Monday, December 1, 2014

3-Body Problem - The Aliens

I finished The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu recently.  Published by Tor books, this is the first of a trilogy of bestselling Chinese hard sci-fi.  I am unapologetically a fan of this move, and looking forward to more translated science fiction in the coming years.  (Clarkesworld will also be publishing translated SF short stories beginning next year, thanks to a successful Kickstarter project).  All of which is to say I was predisposed to enjoy The Three Body Problem, and I did.  The science is hard.  The perspective is Chinese, or at least recognizably not coming out of an American fiction tradition in ways that were almost entirely good, novel, and brain-stretching.  The Three Body Problem is probably my favorite book of the year (jostling with Lagoon), and this is definitely not a review.  There's a good one at The Speculative Scotsman (one of the few reviewers whose reviews I generally read regardless of the book, simply to learn from), I'm sure there are lots more elsewhere if you look.

Light spoilers follow - I don't think anything that would ruin a surprise, but probably things that will color your reading.

I've got another post planned about reading a book that's both global (and indeed interstellar) in scale and yet centered outside the US, but first I want to address the aliens in The Three Body Problem.  I'm accustomed to aliens in Sci-Fi, but usually (at least when presented with nuance), they are specifically different from humans in important psychological ways in order to comment on certain human impulses.  I am thinking here mostly of the emotionless but hierarchical Atevi of C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series, but also of the stationary and consuming monsters in Peter Hamilton's Pandora's Star, and the multi-bodied creatures of Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep.  There are aliens in The Three Body Problem, but their interactions with humans are mediated by a couple layers of technology and communication, such that they are presented as essentially human - any major psychological or physical differences don't make it through the layers of mediation, so humans are basically interacting with other humans.

One thing that this allows Liu to do is dive into the history of various important scientific discoveries & imagine how they could occur in a different environment.
What most blew me away, though, was that just as humans encounter aliens, so the aliens are encountering us.  Where many stories focus on differences between humans and aliens to highlight certain aspects of the human condition and suggest alternatives, The Three Body Problem achieves the same goals without needing to emphasize any difference.  People living on planets encounter each other twice in this book.  There are many important differences in their histories, the environments that they live in, and their political structures, but Liu focuses instead on their similarities.  The responses are similar, without being identical.  The general bureaucracy of a united communications effort and the particulars responses of individual representatives play out differently, and yet with certain unpredictable echoes in each case.

Liu's aliens, their response to humans, and their non-alienness aren't the most important aspect of The Three Body Problem, but they're probably the place where my expectations were most clearly blown away.  I have read about aliens and humans encountering each other many times.  I've seen alienness used to reflect (generally) weaknesses in humanity in ways that almost inevitably reveal as much about the author as any universal human condition.  Without relying on these tools at all (and thus, of course, preserving the possibility of further revelations if and when we encounter the aliens more directly!), Liu achieved these goals in a spectacularly ingenious way.  There's better writing & better science in the book, but these nearly featureless aliens keep sticking with me as I look back on it.  I'm grateful to Cixin Liu for such a great book, to Ken Liu for translating it, and all of the people at Tor who brought The Three Body Problem here.

Unfinished - My personal reaction to reading a book so thoroughly centered specifically in China and yet on a global scale.

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