Let’s continue our look at the first book in the Remembrance of Earth Chinese science fiction series by Cixin Liu, Three Body Problem (刘慈欣的”地球往事:三体”). In chapter 4, Wang Miao calls Ding Yi at a late hour, and they discuss an organization dedicated to observing cosmic radiation that Wang Miao is interested in, but Ding Yi asks if he went to see Yang Dong’s mother yet. He feels that she could answer Wang Miao’s questions about the organization.
After the phone call, Wang Miao sits in front of his computer, thinking about the video game Shen Yufei was playing. He brings up the Three Body website, puts on his virtual reality goggles and ends up in the video game. This portion of the text is italicized as Wang Miao finds himself in the Bronze Age Warring States period, which sets the story between 475-221 BC. He meets two men wearing tattered clothes and animal skins carrying short swords and a wooden box. One of the men, Zhou Wenwang, explains where Wang Miao is. The other man is designated in the game as “follower,” while Wang Miao has the designation “sea person,” though I don’t know how literally that phrase should be taken. Maybe it has a political meaning or refers to him being a sailor, I don’t know.
It’s very cold out in this setting, though the strong sunlight makes them sweat. They see two shooting stars, and Zhou Wenwang suggests it portends the start of a new era. They discuss this, the laws of the sun’s motion, and ideas about different chaotic and lasting epochs. They reach two towers where soldiers are stationed and enter one, meeting a king and a priest clad in black named Fuyi. According to Fuyi, the sun is a temperamental god, but Zhou Wenwang considers Fuyi’s ritual to the sun witchcraft, stating the sun is not a god. Instead, Zhou Wenwang talks about the yin yang balance. A lot of time passes in the game with more going on with this king. The game sequence ends with an odd mention of the chemical composition of snow.
When Wang Miao takes off his virtual reality goggles, he immediately goes out to see Yang Dong’s mother as he wonders why the sun in the video game didn’t follow normal laws. One thing he understands is that he hasn’t played a video game in a long time and that games have evolved considerably in that time, yet “Three Bodies” is still different from these. He also doesn’t understand the meaning of the three shooting stars they observed in the game.
When Wang Miao arrives at his destination, he meets a 60 something, gray-haired old woman who looks emaciated. He guesses this is Yang Dong’s mother, Ye Wenjie. She is an old member of the intelligentsia, and she is carrying a big vegetable basket. Children from the neighborhood are playing nearby since their parents are at work. She takes Wang Miao to see her daughter’s old room first, which has a woodsy feel. He notices the black and white photos include one of Yang Dong with her mother when she was a toddler, though there’s something peculiar about the background of the photo. He feels uneasy looking at it. Yang Dong’s mother shows him a drawing she did as a child, and he thinks it seems uncharacteristically angry and despairing for a child that age. Her mother admits she doesn’t know much about her daughter’s education but can say she was drawn to abstract ideas and eschatology. She feels it wasn’t really a woman’s field, though Yang Dong never argued with her about it. Yang Dong was a beautiful girl, but her mother considered her education a failure.
Then Wang Miao remembers the other reason for his visit, and he asks about cosmic radiation. She mentions that there are two places in the country that observe this sort of radiation, one in Beijing and one in Urumqi. Here is some info on the Urumqi site that looks quite interesting, though I think most Western readers wouldn’t be familiar with it:
As she looks for the phone number of her former classmate, Sha Duanshan, at the one facility, she notes that Wang Miao’s face doesn’t look good and offers to help him. He dismisses her concerns, but she tells him to come back to see her in two days. He agrees.
In chapter 6, Wang Miao goes to Sha Duanshan’s laboratory, which is known for collecting the observation data for three satellites: the NASA’s 1989 COBE satellite, NASA’s 2003 WMAP satellite, and the 2007 European Space Agency’s PLANCK satellite.
For more information on the COBE satellite, here are the details:
For more on WMAP, see this page:
For more on the PLANCK satellite, see here:
All three of these satellites research data dealing with the Big Bang Theory and cosmology. The two men talk about Wang Miao’s theory that cosmic background radiation (formally known as CMB, cosmic microwave background) is unstable. After a deep, technical discussion, Shan Duanshan suggests Ye Wenjie is playing a joke on them. They begin to focus on the COBE satellite as the chapter closes.
Chapter 7 begins the flashback sequence I think was referred to in the interview with translator Ken Liu that I posted last time. This part goes back to the 1967 Cultural Revolution, and it was meant to be placed at the front of the book, but the Chinese publisher felt uncomfortable with that given some related anniversary it was published around, so it was moved to a later part of the novel in the Chinese edition. From what the interview said, the English translation puts these chapters back in the front of the book where they were supposed to go – I don’t have a copy of the translation to verify, but my readers who have been reading that version can comment below – however, I think the placement of them could affect the story and certainly the interest of the reader. As a flashback, I think it works to deepen the mystery of the suicide of beautiful scientist Yang Dong and adds some urgency to the text, whereas I think a linear presentation would take some of the drama out of it since we have no idea who the Ye family is in relation to the present day plot.
