The spectrum of literature on which science fiction and literary fiction run is often defined by a false divide between ideas and beauty: A ‘good’ hard sci-fi novel means new ideas told cleverly, an ingenious premise or a extrapolation of technology; while a ‘good’ literary novel means old ideas told beautifully, with striking, poetic imagery, a slow, loving look at human experience, a solid New Yorker review with pull-quotes of lyrical sentences that show off the writer’s writerly microcompetence. Yet Cixin Liu, the living legend of Chinese science fiction, sees a beauty in ideas themselves. For Liu, science has its poetry, and it’s not the elegance of laws we tend to think of when someone says that, but an awesome, terrible beauty of scale and helplessness.
A late sequence in The Three-Body Problem—whose translation, by Ken Liu, is now out in paperback—depicts a massive project to unfold a single proton into two dimensions, etch microprocessor circuitry on to its surface, and turn it into a supercomputer. The idea is ambitious, fantastic geek porn. Subatomic particles, under superstring or M-theory, exist in as many as eleven space-time dimensions, of which we only perceive the standard three (plus time); and just as one can unfold a cube into a flat, larger cross, or a 4-D hypercube into a ‘larger’ three-dimensional shape, the scientists in Three-Body unfold the proton’s compact eleven-dimensional shape into lower-dimension shapes, each more expansive than the last—with the 2-D proton so large, it has to be manipulated in orbit because it wraps around the planet. Cool, heady, hard sci-fi physics, right?
But the first experiment goes wrong, they unfold the proton into one dimension, and the infinitely thin, extremely long line breaks up and falls into the atmosphere as a rain of iridescent tinsel, glimmering in lamps, tracing the air currents as people move. The second try unfolds the proton into three dimensions, and large, reflective geometric solids fill the sky, “as though a giant child had emptied a box of building blocks in the firmament,” then they deform, then they turn into eyes. Liu’s explanation for why the parts of a proton turn into eyes is so bizarre, audacious, and unsettling that excerpting or summarizing it here would be an injustice; but the book earns it.
So, another example, for which I can give even less context: imagine Sir Isaac Newton and John von Neumann travel to 3rd-century BCE China to solicit Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, for use of his thirty-million-man army. Their goal is not conquest, but complex computations beyond any one human’s capacity. In an age before electronic components, they propose using individual soldiers as binary values, with a white flag for ‘0’ and a black flag for ‘1,’ training them on basic Boolean logic, then configuring them into an enormous motherboard circuitry that spans the open plains, complete with data registers, CPU, memory, and system bus:
Below, the light cavalry on the main bus that passed through the entire human-formation computer began to move swiftly. The main bus soon turned into a turbulent river. Along the way, the river fed into numerous thin tributaries, infiltrating all the modular subformations. Soon, the ripple of black and white flags coalesced into surging waves that filled the entire motherboard. The central CPU area [made up of the Emperor’s five best divisions] was the most tumultuous, like gunpowder on fire.
Liu has a special talent, as he reflects in the postscript, for “scales and existences that far exceeded the bounds of human sensory perception,” and he puts it to good use in depicting the proton or the human-formation computer. And at the heart of this talent is a breed of mysticism: fifteen billion light-years or subatomic, sub-quark strings, he writes, which “seem to be only abstract numbers to others, could take on concrete forms in my mind” and “arouse in me an ineffable, religious feeling of awe and shock.” As in the examples above, he often plays with the micro and macro scales at once, tying our incomprehension of the quantum to our incomprehension of the universe. At both of these scales, he points out early on, physics has gotten only weirder.
This is the hook of The Three-Body Problem. Physicists across the world are bewildered by their particle acceleration experiments falling apart, producing results so wild and random that they start to lose faith in fundamental laws, and in the very idea of laws. A suspicion grows in their minds: that what they have heretofore thought of as physics is laughably, terribly not. Imagine a civilization of germs living on a rifle target’s surface, who observe ‘black holes’ in the ‘universe’ forming at regular distances—mistaking the whim of a shooter for physical law. Or imagine a Baconian turkey on a turkey farm who observes that a farmer comes to feed them at the same time each morning, and so develops an empirical ‘law’ of feed-time—which, of course, will fall apart when Thanksgiving Day arrives. In the novel, this ‘shooter/farmer’ conjecture becomes increasingly compelling, and theoretical physicists commit suicide in droves as they realize the apparent orderliness of Earth’s physics over the last few centuries may be just a pocket of luck in an otherwise chaotic cosmos.
