The Three-Body Problem

The author of this "science fiction" novel is Chinese, and the cultural pressure on Chinese authors is very different from the pressure on American authors. Both are atheists. There are no good hard-core atheist novels, nor are there any good Christian novels, because (as Orson Scott Card pointed out in one of his more enlightened essays, part of an otherwise forgetable collection of short stories) if you write with religion in mind, it spoils the story. I know, I tried it, and nobody (except of course the author and sometimes the choir he's preaching to) likes them. Atheism is just another religion, and the authors who focus on that religion still spoil their stories. I've said so in my blog several times (see for example "InfoQuake" last year).

But there is a fundamental difference between American atheists and Chinese atheists, which the Chinese do not share with any other major culture, and that is that the Americans -- including most of the world outside the far east (perhaps excepting also sub-Saharan Africa) -- grew up in a culture strongly impacted by Christian or post-Christian morality, which even the atheists here cannot escape, whereas the Chinese atheists replaced a religious culture based on shame rather than ethical values, so they have no moral absolutes to push them in any direction at all; anything is acceptable, so long as you don't get caught. Which is why the Chinese junk sold in WalMart and elsewhere in the USA is so inferior to products made here. If you have Americans leaning hard enough on the Chinese for quality control, the shame might kick in, but if you try to trust them to Do The Right Thing witnout constant supervision, it won't happen. Like Ronald Reagan famously said, "Trust, but verify" (which is no trust at all).

People in cultures where they believe that God expects them to Do The Right Thing, they still behave selfishly, but their peers frown on such behavior; in cultures where "Don't get caught" is the norm, their peers admire the courage of malefactors. It makes a difference. When the atheists attain political power, their tyranny is more abusive and pervasive in countries with no moral absolutes; in post-Christian countries the atheist tyrants instinctively know that the people will try to Do The Right Thing, so they need less coercion.

Our Chinese author with the unpronounceable name Cixin appears to understand the problem of evil in his atheistic culture, because he opens his story during the Chinese cultural revolution, where Red Guards were murdering anybody for any reason. Without actually spelling out his disapproval, you can see that it is a profoundly negative thing in his story. Even where people are in denial about moral absolutes, they still believe in them.

As I write this, I'm only a third of the way into this book. It's not true sci-fi at all, but a deeply religious meditation whose main characters happen to be scientists. The function of religion -- besides "believing what you know ain't so" -- is to define what is True, and especially to answer the Big Important Questions in life, "Where did I come from? Where am I going? And most important, "Why should I do that?" The atheist answer to that last question is "No reason, whatever you feel like, just don't get caught." Cixin's early chapters obviously disapprove of that, but he can't really say so because he has nothing better to offer. Later (p.132) he actually addresses (but does not answer -- the atheist answer is unsatisfying and they know it, but he wants to sell his books) the first two questions explicitly.

I turned to the back and read his "Author's Postscript" where he says a little about his early infatuation with the Chinese space program. He uses the same kinds of religious words of wonder and awe as Richard Dawkins did when his own creation started to behave as he intended. The back flap of the cover tells us he was an engineer [not a scientist], so writing what he knows -- or as in all fantasy novels like this one, what he can imagine but has no basis in reality -- does not include much hard science. For example, he has gravity all wrong. It's fantasy, not hard sci-fi. But he's Chinese, and I want to see where he goes with it, the same as I did with the deeply Indian White Tiger (see "It's a Mystery to Me" a couple years ago), and mostly to see if my understanding of the religious issues here is on-target.

I think Cixin intended his readers to be appalled when the scientists in his story started committing suicide -- it certainly bothered his principle characters, but unlike American fiction writers, the Chinese novelists apparently have not yet advanced to the stage where they see it their duty to jerk the reader around, so Cixin is gradually introducing us to the notion of a universe with no laws of physics. This is an important insight, and he seems to be developing it carefully. God made us so that we need something bigger than ourselves to give us a reason for living. For theists, Christians and Muslims and pagans alike, God (or gods) provides that purpose. This is why Vox Dei said that the only rational act for a true atheist is suicide. Christians in particular have a God who created the universe under a system of moral absolutes -- because God is Good, and that means something -- so modern science, which requires a behavior (if not belief) in moral absolutes, came about in a profoundly Christian culture, and nowhere else ever. The Chinese and the Hindus and the Muslims and the atheists can copy our technology, but they have no philosophical basis for inventing their own. I think Cixin understands that, and his story seems to be heading down that path.

When I picked up the book, the title seemed vaguely like a physics problem, which I may have heard of in the distant past but had no immediate knowledge of. After reading his far-eastern mystical philosophy for a while, I began to wonder if it was just a metaphor for trying to do science with no moral absolutes. Then he finally got around to introducing us to his aliens who (like Asimov's Nightfall) inhabit a planet in a multiple-sun system. He explains the "three-body problem" as the inability of mathematicians and physicists to come up with a mathematical formula to explain the influences of multiple large bodies in space on each other. But like I said, Cixin is no scientist, so in his fictional system the three suns randomly and often very suddenly reverse course or disappear for long periods of dark. I don't think that's possible, because the so-called three-body problem does not nullify the laws of physics (such as inertia and gravity), it only makes the math to explain it very difficult. The three suns still must rotate around a common center of gravity, and if there ever is what he calls a "Stable Era" when the sun rises and sets in a regular fashion (like we experience here on earth), that means the planet is rotating on its axis and will over the course of a single day see all the suns rising and setting at various times, regardless of where the vaguaries of his Chaotic Era drives the planet around the unpredictable motions of the three suns. It will never be possible for a sun to suddenly stop and reverse course in the sky, or just plain disappear. Stuff like that. But it's fantasy (as that TV writer so memorably said six years ago) and "there are no guidelines, or like structures that you get stuck into, it's sci-fi, it's make-believe, you can do whatever you want, because who's to say it can't work?"

He introduced his strange system as a virtual-reality video game -- in other words, fiction within the fiction -- then later said it was a real system, so I was not motivated to let the unreal physics cause me to abandon his story when it came up. Whatever. I now see it as fantasy, like stories with unicorns and flying dragons and ring-shaped planets, things that might make the story interesting to some people, but not me.

It turns out this is the first volume of a trilogy. Fantasy writers get so enamored with their own cleverness, they tend to like to do that. Sometimes hard sci-fi turns into a story too long for one book -- next on my stack from the library is a space opera that looks like it it's at least six volumes long, but at least each book (so far)  comes to a satisfying conclusion -- but Cixin's book ended on a cliff-hanger. Not something likely to invite me to pick up the next -- especially if the library doesn't have the whole series. But the real show-stopper is that it's fantasy, not hard science. It got worse toward the end. You can do that in an atheistic universe where there is no God to set up the laws of physics to match His moral laws, everything is "time, chance, and natural causes," and now with quantum mechanics, there are no rules. People find that unsettling, and even Cixin knew that and said so.

2019 April 12