The Three Body Trilogy

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Cixin Liu’s trilogy consists of The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End. It is first contact fiction of an abstract bent. Liu’s story is episodic; the trilogy ranges very widely and does not focus on any particular character.  Although I read the books happily enough, it’s not easy to say what I liked about them. I suppose I enjoyed them for Liu’s unpredictability and for some dramatic set pieces. Liu does not worry much about the details or even the plausibility of the technological devices he introduces, but the results are entertaining. I won’t try to discuss them without spoilers.

The three body problem is to predict the motions of three bodies, usually celestial, according to the normal laws of gravity and motion. Mathematicians have wrestled with it since the discovery of calculus and it is known that it’s not susceptible to exact solution in all cases. Characteristically, Liu draws a beautiful portrait of a mathematician plagued by restlessness of soul until he loses himself in contemplation of the beauties of this problem. The character does not appear again. Much of the first book takes place in a game world where the problem serves as motivation for a primer in the history of science, and an introduction to an advanced civilization threatened by its location in a ternary star system. Liu’s telling stories within stories reminded me of Ender’s Game, but in a lighter mood. For example, Turing, Newton, and the emperor of China construct a computer out of a vast host of flag waving medieval soldiers, but they cannot predict the motions of the three suns for long. Despots and sages argue with operatic exaggeration while their hapless subjects suffer the indignity of being dehydrated and stored in warehouses to be gnawed on by rats while they wait for the next spell of fair weather in their chaotic planetary system.

Contact between Earth and the Trisolarans is initiated by an astronomer despairing at the worst depths of the Cultural Revolution. Despite this extreme example (and granting the existence of numerous inhabited worlds in the galaxy) Liu handles the question of whether humanity poses a greater threat to itself than the one posed by alien civilizations with subtlety. He makes the conflict between planets nearly intractable; Liu’s strength is spectacular set pieces of utter, beautiful destruction wreaked by enemies capable of manipulating the structure of matter and space. One of the Trisolaran weapons is the sophon: a proton unfolded unfolded from its string theoretical eleven dimensions to form a surface vaster than a planet and etched with computer circuitry. Rerolled, it becomes a smart particle, capable of travel near light speed and instant quantum communication, and able to bring human science to a halt by lurking in particle colliders.

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These picture from the Hubble Space Telescope are in the public domain.

Human strife is not a major part of the novels.  Panic at imminent alien invasion leads to destruction, but in a madcap register; glassy arcologies tumble down, it’s Lord of the Flies for a little while, but no resentment ensues. It seems to be Liu’s contention that despite the horrors humanity is capable of inflicting on itself, we can and must cooperate to face the universe. But I have to qualify this; as I said, Liu is more subtle than that. Another of Liu’s painstakingly created bit players, after a trying ordeal, communicates vital guidance to earth in the form of a classical fairytale. In the tale, the bad guy destroys his enemies by depicting them in masterly, lifelike paintings.  The world’s powers work together to interpret the tale and are nearly successful, but not quite.  When a few starships escape the solar system, they carry the same people who advocated most heroically for human solidarity and morality.   I wonder if Liu had Thucydides in mind when he wrote of the uncomprehending acrimony that comes between the terrestrial authorities and the spacefarers. It reminded me of the mutinies in the Athenian fleet in Asia, of the zeal with which Athenians prosecuted the leaders of failed campaigns, and the shapeshifting of Alcibiades.

In what I’ve read about the big bang it seems to be a commonplace that conditions early on in the universe were quite different from what we find now. In the dense early universe, fundamental particles, and even laws governing the forces between them, did not take on the different forms we distinguish today. Physicists hope that by understanding the origins of the universe, we might resolve problems like “electroweak symmetry breaking”, or so I’ve read. Or where six or seven or eight extra dimensions got to, presumably. In the struggle to protect themselves from scarcely comprehended threats, Liu has humanity begin to unravel some of these questions of fundamental physics.  But it proves to be a tangled web indeed. I’m now desperately trying to remember if and how Penrose, Hawking, et al, have used the words “Eden” or “Edenic”, to describe the early universe, and whether they might have dared to load that term as Liu ultimately does. (To Orson Scott Card’s name, I might add that Liu reminds me of Neal Stephenson and Philip Pullman.) It’s in these terms, of Eden and the big bang, that Liu counterposes the question of facing the universe with that of facing ourselves.

 

Substitute, by Nicholson Baker

Although I could not be caught entirely by surprise, I winced when Nicholson Baker came right out and promised a “moment by moment account of twenty eight days” spent substitute teaching in Maine.   Baker wrote an entire novel about a ride up an escalator.  This book is seven hundred pages long.  He is not fooling around.  But neither was I.  I reserved the book months ahead of publication.

