical distance there is temporal distance. Beside geological time (millions of years) and cosmological time (billions of years) what is the worth of a couple of decades?

Three-Body tackles the philosophical notion of human worth juxtaposed against the vastness of time and space. The novel’s general tone is one of ennui and it’s hard for the reader not to get caught up in the novel’s pessimistic outlook. In short, it can be a depressing work, seen from a certain point of view.

The melancholic nature of the work aside, it was interesting to read a sci-fi book by a Chinese author. An author who apparently is quite popular in his native country. The dialogue feels a little stilted, which is not a crack against the author or the translator; this may just how Chinese dialogue sounds like to the Western ear.

Three-Body is a quiet book, one for rumination and reflection. There are no alien invasion scenes or explosions. (Although the bisecting of the ship in the Panama canal would probably look great on film.) It’s a serious work, more Dune than Foundation.

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