In the literature of self-help, recovery and various strains of New Age spirituality, the word ‘God’
has increasingly been replaced with a less creed-driven alternative: the
higher power. This phrase
entered the popular vocabulary in the 1930s, due mostly to the influence of Alcoholics
Anonymous. The term only appears three times in the
Big Book that codifies AA beliefs and
practices, but accepting a higher power is at the heart of the organization’s method, and one of
the 12 steps to recovery.

Does this change in parlance from ‘God’ to ‘higher power’
really make a meaningful difference?  Apparently it does
to a subset of the population—a survey shows that 8% of
people do not believe in the former, but accept the latter.
I suspect that for some, this leap of faith has been life-
changing, and enabled them to overcome personal frailties
and obstacles that, otherwise, might have been insurmountable.
I note that one of my favorite authors, Denis Johnson,
repeatedly dedicated his works to H.P., and I don’t think he
had Mr.
Lovecraft or Hewlett-Packard in mind. Yet when asked
point blank about this matter, his response was "I don’t have
anything to say about theology."

Ah, leave it to science fiction to address a different angle of the
higher power question. The higher powers in sci-fi stories don’t
need any theology either. They have technology instead. They
just show up in their spaceship one day, and demonstrate through
their weapons and gizmos that they operate on a higher level than
the poor human race. This is no matter of myth, doctrine or parable,
but a plausible scenario that might actually occur some day. In the
words of Chinese science fiction author Cixin Liu: "I’ve always felt
that extraterrestrial intelligence will be the greatest source of
uncertainty for humanity’s future. Other great shifts, such as climate change and ecological
disasters, have a certain progression and built-in adjustment periods, but contact between
humankind and aliens can happen at any time."

This is a well-worked field in the territory of science fiction, and at this late stage in the genre’s
history I had little confidence that Liu, or any contemporary, could come up with a fresh perspective
on the first contact story. But he has done just that in his Hugo-winning novel
The Three-Body
. And his breakthrough comes from a simple, but powerful insight. The aliens don’t even
need to send the spaceship. In fact, they don’t even need to appear in the story. The most
significant impact of first contact is merely the knowledge that the higher power exists. Once
humans accept that fact, everything changes. And homo sapiens themselves will be the source of
the change.

According to the theory of Bill Mathers of the RAND Corporation, (a fictional sociologist in
Three-Body Problem
) the moment humans acknowledge that this higher power exists, a kind of
switch is turned on in mass society. “Regardless of the content of the encounter, the results would
be the same….The impact would be magnified by the lens of human psychology and culture until it
resulted in huge, substantive influences on the progress of civilization.”

This kernel of insight underpins the drama of
The Three-Body Problem. The book begins with
scientific enigmas. Certain observable phenomena no longer behave as they have in the past.  
The full ramifications of these changes remain unclear, but a large number of physicists,
confronted with the new reality, have committed suicide. Others are behaving unusually.
Government agencies and military are now involved, but find their traditional tools and weapons
have little to offer in this new state of affairs.

Liu’s fertile imagination is on display as he provides
a bizarre range of hints and anecdotes that, at first
glance, appear disconnected and often inexplicable.
Why does a strange series of numbers, apparently
indicating a countdown, show up in photographs
taken by an eminent scientist?  How does the cosmic
microwave, the background noise of the entire universe,
manage to fluctuate in an unprecedented manner at the
exact moment predicted by a renegade researcher?  
Why are influential people in society playing an elaborate
video game that encourages them to solve the famous,
and perhaps insoluble, three-body problem?  What
emergency situation has spurred Chinese and US
military leaders to cooperate in solving a problem that
no one wants to explain—or perhaps is capable of

Full disclosure: the plot of
The Three-Body Problem involves more high level physics than I have
ever encountered in a work of fiction. But you don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to enjoy the
conceptual creativity involved here. Liu does a worthy job of explaining what can be explained, and
providing poetic comparisons when straightforward explication would prove too cumbersome. I
may never be able to comprehend how a proton unfolds into 7-dimensional space—and sincerely
hope that I won’t need that information in my day-to-day life—but Liu draws me into the process
with enough storytelling firepower to compensate for my sketchy background knowledge.

This novel is as clever on the small details of his plot as on the larger concepts at play in his tale.
An interlude involving an army of 30 million soldiers trying to emulate a binary computer with the
help of white flags and black flags is both preposterous and very amusing. The incident of a cult-
operated tanker ship captured with the help of a nanomaterial trap is like a James Bond movie
scene on steroids.

Alas, the writing doesn’t always live up to the concepts. The prose doesn’t have much grace, and
even when Liu sets up a scene that invites poetic description—for example, the many parts of this
book that take place in isolated natural settings—he is perfunctory in his descriptions. This is
especially odd in a book which places such emphasis on ecological issues. By the same token,
every character in the book is little more than a cardboard figure, building from a familiar
stereotype—from the tough-guy, chain-smoking cop to the opportunist political boss.  Sometimes
these stick figures can be entertaining—Shi Qiang, the police detective, steals every scene he is
in. But they rarely achieve even a baseline degree of plausibility. It’s hard to care about these
individuals because they lack the depth of real people.  Liu ought to spend some time reading,
say, Stephen King or Octavia Butler, where he can learn how genre authors use back story and
subplot to bring characters to life.

So this isn’t the book to read if you want to learn how sci-fi is merging with literary fiction in the
current day. This novel doesn’t reflect that important trend. But Liu may have achieved something
even more difficult. He has taken concept-driven speculative writing and introduced some whizz-
bang new concepts that you’ve never encountered before. That kind of imaginative leap cuts to the
very essence of the sci-fi genre, and is just as essential as metaphors and modifiers in grabbing
hold of readers of works of this sort.

And grab them he does. If you look to sci-fi for big ideas, this work will not disappoint. Cixin Liu is
the real deal, a storytelling visionary who can take on the whole universe in his schemes. By the
way, a film adaptation of
The Three-Body Problem is in the works—in fact, five different film
projects based on Liu works are underway. So I anticipate that this genre lit sensation will soon
turn into a film brand franchise. I’m not sure that will improve the quality of Liu’s writing, but it will
certainly have an impact on his fame and influence.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most recent
book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: September 7, 2018
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

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Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
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SF Signal
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Tor blog

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All rights reserved
Liu's breakthrough comes
from a simple, but powerful
insight. The aliens don’t even
need to send the spaceship.
In fact, they don’t even need
to appear in the story. The
most significant impact of first
contact is merely the
knowledge that the higher
power exists.