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Learning Tone from Liu Cixin's "The Three-Body Problem"

Updated: Jan 3, 2023

The novel's "spoilery" synopsis aroused small controversy in the reading community. If you visit Goodreads, one of the popular answered questions covers the disclosure of the imminent alien invasion. Much of the conversation involved how much the synopsis ruined the novel because for some readers knowing about the aliens removed the agency of the plot. This is the synopsis in question:

"Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth."


You may notice this version is present on platforms like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. The edition I have includes this synopsis. It is the 2014 English translation; translated by Ken Liu, author of "The Paper Menagerie" and The Grace of Kings; and printed by Tor Books. Still, I cannot agree that this was just a money-grab marketing tactic. I believe this was a genuine survey of the writer's work and that this was a method of reaching the appropriate audience. The aliens, which we will learn to be called Trisolarans, certainly alerted my interest, but it was the context of the narrative that made me more forgiving of the late alien reveal. Why? Because the story has substance, it does not rely on a simple external threat, and it also effectively implements tension. Cixin developed a world of reactions to the simple idea of extraterrestrial life.

Starting out with the first few pages, the reader may experience a sense of defeatism, that every good thing is destined to be taken away. Such an atmosphere allows new platitudes apart from a sci-fi alien trope. This is all due to the novel's tone and its balance with the inquiry of humanity. Liu Cixin does not shy away from not only killing off a young female revolutionary but also stripping any dignity from her death. Her corpse is mutilated and filled with bullets leaving only her eye to survive the gore:

...and only a single, beautiful eye remained to stare at the blue sky of 1967. There was no pain in that gaze, only solidified devotion and yearning (p.11).

After the sudden violence follows a recurring loss of joy and beauty. Such as the deforestation done by the Inner Mongolian Production and Construction Corps. The author sets up the scenery with a wealthy and diverse description of the various trees, simultaneously informing the reader of its richness and destroying it:

Ye Wenji could only describe the deforestation that she witnessed as madness. The tall Dahurian larch, the evergreen Scots pine, the slim and straight white birch, the cloud-piercing Korean aspen, the aromatic Siberian fir, along with black birch, oak, mountain elm, Chosemia arbutifolia - whatever they laid eyes on, they cut down. Her company wielded hundreds of chain saws like a swarm of steel locusts, and after they passed, only stumps were left. (p.24)

Of course, the readers and characters of The Three-Body Problem can share this melancholy. When Wang sees Yang Dong's name on a list handed to him during a meeting, he reflects longingly on his first impression of her, the day he saw her standing in front of a giant structure:

In front of the metal monster stood the slim figure of a young woman. The composition's lighting was fantastic as well: The metal monster was buried in the shadow of a temporary construction shelter, further emphasizing its stern, rough quality. But a single ray of light from the westering sun coming through the central hole in the shelter fell right on the woman. The soft glow lit up her supple hair and highlighted her white neck above the collar of her overalls, as though a single flower was blooming in the metal ruin after a violent thunderstorm... (p.58)

Wang had always thought that his photographs lacked some kind of soul. Now he understood that they were missing her. (p.59)

Directly after this line, the reader along with Wang discovers that this woman has committed suicide:

Gradually, his black-and-white landscapes faded into blackness in his mind. The photographs no longer had her figure in the foreground, and her eyes were wiped from the skies. Those worlds were all dead. (p.60)

The tone also transforms the 'alien spoiler' through the exploration of human feeling and philosophical conversation. This novel espoused many visionary ideas, but one I remember most was Wang's encounter with an overwhelming sense of loneliness, feeling like an ant inside a church.

There are many instances when the novel nods to alien existence, but there is a layer of human emotion (typically fear) to that possibility:

"Yes, the entire history of humankind has been fortunate. From the Stone Age until now, no real crisis has occurred. We've been very lucky. But if it's all luck, then it has to end one day. Let me tell you: It's ended. Prepare for the worst." (p.65)

When he lifted his head to see where his subconscious had brought him, he shivered.
He sat in front of St. Joseph's Church at Wangfujing. In the pale white light of dawn, the church's Romanesque vaults appeared as three giant fingers pointing out something in space for him. (p.129)

The lingering sense of futility adds some flavor to a typical alien invasion. This is especially due to certain key characters that played a part in the coming invasion. All this to say that Liu Cixin's craft survives translation and a "spoilery" synopsis. The tone is essential to the atmosphere of a story and writers of fiction should consider its pliability.

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