The Three-body Problem, and What America Can Learn from the Cultural Revolution

I rarely write book reviews, but after reading The Three-body Problem I must yawp from my rooftop just how extraordinary this novel is, in the hope that others will experience the same mind-bending awe this masterpiece inspired in me.

The Three-body Problem is by no means slow, though it’s not exactly an action-packed, cliffhanger-type novel. I enjoy those as well, and I’ll highly recommend Red Rising and Ready Player One if that’s what you’re looking for. But Liu Cixin didn’t need to blow shit up to keep me reading through the night: the sheer scope, originality, and power of his ideas do that job more than adequately.

The novel is set in China, largely in Beijing, a city in which I studied and worked for over a year—I can’t deny that was part of the draw for me. Some of the scenes take place across the road from my dormitory at Peking University, and others near the hutong I lived in. But that personal connection provided only a tiny sliver of this novel’s appeal—this tale has the potential to move readers of any genre, anywhere in the world.

In the postscript, Liu Cixin writes: “The greatest and most beautiful stories in the history of humanity were not sung by wandering bards or written by playwrights and novelists, but told by science …. Only, these wonderful stories are locked in cold equations that most do not know how to read.” Thankfully for those of us with minds less brilliant than Liu Cixin’s, he’s transformed these cold equations like the unfolded protons at the end of the novel: into stunning, awe-inspiring scenes that “make known the poetry of Nature.” I took a couple of astrophysics courses in college, and while they were among my favorites, not even the most mind-blowing lectures on quantum mechanics ever shook me the way this novel did.

Liu states in the postscript: “I do not use my fiction as a disguised way to criticize the reality of the present.” While the story can be appreciated as “just” a masterpiece of art exposing the beauty of the cosmos, despite Liu’s claims, it can also be read as a partial guidebook for what humans must change to prevent societal decline. Perhaps Liu didn’t consciously intend to draw parallels to our present reality, or maybe he did not wish to make them clear, as making political statements in China can be like walking on a minefield—it’s sometimes hard to know which move will land you in trouble (my email access was blocked after sharing quite moderate opinions on the 2008 Tibetan riots). Whether Liu intended the parallels or not, I think they are among the most valuable things his novel offers. There were many, from refugee crises to the consequences of environmental degradation, but I’ll cover the one that struck me most: similarities between China’s Cultural Revolution and the current state of American politics.

The story begins in 1967 China, during the “madness years” of the Cultural Revolution, a time when Chairman Mao cultivated a deep current of anti-intellectualism, resulting in the persecution of dissidents and elites. People were placed in positions of power based not on their qualifications for the job, but on their adherence to Maoist ideology.

What happened when Mao replaced experienced hydroelectric engineers with “ideologically pure” hacks to manage their dams? The same things we’ll get from replacing a nuclear physicist as our Secretary of Energy with a man whose solution to crippling Texas drought was to sign a proclamation for “Three Days of Prayer for Rain.” I fought wildfires in Texas that year, and I can assure you, it was hard work and cooperation that put out those drought-fueled fires, not a call to prayer from a man who couldn’t name—and later advocated abolishing—the very department he now heads. And what happened when Mao put ideologues in charge of schools? They created a “lost generation” of students deprived of quality education—the same thing we’ll get from a Secretary of Education who has never worked for, nor attended, nor even put her children in public schools. But of course, she’s an “ideologically pure” donor.

I could go on with examples: prohibitions on communication by government scientists, Steve Bannon on the National Security Council, suppressing CDC research into gun violence, removing scientific data from government websites, Scott Pruitt heading the EPA and stacking it with a hack pack that knows little about climate science, yet rejects the overwhelming consensus of experts (over 97%) that observed changes are largely anthropogenic. But of course, they’ve proved their “ideological purity” by continually ignoring the negative externalities unregulated capitalism imposes on us in the form of poor health, environmental, and yes, even economic outcomes.

My political views don’t fit neatly into a box, and I really don’t care if it’s left-wing Maoists or right-wing Trumpists managing a country, as emphasis on ideology over expertise will cause the same results: national decline and suffering. Not just for our species, but for the others we share this planet with. The Cultural Revolution and preceding Great Leap Forward had disastrous consequences: a crippled economy, over 30 million dead, millions more persecuted and hungry, and widespread environmental degradation. I don’t want to downplay the suffering of that time, so it’s important to note that if America declines during or after the Trump administration, I doubt the fallout will be on the same scale, but if we do not alter our trajectory there will be consequences. America’s political structure and resistance to this ideological administration will moderate economic and social damage to an extent, but in the environmental realm we have the capacity to do much more harm than Mao’s China, and global connectivity will enable our domestic problems to ripple throughout the world.

So what can we do? I think we need to encourage scientists, both professional and citizen, to throw their hats in the political ring. They could run within either of our two main political parties, but I worry that the fight between left and right has become so politically charged they’d be burdened by ideological shackles. Instead of left or right, let’s try another direction—up. Let’s elevate a new party above the petty squabbles of Washington. Maybe call it the Science Party (which I find appealing partly because it sounds like a really fun Friday night). While much of our Republican leadership currently wears the crown of Hyperpartisan King (a crown of shit that hangs down over their eyes, blinding them to reality), the left is not wholly clean: large blocks on both sides have issues on which they refuse to accept scientific consensus (e.g. vaccine safety; anthropogenic climate change; GMO food safety; evolution) and representatives in both parties waste time in ideological feuds rather than accomplishing what we elected them to do.

Science is the best tool humanity has developed for solving and anticipating problems (if you’re not convinced, please see: life in civilizations before the Scientific Revolution). Scientists tend to answer questions based on evidence rather than ideology, and as such are best-equipped to address the problems we face. If they become politically active en masse and convince the American people that their approach can solve or at least mitigate our problems better than the other parties (which have set a fairly low bar), the electorate will elevate the Science Party to the highest levels of politics while the partisans are busy squabbling. The upcoming March for Science in DC and STEM-advocacy group 314 Action suggest that this movement is already germinating. Let’s cultivate it.

As The Three-body Problem makes clear, we’re damn lucky to call Earth home. We could be in a three-star system where our planet’s chaotic climate wipes out civilization every time it rises. Evolution on Earth has bestowed upon us a wondrous capacity for reason. Let’s celebrate this gift. Let’s take care of our home, and take care of each other, because we’re in this together, humans and every other bioform. We’re the rivets holding together this beautiful boat called life, and while we may not care much about the loss of one or two species, sometimes losing a single rivet causes a cascade of others to fall out. Lose enough of them, and we all go down together.

It appears that what I intended to be a book review has devolved into my tangential opinions, so it’s probably a good thing that I rarely write reviews. But The Three-body Problem really got my wheels turning, and I hope you’ll read it. However you interpret it, and even if you just take the story at face-value, I think it contains something almost everyone can appreciate.


I’m a sucker for quotes, and I find myself unable to leave you without at least one, plus a fun image by Paul Sizer reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution’s propaganda posters:

实事求是 – seek truth from facts

“There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of science and literature.”   – George Washington, First State of the Union Address

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