WIRED Book Club: The Secret Behind Three-Body Problem’s Ticking Clock
Last week, when we introduced Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem as this month’s WIRED Book Club pick, we knew we were in for some “hard,” and probably complicated, sci-fi. Ten chapters in, it seems like the more we find out, the more we have left to learn. Torn apart by the Cultural Revolution, the descendants of the Ye family in Problem certainly aren’t done with their share of academic-fueled horror—and, like those left in its wake, we must parse out whatever the hell is going on. The countdown has started, and when it’s done the world might end. Or aliens might invade. Really, who can say! So scurry over to the comments to let us know what you think before the clock reaches its terrifying conclusion. And be sure to read through Chapter 22 for next week. 1108:21:36, 1108:21:35, 1108:21:34…
What do you think about starting in the midst of the Cultural Revolution?
Sarah Fallon, Senior Editor: I loved that chapter—the subjugation of science to political demands, the way people go crazy in the process, the one man who refuses to capitulate. And it has the most beautiful line so far, the one about Ye Wenjie’s thoughts dissolving into her blood.
Lexi Pandell, Assistant Research Editor: It sets up this interesting tension—not only do we have a tension between pollution and nature and (soon, it seems) between humans and extraterrestrials, but we have this tension between intellectuals and those in power. I assume that tension will come back into play when the secret project needs some of these academics and their descendants to assist with whatever crazy alien invasion is about to go down.
Jay Dayrit, Editorial Operations Manager: Having become acclimated to our previous book-club books, which largely look into the future, I found myself disoriented by The Three-Body Problem’s opening chapter. What? The past? Our past? On Earth? What black magic is this? Frankly, I was relieved to take a break from world-building for a while. Starting the book in the Cultural Revolution was a nice approach to anchoring the themes of anti-intellectualism and disinformation campaigns that re-emerge in subsequent chapters. It lends legitimacy to what would otherwise feel completely absurd, not that there isn’t space for the absurd. Speaking of disinformation campaigns, some of Wang Miao’s chapters remind me of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, a terribly frustrating and unsatisfying book. I wasn’t surprised when Pynchon was even evoked in a footnote. I’m hoping Liu doesn’t send us down as many dead ends.
The Three Body videogame is majorly creepy. Would you play?
Fallon: Possibly not. What if I got dehydrated during the game! It had a Waiting for Godot feel to me, just the way the people were talking and the absurdity of what was going on.
Pandell: Thinking about the disorientation experienced in V-suits gives me the same anxiety as VR headsets. Time becomes irrelevant. Months in game time go by, countless hours in real life go by, fact and fiction become blurred. Still, it sounds weird enough that I might give it a try—I did, after all, try visiting 3body.net IRL. But I think we can all agree that there’s no way this is “just a game”?
Dayrit: I want to sound cool and say I’d play, but I am so not a gamer, and I could not be less enthused about VR headsets. There is something about immersive experiences that I have difficulty shaking off once the experience ostensibly ends, and that crossover is very unsettling. I like reality and fantasy neatly compartmentalized. But that said, the parts of the book devoted the game, if it is indeed a game—Hello, Ender’s Game!—are quite enjoyable, mostly because it seems Salvador Dali was the lead game developer.
Katie Palmer, Senior Associate Editor: Yes, I totally saw the Persistence of Memory going through that section! I gotta say, with the hyper-realistic temperature changes other aspects of the V-suits, I don’t know how anybody could consider this “entertainment”—it sounds like a miserable way to spend time, and no way would I want to jump in. What’s more, it seems like that immersion…does things to you.
Dayrit: I am reminded of Too Like The Lightning’s set-sets for whom VR haptic suits were not a game, but rather, a lifestyle. No, thank you!
Prediction time: What’s the countdown for?
Fallon: Alien invasion!!! I keep picturing Jeff Goldblum.
Dayrit: While I would totally be down with an alien invasion (pew, pew, pew!), I’m hoping it’ll be something less mundane, more mind-bending. If it were an extraterrestrial invasion, what kind of sadistic alien species would come all this way just to troll our scientists? “Hi, we’re here to take all your resources and then blow up our planet, but first we’re gonna make all your smart people feel stupid and suicidal.” You sick bastards!
Palmer: It’s for ticking off editors who are super bored by the time bomb as plot device.
What is your experience of reading this book in translation? How do you feel about the footnotes?
Pandell: Hard to say without being able to read the original text. The language can be sparse but, overall, flows beautifully. A few times, the footnotes pulled me out of the reading experience—but, largely, I’ve found them helpful because I’m no expert on the subtleties of Chinese language and culture and can use all the help I can get. I love that there are little tidbits of real history hidden in this story!
Dayrit: I am assuming there’s quite a bit that gets lost in translation. The footnotes flick at cultural figures here and there, but such references remain opaque to someone unfamiliar with Chinese history and mythology. Kind of like watching Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away or André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter; you just have to accept you’re going to miss out on a myriad of references to shinto gods or to Norwegian trolls, actual trolls who live in caves, not comment trolls on Reddit or the space-alien trolls who may or may not show up later in The Three-Body Problem.
Fallon: Ha, I wrote “cheeky translator” next to the footnote Pynchon reference. I do think the translator is a bit too present.
Shooter or farmer?
Fallon: If I understand the metaphor correctly, right now we think we’re in a shooter-type situation but it’s actually going to turn out to be a farmer kind of deal?
Pandell: Sorry about it, human turkeys.
Dayrit: Yep, farmer analogy all the way. We’re sitting ducks, er, turkeys.
Is the book positing that humans are inherently evil? Do you agree?
Dayrit: Hard to say yet. Depends on who’s controlling the countdown, who’s messing with the scientists, and who’s fighting this war Wang keeps hearing about. If all this tension is terrestrial in origin, then human bad. If extraterrestrial, human good. I am well aware my theory is overly simplistic. Human stupid.
Is science the only road to truth?
Fallon: I think here the answer might be no. But deliberately subverting science is also wrong.
Pandell: There’s a strong implication in this book that the universe is much, much bigger than humankind knows. We understand the world around us on a superficial level, but begin to dig deeper into the true nature of the universe (or even physics on our own planet!) and we prove to be pretty clueless. Science can help us, but we also have to understand and try to move forward from our ignorance. Unless we’re obliterated by aliens first, in which case…¯_(ツ)_/¯?
Dayrit: Not to undermine Sarah and Lexi’s authority on this, but I want to hear what Katie Palmer, our super-smart science editor, has to say. I majored in Theatre Studies, that’s spelled with an R-E, not E-R, so I don’t know about this science stuff.
Palmer: That kind of question is purely reactionary, guys. Reactionary, I say! Obviously the answer is no… but that framing is exactly what seems to have created this mess, with some nefarious actor (seemingly) trying to discount the entire scientific establishment. This election, it’s all hitting a little too close to home.
Fallon: Science is true, but it is not the only truth. And science “truth” as filtered through politics, is not always true. How about that for a head scrambler?