Nicholson Baker is a stubborn pacifist, a pornographer, and, in the guise of a tweedy library gadfly, a brutal critic of some very big institutions.  In a quiet way he is a prose genius.  Just turning his gaze on a rural school district could be taken for an aggressive act.  Aggressive, though, is not the right word for a man whose novels revolve around escalators, fireplaces, and lawn sprinklers.  He is uniquely suited to a subject that is quotidian and a national controversy.  I sympathize with the outrage of an experienced teacher or classroom assistant who finds herself or himself under the microscope of this man.  On the other hand, they should be honored.  Baker is a major writer.*

Disappointingly, deliberately, Baker is not at his flashiest here.  He is much more straightforward.  Rarely he writes as of a math worksheet, “distended, goitrous dugongs of arithmetical confusion”.  He alludes self deprecatingly to a characteristic, slightly famous passage of The Mezzanine, an obsessive page long footnote about perforation that began “Perforation! Shout it out!”**  A third grader is handed a workbook and Baker can’t resist:

“So the trick with perforation…” I started to say.

Cody ripped out the activity page roughly, leaving some of it behind in the book.

James made a sad cry.

“You’re fine,” I said. “Cody avoided the triangles.”

Baker sympathizes with his charges, but doesn’t rise to the level of some of his autobiographical passages.  Baker once constructed a tremendous emotional edifice, for example, around the glass doorknob where his father hung his neckties.***  His method here is more that of Human Smoke.  (Consider the breadth of a writer who can reach from a Maine elementary school to World War Two.)  Episodes are artlessly left to accumulate and to speak for themselves.  This is not meant to sound harsh.  Have you ever tried to completely describe one day?  It takes some work, even without the constant presence of two dozen or so kids.

Some passages are more effective for being set in this context of trivial detail.  Baker, supervising recess, sees two girls on a swing set.  They are holding onto each other’s chains and pulling gently from side to side.  He is falling into some kind of writerly aesthetic revery (coupled oscillators are a source of deep, beautiful insight in physics) when another teacher intervenes, castigates the girls for breaking playground rules, physically separates them, and threatens to take away their recess.  The ensuing discussion between Baker and the other teacher is conducted in moderate tones, but has the impact of a savage fight.****  The teacher claims to know the girls better than Baker and to know that they were deliberately pushing boundaries that were set after some bloody playtime accident. Such conduct requires an uncompromising response.  This assessment might have been halfway correct, but such strains of thought also belong to our culture of egregious police brutality. 

Baker does stick his neck out at times.  The middle chapters, or rather days, turn out more political.  He believes that children are overmedicated as a result of not fitting in with classroom discipline.  He questions such students in ways that made me cringe, although it’s not clear how paying attention to a kid would be a bad thing.  Although he refrains from presenting grand theses, he has written in other contexts about his ideas for education, like shorter days and no Algebra II.  The people who should really feel threatened and offended by Baker’s work are the star reformers, the Arne Duncans and the entrepreneurs who want to set themselves up as education czars.  I can’t imagine any of them putting this much literary treasure to work to understand what goes on in the lives of students, and, if possible, I have less appetite for their posturing than ever before.

* I’d like to nominate Baker for a National Humanities Medal.  There’s a form online.  It’s really short.  I can’t decide if this would be a silly gesture.

** “The deliberate punctuated weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row of fine-haired white pills or tuftlets on each new edge!  It is a staggering conception…”

*** This is actually in the novel The Mezzanine.  It’s the best example that came to mind.  The matter of Baker and his biography puzzles me.  His essays vividly depict his childhood.  It’s obvious that all of his novels, being concerned with minutiae in the lives of extremely introspective characters, are somehow autobiographical.  Sometimes the narrative is so interior that it doesn’t make sense to ask whether it happened.  It’s just thought.  On the other hand, with Paul Chowder, Baker takes pleasure in imagining himself as a screwup.  What is Baker really like?  Shaking his hand at a book event doesn’t quite suffice.  I was left wondering if the brief accounts in Substitute of driving to work and eating lunch, cursing under his breath and fiddling with his phone were the closest I’d gotten to Nicholson Baker as he is now.

**** Seriously.  I also recently read a book about a daylong battle for a remote outpost in Afghanistan and a Jack Reacher thriller.  The Afghanistan book was good, but Jack Reacher doesn’t hold up that well against Nick Baker, Substitute.