In this portion, Ye Wenjie becomes a central figure, and it turns out she is the woman pictured in the drawing I posted last time. I’m not sure how literally we should take her appearance as non-Asian there given the tendency in some parts of East Asia to draw Asians as Caucasian, and this isn’t the only drawing in the book like that. I don’t have any particular complaint about it since I’m no purist, it’s just a curiosity. The first part of the flashback shows her father Ye Zhetai’s confrontation with the 200 member “Red Alliance” who are interrogating people on a platform in a school playground in one of the infamous criticism sessions. The text describes this situation as a “factional battle” and mentions it has already been going on for two hours. Four groups are present in the schoolyard: the Red Guard, the Cultural Revolution Working Group, a working announcement group, and a military announcement group. They are engaged in a cruel trial of strength. It looks like they beat some victims to death when they don’t recognize their crimes or drive some to suicide.
Physics teacher Ye Zhetai doesn’t recognize his crimes and doesn’t commit suicide; he is taken up to the criticism platform where two male and four female Red Guard members target him. The two boys are Ye Zhetai’s students, and the kids question him and tell him he’s talking nonsense. They also bring Ye’s wife, Shaolin, and she accuses him of deceiving her, calls him a reactionary and says she wants to stand on the side of the revolution and the people. It turns out that his father had some professional dealings with Albert Einstein in the 20s. The kids also talk with him about the existence of God, which he says can’t be known while they insist God doesn’t exist. After the interrogation session, he finds his daughter, Ye Wenjie, waiting for him, alone.
The scene shifts to two years later when Ye Wenjie is in Inner Mongolia and writes a letter for journalist Bai Mulin from “Big Production News.” This particular character’s name illustrates why making the effort to read the text in the original language has some rewards, like catching this fun image from the man’s name, which means “bathing in torrential rain.” That sounds more like it should be a woman’s name, but it has a nice poetic feel to it. Anyway, Ye Wenjie talks with him about his English translation of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, and she even reads a little about how environmental poisons are killing insects. The book has a huge impact on her for the rest of her life. Then, Bai Mulin brings up the mysterious location, Radar Peak, where there’s an antenna and high tension power lines that has been disrupting the animals in the forest. A story is circulating that the antenna caused snow on the peak to turn to rain within a certain radius, becoming a coating of ice crystals on the trees. Wenjie is an astrophysicist, and he asks her to write this letter, which in the next section turns up suddenly in the wrong place and gets her in trouble.
Denying that she actually wrote the letter and suggesting she only copied it for Bai Mulin, the colleague asking about it mentions that such a letter could be used to frame her. Mulin also seems to be under investigation. In the next section, Ye Wenjie meets a woman in jail to discuss documents relating to Wenjie’s father which detail conversations that her younger sister Wenxue provided to them. It has something to do with a big national defense project, but Wenjie has no direct knowledge of this conversation and refuses to sign the documents since she can’t verify it. Her interrogator wonders how she doesn’t know about it when her younger sister does.
Chapter 9 finishes up the flashback to the Cultural Revolution for now as Ye Wenjie wakes up to find herself in an aircraft of some kind with two men dressed in military uniforms with five red stars on their hats and red insignia on their collars. One of them asks if she wrote some paper on the sun’s inner stratum of radiation, which was in a 1966 astrophysics magazine. The guard introduces himself as Yang Weining, and he is the head engineer of a base called the “Red Shore.” Ye Wenjie recognizes him as one of her father’s research fellows and remembers when he visited her father at their home.
Finally, the aircraft lands at dusk, and Ye Wenjie has some trouble exiting the plane due to the strong winds. She sees the huge antenna and realizes they are on Radar Peak. A military base is there, and the two guards walk into it with her. Lei Zhicheng, the other guard with them who is a commissar, tells her they want to confront her in a trial over the evidence they have of her counter revolutionary crimes. After they talk awhile, a launch of the base’s huge electrical field is announced. As Ye Wenjie looks out over the dark forest with its many birds, she is a little afraid for the animals.
Chapter 10 returns to the present and Wang Miao’s visit with Sha Duanshan, so I will pick up the story there in the next post. Now that I’ve laid the groundwork, we can hopefully pick up speed and finish it up in the last post on this volume.
When I was looking up Bai Mulin to see if he was a real person, I came across a number of Chinese language wikis for this series, and here is the coolest I found featuring that sharp-looking Three Bodies logo to its best advantage:
It has a cool artist’s conception of Radar Peak here:
Part 2 of 3.