Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Book Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Remembrance of Earth's Past #1)

There is a sci-fi novel called The Three Body Problem. It is written by Cixin Liu, and translated by Ken Liu. In 2015, Barrack Obama picked this book for his winter reading list. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg named it, the book of the year. In what followed, The Three Body Problem won Hugo Award for Best Novel, making Cixin Liu the first Asian author to have won this award.

The Three Body Problem has established an impressive record in the US. This phenomenon is even more impressive, considering the book was originally written in Chinese and translated into English - How did a Chinese sci-fi novel gain such overwhelming popularity and support in the US?

The simple answer to the above question: The Three Body Problem is a great book!

I am not a fan of sci-fi novels, but I really like this one. This book sets your brain in motion, it makes you think. Even as I am sitting down and writing this review, my mind is still unpacking this book. There is so much to say about this novel, but I cannot discuss too much of its content lest I spoil the story. As a start to this review, let me provide a (spoiler free) synopsis.


1967, China

The spirit of the revolution soared high across the Middle Kingdom. In Tsinghua highschool, a mob of young Red Guards, chanting a song about the infallible Chairman Mao, brought a middle aged man onto a stage to be trialed. The man had a look of academia about him, and despite being surrounded by a circle of feverish mob, he stood tall and proud, unwavering. The mob announced the man's name, Ye Zhetai, an astrophysics at Tsinghua University.

Ye Zhetai's crime; he was an intellectual, an elite, an enemy to the “people”. In the true spirit of the revolution, Ye Zhetai's wife stood up and denounced him too.

Nearby the mob stood Ye Zhetai's daughter, Ye Wenjie. She too, was an astrophysicist. Ye Wenjie watched helplessly at her father, while he defended himself against the mob with nothing but reason and rationality. Before long, four Red Guards, girls who could not be more than 16 years of age, beat her father to death with a whip.

As Wenjie fled the school, she cast a final glance at her father's lifeless body, and sorrow consumed her soul. She made a narrow escape to the rural regions of China. As an exile, Wenjie found some safety until she entangled herself in deep trouble again. She wrote a comment for an American book, a book banned by the people's revolution. Fortunately for Wenjie, she was spared of her father's fate when she was recruited by The Red Coast Base, a top military establishment commissioned by the communist government for carrying out a secretive operation.

Wenjie arrived at the Red Coast Base on a wintry day. The piercing cold was assaulting the facility, transforming it into a palace of snow. Little did the rest of the world know, as Wenjie stepped into the base, she would also write the future of mankind...

My thoughts on this book:

The Three Body Problem intrigued me with its scope and suspense. But the first thing I wish to mention, this is a “hard” sci-fi novel. This book is not a space opera. What does this mean? While this is a sci-fi story, but The Three Body Problem talks about real science. The author, Cixin Liu, believed that nature/science itself tells a wonderful story. Following this belief, Cixin Liu built the story on theoretical physics, which also led to the discussions on numerical methods and computational modelling. In other words, The Three Body Problem is not like Dune or Star Wars. It is also unlike Andy Weir's The Martian. While this book talks about science and history, but at its core is a political thriller. Think of The Three Body Problem as a combination of: Contact, The Manchurian Candidate, A Brief History of Time, and a history of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

If you are unsure about this book because theoretical physics and numerical methods are not your forte, then I wish to provide you with a reassurance. For all of its talk on theoretical physics, The Three Body Problem IS a novel, it tells a thrilling story and it is surprisingly easy to follow. The author had a talent at depicting the sciences in a vivid and captivating manner. Furthermore, at the core of this book lies a thriller. The author did an excellent job at mounting the suspense and veiling the plot with layers of mysteries. It suffices to say, the story took many unexpected twists and turns. It surprised me and it gripped me. This is an intriguing book with fascinating ideas, and I found this book hard to put down.

I mentioned earlier, The Three Body Problem was originally written in Chinese, and then translated into English. Here I want to applaud Ken Liu's excellent work at translating this book. I am bilingual, I know Chinese too. Anyone who can speak two or more languages knows, when a book is translated into another language, some its meanings, the culture, and the nuances of the story, are often lost. But this is not the case for The Three Body Problem. I think the English translation successfully preserved the richness of the story.

Throughout the book, the translator provided footnotes at the bottom of some pages. This is to explaining the significance of certain Chinese historical characters, sayings, or culture that are foreign to a western reader. I think those footnotes are great! I am also very happy that this book received a quality English translation and it became popular in the English speaking world. It is a cultural exchange, I think it helps to building bridges and connecting different cultures. I mean, while many famous works of Western literature are well known in the Asian culture, but not many famous works of Asian literature are well known in the Western culture. For example, my parents, who are not fluent in English and living in Asia, have both read famous Western literature such as Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind. But how many people living in the Western world have read The Romance of Three Kingdoms, or Dream of the Red Chamber? I can only hope, more Asian literature will receive quality translations in the future. This is not only for cultural exchange, but more importantly because I like good stories, I believe good stories are worth telling and knowing, good stories should be shared among people despite language and cultural differences.

