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The Three-Body Problem is prima facie a familiar enough late-20th century fable: first-

contact segues into alien-invasion, sight unseen; woven into which is a high-res, full-
immersion VR game that seeks to definitively resolve a longstanding theoretical
mathematics stumper. The uniting of this-chalk and that-cheese provides an esoteric
narrative force absent from hard sci-fi in recent years.

That-cheese, the book's titular number, however, turns out to refer to the classical 'three-
body problem', an especially harrowing subset of a 300-year-old astrodynamics
conundrum, the 'n-body problem'. Simply put, the three-body problem addresses the
interaction of three close-set celestial bodies in a danse de trois through Newtonian
gravitational space.

What sets this novel apart from a numerics nerdfest is that it isn't one. It sold half-a-million
copies in China before the English translation won Asia's first Hugo Award last year. Not
that the novel isn't sufficiently geeky and nerdy: for a year now, legions of fans have boned
down to deconstructing Cixin Liu's science and math threadbare, trying to prove it exactly
right or just a little wrong. It's what makes for cult sci-fi.

The window into the book is a footnoted first chapter on the brutish winnowing of
"reactionary academics" at Beijing's Qnghua (Tsinghua) University during Mao Zedong's
Cultural (Proletarian) Revolution's attempt to eradicate the s ji - the 'Four Olds': old
customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas. This culling is historical fact.

Thereafter, the narrative becomes a long, looping departure from China's actual past,
present, perhaps even probable futures. The shadowy but unmalignant leadership of Cixin
Liu's China redux launches the Red Coast astrophysics project mere years after the
ignobling of intellectuals. It is a fictive pragmatism that leads to an ostracised scientist, Ye
Weitei, witness to the killing of her father at Tsinghua, being placed on work detail at the
forbidding Red Coast observatory atop Radar Peak in the mist-wreathed, larch-covered
range called the Greater Khingan (Da Xng'a n) in Inner Mongolia northwest China.

To Cixin Liu's Chinese readers, the Red Coast Base's very location speaks volumes because
of its daring proximity to what was then the land of "Soviet Revisionist Imperialists".
Planting a top-secret, high-altitude project there is giving Russia the finger. Radar Peak is all
patriotic muscle, the surveillance tower of a military panopticon. Or a weapons
Except that it isn't. It is a jury-rigged extraterrestrial-callout programme beaming self-
introductions into deep space. Strangely, this outreach is motivated by existential angst, the
stuff of 'reactionary imperialism'. Then, again, who would know better than a scientist that
a planet bollixed by humans would need a newfangled messiah?

How safe, though, is it to invite a stranger into your home?

The stranger who snags the beamed invitation is, by galactic standards, a next-door
neighbour located 4.4 light years away in the Alpha Centauri star system. Since the first
quarter of the 20th century, science fiction has piled up a fancy corpus of xenohabitats. But
few have been as outre as Liu's Trisolaris - a single planet batted around in the competing
gravitational tides of three suns.

The three suns - the titular three-body problem - is killing Trisolaris. This much is true:
Alpha Centauri is a trinary. In August 2016, astronomers discovered that it also has an
approximately Earth-size, possibly habitable exoplanet - a lucky prescience that has made
an oracle of Cixin Liu.

As it turns out, Earth and Trisolaris are both calling out to each other for rescue. The
Trisolarans have established a Fifth Column on Earth: humans of top-flight intelligence -
who just happen to be Chinese - playing a full-immersion VR game entered through a proxy-
anonymised website and accessible only via a V-suit. The environment of the VR game,
'Three-Body' (Sn t, also the title of the novel's original Chinese edition), is apparently a
facsimile of Trisolaris.

The game seems simple but is a conceptual mess, as would be the case if a polished VR
game were to be used for experimental proof and case analysis. A game-player is led to ask:
"If even an extremely simple arrangement like the three-body system is unpredictable
chaos, how can we have any faith in discovering the laws of the complicated universe?" But
the question remains: Who bungled it, the author or the Trisolarans?

Can a game rescue a dying planet? Or will it kill the Earth?

The Three-Body Problem is the first of a trilogy, Remembrance of Earth's Past. Cixin Liu is the
contrarian Western name of Liu Cxn, whose existence the English-language sci-fi
community woke up to when this novel won the Hugo 2015, but who is a nine-time winner
of the prestigious Chinese Ynhe (Galaxy) Award for khun (science fiction). Liu Cxn's
Chinese fandom - which goes by the name 'magnet' (cti, which rhymes with Cxn) - has
long pushed for a global profile for him.

In Chinese literature, a hair-fine line divides khun from qhun (fantasy) - and qhun
from xunhun (fantasy with Chinese supernatural elements) and mhun (Western-style
magical fiction). The world has only just discovered Sino-sci-fi: The Hugo 2016 (for Best
Novella) also went to the Chinese Ha o Jngfa ng for her Folding Beijing, a mhun with a
premise oddly reminiscent of the graphic novel and movie Dark City.

For all that it is advertised as hard sci-fi, there are parts of T3BP that are straight out of
Oriental fabula (as in, living, dehydrated Trisolarans who can be rolled up like a scroll of
parchment, et cetera).

So, ask yourself this: How much of Cixin Liu's mathematical astrodynamic take on Alpha
Centauri an invention? Is Trisolaris a three-body (trinary) problem or a four-body
(quaternary) problem?