The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, begins in the midst of the heat and chaos of the Cultural Revolution in China. Revolutionary groups battle each other in the streets, a young fighter is shot and falls to her death from a building, and zealous teenage students beat a scientist named Ye Shao to death in front of a bloodthirsty crowd. Before he is killed, Ye Shao has this final conversation with his interrogators:
“Should philosophy guide experiments, or should experiments guide philosophy?”
“Of course it should be the correct philosophy of Marxism that guides scientific experiments!” one of the male Red Guards finally said.
He angers his interrogators when he points out this is equivalent to saying that the correct philosophy falls out of the sky.
Later, they question Ye Shao about the big bang theory. His answer ends his life:
“The theory leaves open a place to be filled by God,” Shao nodded at the girl.
The young Red Guard, confused by these new thoughts, finally found her footing. She raised her hand, still holding the belt, and pointed at Ye, saying, “You: you’re trying to say that God exists?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m saying I don’t know. If by ‘God’ you mean some kind of super-consciousness outside the universe, I don’t know if it exists or not. Science has given no evidence either way.”
What this conversation represents– dedication to science and the scientific method, a refusal to deal in certainties, and the violence that erupts when established ideology is challenged– is a theme that runs throughout this classic hard-science fiction novel.
Almost everyone in this novel is in search of certainty. Some believe that politics can answer all questions and give meaning to life, while others believe that physics can do that. There are even some characters who believe that global annihilation will give meaning and purpose to their lives.
Only one character this is novel expresses anything other than earnest commitment to creed. He is a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed police inspector named Wang Miao. When Miao is asked if is in awe of the stars and curious about where the universe originates, he answers:
“I’m a simple man without a lot of complicated twists and turns. Look down my throat and you can see out my ass…but I did indeed invent an ultimate rule…anything sufficiently weird must be fishy.”
Wang Miao is a character that seems to be the author’s mischievous way of poking holes in our certainty as readers and our desire to understand the nature of reality. The truth in this book is always shifting; the characters are never quite who you think they are. People ask questions, but the answers are always cryptic. In this book that elevates science above all else, eventually even the laws of science fall apart (for which aliens are to blame…but you’ll have to read the book to find out why).
The Three-Body Problem is so dense with science and philosophy that reading it, you might at times feel as though you are cramming for your exams. In the end however, you realize with astonishment that, all along, the author has simply been taking you into a dizzying journey into the unknown.