Tag Archives: Three-Body Problem

Impressions of “Death’s End,” by Cixin Liu

Death’s End by Cixin Liu is the third book in the Three-Body Problem trilogy, and a truly wonderful conclusion. Death’s End is a wonderful conclusion to the trilogy. It is a wonderful complement to The Three-Body Problem, bringing back the scientific focus and tension and leaving behind the repetition of The Dark Forest As Three-Body implicitly examined the Drake Equation in depth, Death’s End does the same for dimensional projection. What seemed like irrelevant loose ends from The Dark Forest‘s emphasis on the importance of political commissars, such as the fates of the warships Bronze Age and Gravity, become into the main narrative. And, I suspect, it only failed to achieve a second Hugo award for the series because of politics.

Some quick words on the trilogy: The first book, The Three-Body Problem is perhaps the best “hard science fiction” book I have ever read — considering that is the genre of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Michael Crichton, that is saying a lot. The second book, a direct sequel called The Dark Forest, is a disappointment. Cixin Liu is writing in a Communist country, and long speeches about the need for political commissars and sudden complete trust in the well meaning and efficient nature of governments implied the book was written to curry political favor. Death’s End is the final installment.

Death’s End explores the idea of dimensional projection, or what an object would seem to be in higher or lower dimensional space-time. This concept was introduced near the end of The Three-Body Problem, but it is the focus in Death’s End. Specific examples of projection or transposition in Death’s End include

  • Projection onto the surface of a black whole
  • Four-dimensional projection into three dimensions
  • Three dimensional projection into two dimensions
  • One time dimensional projection into two dimensions

Cixin Liu is not the first writer to explore dimensional unfolding, but he may be the best to do so in a science fiction context. Realism, the philosophical idea that true reality of an object is the completely folded state was explored by St. Thomas Aquinas. The horror writer Jon Padget does the same, using numerous folded or reduced-dimensional imagery to get the point across: the fog itself, it has so many names: the Origami, Daddy Longlegs, Snavley’s Ultimate Ventriloquist.

And in popular religious writing, dimensional transformation is the same thing that C.S. Lewis called transposition in The Weight of Glory. So for example in my impressions of Weight of Glory I wrote

So when we pray for a miracle, in the past, present or future, we are praying for the projection of time that we see to be in conformance with our request. We are praying for time to be rotated in a specific way, in the way we might rotate a model pyramid to see the triangle, or the square, or the point.

But what Aquinas, Padget and Lewis explored by philosophy, horror, and apologetic, Cixin Liu does through hard science fiction. Relative frames of reference, gravitational waves and quantum entanglement, high and low gravity black holes, and string theory are all introduced in a fun and exciting way.

Each Three-Body book has a primary character who sets the theme. The Three-Body Problem is about Ye Wenjie, a young woman astrophysicist living in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, and Wang Miao, an applied materials researcher in Beijing during modern times. The Dark Forest is about Luo Ji, a failed astrophysicist turned sociologists. Death’s End is about Cheng Xin, also a young woman astrophysicist.

Of the characters introduced in the series the only well developed and realistic character is Ye Wenjie. She is perhaps the most memorable character I read since Fire from the Sun, also about the Cultural Revolution. Cheng Xin, Death’s End‘s protagonist is almost Ye’s polar opposite — an archetype more than a complex character, she is repeatedly compared to the Virgin Mary as an ideal woman. Indeed, I suspect this is a reason that Death’s End, unlike Three-Body, did not win the Hugo Award. The days where a book about a Catholic monk could win that award are long gone due to an ongoing culture war in that community.

A fascinating article by the author, “The Worst of All Possible Universes and the best of All Possible Earths: Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction, is a must read. To give you a sense of the author’s thoughtfulness, I present these paragraphs from the piece below:

After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, science fiction became a tool for popularizing scientific knowledge, and its main intended readers were children. Most of these stories put technology at the core and contained little humanism, featuring simplistic characters and basic, even naïve literary techniques. Few of the novels ventured outside the orbit of Mars, and most stuck to the near future. In these works, science and technology were always presented as positive forces, and the technological future was always bright.

An interesting observation can be made when one surveys the science fiction published during this period. In the early years after the Communist Revolution, politics and revolutionary fervor infused every aspect of daily life, and the very air one breathed seemed filled with propaganda for Communist ideals. Given this context, one might have expected that science fiction would also be filled with descriptions of Communist utopias of the future. But, as a matter of fact, not a single work of this type can be found. There were practically no science fiction stories that featured Communism as the subject, not even simplistic sketches to promote the concept.

I read Death’s End in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “The Dark Forest,” by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest is a sequel to the Three-Body Problem, one of the best science fiction novels I ever read. Three Body starts with a bang, the Cultural Revolution in Beijing, China. Characters were well developed, and both sentimental and ghastly motivations are pained as flowing naturally from surviving the insanity of that era. Three Body also balanced two different time periods, the Cultural Revolution and the near future, as well as a virtual environment that closely connects the other two settings. It is a “hard” science fiction story, where special attention is given to explaining the plausibility and possible mechanics of future technology. And last, Three-Body carefully navigated (and even more carefully, comments upon) the censored and politically-monitored nature of speech in China.

