Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review: The Three Body Problem

The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated from the original Chinese by Ken Liu.

The three body problem is a famous problem of classical mechanics, and Poincare's researches into it led to some of the first deep insights into chaotic dynamics. Cixin Liu is the most famous science fiction writer in China, and a writer who deserves to be better known to the English speaking world. That classical physics problem forms the centerpiece of his novel of the same name, but to tell too much would be too many spoilers.

The novel opens with two harrowing scenes from the Great Cultural Revolution of the middle sixties. In the first, two rival bands of Red Guards fight a bloody but meaningless battle. In the second, an older physics professor is brutally persecuted for, among other crimes, teaching relativity. These events, pitting husband against wife, children against parents, and students against teachers shape the pivotal character of the novel, a then young astrophysicist, and echo in the science fiction tale to come, but most of the novel is set in the China of the present or near future.

I have a tough time classifying this novel. Sometimes I think it's a little like Gravity's Rainbow or Infinite Jest, minus 600 pages of self-indulgent crap. But that's probably not fair to any of the authors.

I found it gripping and loaded with insights into an unfamiliar world - and I'm talking more about China than the interstellar civilization also featured.

I also suspect that the hysteria of the Great Cultural Revolution has plenty of elements homomorphic to current Jihadist fanaticism.