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 the philosophy of science, history of science, and political history thrown in. It evokes both 5GW and 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 5GW — insurgent 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 was 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 recall the supernatural struggle the Book of Ezekiel and other second temple literature.
Three-Body Problem reminds me primarily of other books: C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and John Derbyshire’s Fire from the Sun. There is also a 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. Rainbow 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…