The Dark Forest has none of these virtues. Substantial sections appear to be written by a Communist party literary committee, which they may well have been. Characters are two-dimensional tropes, and social motivation is simply bizarre. The ending is easily guessed. It is twice as long. Grudgingly, I will read the next book in the series and finish the trilogy.

So many things are radically different I wonder if The Dark Forest was originally supposed to have continuity with Three-Body at all. While Three-Body invokes hard science fiction extensively, one could substitute the aliens for Russians, Japanese, or Americans, and the story would make sense. Indeed, that may have been the problem. I’m aware of at least one other award winning science fiction where the original text of the sequel was rewritten to have continuity with the first book (Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead), so it would not surprise me the same thing happened here. While the length of The Dark Forest is about twice the length, a major theme of Three-Body (the difficulty of individuals aligning themselves with the goals of a government organization, from low-level lumberjacks to high-level politburo members) is entirely gone. Every government official appears to be basically productive and well-meaning. “Neighborhood committee” members and “political officers” receive special adulation.

In keeping with the Communist Party discipline that appears to be behind much of the book, religion is almost entirely expunged. The Catholic and Buddhist architecture of Beijing is described in Three Body, as are some contrasts between those religions. Understanding the enigmatic prayer, ‘Lord, save my Lord’ is part of the reader’s motivation to unravel the mystery, and the unique perspective of author Cixin Liu means Three-Body is neither a religious tract nor an atheist screed. That’s replaced with an almost complete absence of religion except as a dressing for basic emotions. Early in the book Osama bin Laden states that the core of all religious belief is simply hatred, while later in the book a character id described as an angel and as God himself for taking military command.

Buried in The Dark Forest is half of an excellent sequel. Three-Body ended in a moment of heightened tension for all characters. In the very last page two characters discuss the situation, and an interesting metaphor is raised. That metaphor is abandoned in Dark Forest, the tension dissipates almost completely, and all important actions are the result of deus ex machina — arbitrary events and decisions that are explained afterwards. The final communication process (for all war is communication) is interesting, but the reader only sees the end of it, as a tremendous amount just happens off-page. In Three-Body intelligent and learned individuals discuss ideas as they are using them. The shock of The Dark Forest‘s ending depends entirely on not being familiar with game theory or bargaining.

Reading The Dark Forest was fascinating, because besides the story and the writing, there is a real-life story about an original science fiction epic coming out of China. Something is happening in our real world, and both The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest are part of it. For this reason I will finish the trilogy, and hope it recovers. For now, I am not optimistic.

From the American publisher’s website, I found a link to this fan-made, impressionistic film “Waterdrop,” an homage to The Dark Forest in general and one chapter in particular. The short piece does a terrific job expressing The Dark Forest at its best, without giving away any important plot elements

I read The Dark Forest in the audible edition.

Impressions of “The Three-Body Problem,” by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem was a landmark for me. It is the longest novel I’ve read in a half decade, since John Derbyshire’s historical fiction Fire from the Sun. I’ve been away from fiction for a long time. Three Body Problem is a great way to return.

By genre, Three-Body is hard sci-fi, with philosophy of science, history of science, and political history thrown in. It evokes both 5GW and the religion. Structurally it is a combination of mystery (the modern-day scenes, beginning in Beijing and concluding in the Chinese countryside) and drama (historical scenes, with the reverse progression). It has a third thread, a narration of experience in a computer game, that ends up being critical to understanding both main threads.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember discussions on the “5th generation of war,” or 5GW — a type of war that is fought with one side not knowing who it is fighting. The military action within Three-Body comprises all three kinds of 5GWinsurgent 5GW of a small armed group against a society, a state-within 5GW where a clique inside the host society attempts to transform it, and state-without 5GW where a government attacks a society.

The author is an engineer who was born and lives in the People’s Republic of China — an officially atheist society. So the discussion of religion were especially intriguing. Buddhism seems to be disparaged, described (unlike Christianity) as not being person-centric, and with pilgrims who appear to be in a daze. By contrast St. Joseph’s Church is one of the landmarks of Beijing held out for special admiration. The definition of ‘God’ used by characters tends to be deistic (belief in an orderly universe created by a minimally involved God). The religious feeling and looked-for purification created by certain interactions in Three Body recalls the supernatural struggle the Book of Ezekiel and other second temple literature.

Three Body problem reminds me of primarily of other books: C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and John Derbyshire’s Fire from the Sun. There is also similarity to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, as well as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. That Hideous Strength is so similar to the mystery thread of Three Body Problem I wonder if it was intentional: the character known as the “the Commander” in Three Body is a composite of the Head and the Deputy Director in Strength. Like Fire from the Sun it is a beautiful and tragic look at the experience of Chinese youth who came of age during the Cultural Revolution. Rainbbow Six contributes an interesting ecological narrative, while Red Mars is a clear inspiration in hard (or technically plausible) science fiction.

It was quite the treat to discover this book, a great mix of history, science, and fiction that ties into so many of my interests. No wonder it won the 2015 Hugo Award.

Now, on to the sequel…