Interestingly, this is also the premise of a virtual reality game that’s becoming popular among educated elites: Three Body, in which predictable sunrise and sunset—that primordial example of cosmic order—occurs only during ‘stable eras’ that can last maybe a few days, or maybe years. During the other times, the ‘chaotic eras’ have unpredictable nights of bitter cold and days of intense heat, which at any time can turn into stunning solar apocalypses. Is there a connection between Three Body and the chaos that’s driving the world’s physicists to despair? Is there someone fishy behind it all, pulling the superstrings, as Shi Qiang, our local hard-boiled cop, suspects? And what’s the connection to Ye Wenjie, a scientist and political casualty of the Cultural Revolution, who joins a top-secret radio astronomy base with a suspiciously powerful antenna?
Three Body (and the book’s title) refers to the Problème des Trois-Corps of classical mechanics: given three large bodies of specified masses, initial velocities, and positions, what will their mutual orbits be under Newton’s law of gravity? The answer is pretty shocking: there is no general solution to the three-body problem. In certain cases, if you set initial conditions just so, the three planets (or whatever) will fall into a repeating, predictable mutual orbit, but in general, their interactions will be non-periodic and, to the naked eye, bewilderingly random. The mathematician Henri Poincaré, in studying the three-body problem, stumbled upon one of the first omens of our uncertain modern era: even when classical mechanics determine precisely what must happen, with no random element, a deterministic system can yet be so sensitive to miniscule, even microscopic variances in the initial conditions, that the system is effectively unpredictable. This was one of the first glimmers of chaos theory.
This is kind of insane, isn’t it? How can something so fundamental as a sun, a planet, and a moon resist a classical solution? The progression is supposed to go as follows: Newton discovered mechanics, which is elegant and orderly and good enough for things like aiming cannons and even predicting orbits, if you squint; then Einstein went and complicated things with special and general relativity, which is harder to intuit but filled in the gaps that Newton couldn’t make work; then things got utterly wackadoodle as we peered deeper into the quantum realm, and back to the beginning of the universe. Quarks, branes, God particles, Big Bangs and supermassive black holes—no one short of a Ph.D. can understand what’s going on, but it sounds interesting. In this progression, Newtonian physics should be able to solve Newtonian problems, but there is the three-body problem, right at the beginning, pointing to a lawlessness within our science we should have seen coming.
There is lawlessness in our human science, as well. The Three-Body Problem begins during China’s Cultural Revolution, a Chaotic Era if there ever was one. A professor of physics is flogged as a reactionary for teaching the imperialist theory of relativity; and the floggers are themselves killed in the Red Guards’ factional civil wars, or sent off to waste in rural labor sites. At such times, social law seems to come apart, or to never have existed at all—and it’s not just during revolutions. In American history, the frontier west and the slave plantation stand out as zones where arbitrary, brute power trumps order, and what law there is is far from natural: the shooter and the farmer, indeed. And where will our social rules go when climate change pushes us beyond the bounds of cooperation? Even this election cycle feels like a chaotic era, in which political gravity seems not to apply to a certain orange gaseous body.
The ultimate idea that Liu explores, behind all these brilliantly conceived set pieces, is of man as a mere insect before some more awesome, chaotic will: revolution, alien invasion, or just the unknowable scale of the cosmos. It’s an old, old idea, one explored in some terrific science fiction but perhaps better in theology: Job, the Upanishads. All gods aside, there is something bigger, grander, more complex, and unfathomable than us, in whose eyes we are, barring some unearned benevolence, less than ants.
This is the least original idea in the book, but it is the one to which Liu applies his considerable genius, bringing the technically clever conceits of hard sci-fi, the sociological intelligence of soft sci-fi, and the poetic sensibility of literary fiction to bear on this feeling. Who are we? What is humankind, and has it done anything worth preserving against itself, against the hostility of the cosmos? What are the outer bounds of our understanding and what is just beyond?
The answers, as they say these days, will surprise you.
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