The Three Body Problem

Filming of “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” has taken place in China but they are not happy to release it, nor is Netflix’s rival filming bid. Meanwhile a scenario in the online game Minecraft is in widespread use. The image below is san ti, “three body”, a promotion from bilibili, a Chinese film fan site. After this is a review of “The Dark Forest”, the second novel in the Science Fiction trilogy by Liú Cíxīn

The ‘Three-Body Problem’ is a difficult to solve mathematical puzzle left for us by Isaac Newton. The actual problem for all people of Earth is even more challenging. Very intelligent aliens originate on a planet in an unstable three-star system, so they are called the Trisolarians. Their evolution has forced them to be extremely resilient because of the planet’s erratic orbit, but now they realise the planet will be drawn into one of the suns. They are looking for a new planet and have chosen Earth.  Their surveillance devices are already here and their fleet will arrive in 400 years’ time. A doomsday battle is expected.

Liú Cíxīn is a nine-time winner of the Galaxy Award, China’s most prestigious literary science fiction prize. He names Arthur C. Clarke as a major influence, so many of the themes in his novels could equally well be written by this Brit or an American. Readers are invariably startled by his imaginative scope. “The Wandering Earth”, for example, involves the world government using enormous plasma cannons to propel the planet out of range of the sun, which is about to become a red giant. His imagination is fleshed out with the precision of a power engineer, which was his first profession. While brilliantly imaginative, there is a nagging issue for those who read AC Clarke: the plasma from the cannon would need to be travelling at earth escape velocity, more than 11 km a second.

The formal name of the trilogy is “Remembrance of Earth’s past”. The second novel is the “The Dark Forest’. This is a metaphor for intelligent life in the galaxy, in which every animal must keep silent to avoid attack by every other animal, or risk extinction. A possible defence for Earth against the technologically superior Trisolarians becomes apparent to Luo, the main character, who is a ‘wallfacer’. If the location of their planet is ‘published’ into the galaxy, some third civilisation in the dark forest will destroy Solaris. The snag is that the location of Earth will also be visible and it will probably also be destroyed. The central theme becomes “Mutually Assured Destruction”, which seems to echo Chinese worries on using nuclear deterrence with a more powerful USA.  ‘Death’s End’ is the third volume in the trilogy, in which a devastating dark forest attack occurs.

Liú Cíxīn’s trilogy is available in English and Mandarin is not a big problem.  I borrowed one volume from the library of Birmingham, where finding his name in the catalogue was the only challenge.  His surname is 刘, pronounced “Lyo” and personal name is 慈欣. The book cover in the picture uses the characters 三体, pinyin sān tǐ, ‘three body’.  Pasting these characters into Google takes you straight to the baidu page, where right-clicking gives you an instant translation of the plot summary.  The existence of a cyberpunk culture in China should allow much greater exchange between young people in Britain and China.

Chinese Science Fiction

Filming of “Remembrance of Earth’s Past”, the Liu Cixin trilogy directed by Fanfan Zhang, and starring Feng Shaofeng and Zhang Jingchu has taken place, but no release date has been announced. A series based on the trilogy has been ordered by Netflix, with David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, and Alexander Woo set to write and executive produce.

Fiction allows worries and aspirations about the future to be explored, without much constraint by current political configurations. The three-body problem trilogy by Liú Cíxīn has had a huge impact in China. There is now the possibility that a TV series will put it centre-stage in Britain. Meanwhile there has been a dramatic move of women into SF. The unprecedented award of the prestigious U.S. Hugo award in 2015 to Liú was followed by a succession of female Hugo awards. Biological themes, rather than combat with extra-terrestrials have thus become important. Gu Shi wrote her short story “Chimera” around a woman biologist creating a human-pig chimera to save her son. Chen Qiufan rewrote his “Waste Tide” story so that the female lead Mimi becomes part-cyborg to overcome gangs controlling a hazardous waste recycling community and creating ecological disaster.

Science fiction and fantasy take little account of national borders. Pokémon emerged from Japan to start a wave of “Pop Cosmopolitanism”. The US commentator Jenkins coined this phrase and illustrates it by a clerk in a Georgia grocery store using a Japanese name badge and clothes as part her anime “cosplay”. Humans, known as Pokémon Trainers, catch and train “pocket monsters” to battle each other for sport. It is not too violent: in a decisive victory, the opponent faints. Breaking out of its original Nintendo hardware into smartphone software it sold 368 million copies. Pokémon creates a few moral ripples. Saudi Arabia banned it, claiming to find a Star of David, crosses, and triangles they associated with Freemasonry, but a satellite TV station based in the Vatican found it “full of imagination”. Getting run over while distracted is more of a problem.

Translation from Chinese has to overcome a few problems. Personal names can be troublesome, as surnames come first, but Chinese living in the UK may adopt the English convention. I remember Liú! cíxīn by emphasising the family name. Another Liú (刘) is the current goto person for Chinese authors wanting a translation. There is a huge list with his name Ken Liu, Liú Yǔkūn, pronounced “Lyo”, as either translator or author. A review of his 2019 anthology “Broken Stars” is one of the pages on this site. The “wallfacer” in the three-body problem is challenging, but sorted it for me: 面壁 (miàn bì) combines the punishment of being told to stand in the corner as a child but also contemplation of one’s existence. Mandarin does not have a past tense but uses the aspect marker “le” to show that something is completed so Chen Qiufan retrained himself to write Waste Tide with a chronology. With a short learning curve, Google translate and Wikipedia will rapidly sort out most misunderstandings. Knowing a few Chinese characters sometime s has big payoff. The graphics used for book covers often look very robotic, but “Dark Forest” reveals itself as the characters 三体, pinyin sān tǐ, ‘three body’. The burgeoning market for Chinese SF in the English language may be found, for example in

Chinese Science Fiction as World Literature was a zoom seminar hosted by the University of Edinburgh Asian Studies Department on 21st October, in which Ros Wong and I participated for SACU. We learned about themes of pop cosmopolitanism, human-machine fusion, dystopia/ utopia and mutual assured destruction, which are explored in this web-site.