The most surprising aspect of this book is its portrayal of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (hint: It was not a positive portrayal). Apparently Cixin Liu is regarded as China's Arthur C. Clarke, and I was really surprised to a Chinese sci-fi novel becoming so successful in the mainland despite its negative portrayal of the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps this is a sign of progress. Meanwhile, reading about the Cultural Revolution was terrifying! I have always lived in an environment that encourages science, independent thought, and free speech. This is why I found the story of cultural revolution horrifying, where the mass just collectively decided to kill science and reason, then replaced it with anti-intellectualism and systematic indoctrination, in favor of a centralized thought control governance. And reading about this history is even more alarming today, considering in the recent years, we are seeing a resurgence of superstitions, where people turn away from science; the anti vaccine movement, global warming denialist, believing in prayer healings, angels, so on and so forth. I think this is why, this kind of book is important, and I wish more people would read books and think critically.

Some readers expressed their dislikes about the characterization in this book. Some have said, the characters in this book are flat, two dimensional, and they appear to exist for the purpose of telling the story. I can understand where these readers are coming from. The Three Body Problem does use an unusual storytelling method. In my opinion, this is a matter of cultural difference. Let me explain.

Chinese literature often favor “plot-driven” storytelling; a Chinese novel often focuses on narrating a string of events, where the characters are parts of the story and not the story itself. For example, a book may describe Bob Cheng doing X and Y, but it rarely describes Bob's thoughts and emotions. Western literature, on the other hand, are more “character-driven”; the stories often explore individual characters in great details, it focuses on how the events shaped the characters' thoughts and emotions. Let me put it this way - In the Western literature, a book may spend 80 pages on how Frodo felt about the ring without him even leaving the Shire; you get to know Frodo really well in those 80 pages but he hasn't done much. Meanwhile, in the Chinese literature, within a space of 30 pages, the story already talked about how General Guan Yu slain 5 generals in bouts of single combats, then led an army and conquered 10 cities in 6 months; you get a sense of big scope at a fast-paced storytelling, but you don't know much about Guan Yu's emotions and feelings. Which method of storytelling method is better? I don't have a preference. I think both methods have merits. For me, these differences don't bother me as much as I just try to enjoy a good story.

So there you have it, my thoughts on The Three Body problem. I like this book and I believe it is worth reading even if you are not into science fiction. While I have discussed the many intriguing aspects in this book, but I don't think my review has any spoiler. A word of caution, I would avoid reading the book blurb on Goodreads and Amazon. This is because they revealed too much of the plot and it spoils the story. Otherwise, I highly recommend The Three Body Problem to you, and I hope you would like it as much as I did.

Friday, April 7, 2017

A Book Review: Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman - The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

I was an evangelical Christian for 7 years, then I left my religious faith to become an agnostic atheist. There are five defining doctrines for evangelical Christianity, AKA, the five “solas”. One of them, is called, Sola Scriptura. What is this? In English, it means “scripture alone”. A few definitions are being included in Sola Scriptura, but one of its definition clearly separates evangelical Christianity from its Catholic parents. What is it? It is the view, the Bible is sufficient to itself to be the final authority of the Christian doctrine. This can explain, why the evangelical Christians do not subscribe to apostolic tradition.

Where am I going with this? Feel free to read on, let me continue and explain why this is related to my book review.

After I left the evangelical church, I did not become an agnostic atheist straight away. No, I took some time and explored the more ancient churches, such as Catholicism and its Eastern brother. During that time I discovered, without apostolic tradition, the evangelical doctrine of Sola Scriptura is unsustainable and unfounded. I realized, subscribing to Sola Scriptura can lead to inconsistencies in Christianity, landing the Christian faith on a shaky ground. (Here I will refer to a book called, “Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic”, authored by David Currie). 

However, my intention here is not to expounding the merit and the demerit in apostolic tradition and Sola Scriptura. No, I am here to review a book, written by Professor Bart Ehrman, and it is called “Misquoting Jesus – The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why”.

What is the connection between Professor Ehrman's book and the contents of the above paragraphs? Well, evangelical Christianity claims, the Bible is sufficient to itself to be the final authority of Christian doctrine. Meanwhile, all Christians claim the Bible is “without fault”. But what if the Bible we have today has deviated from its “originals”, because in the thousand years of its transmission, it was changed, modified, and have some verses/words added and removed from it, by the people who copied it? If this is true, then which copied manuscripts are self sufficient and without fault? All of them? But what if some copies of the manuscripts show remarkable differences to other copies, in terms of its theology and historical descriptions? If this is true, then what do descriptions such as,"without fault' and "self sufficient", even mean for the Bible?

Ok, one may argue, even if the scribes made some unintentional/intentional changes here and there in the manuscripts, it still wouldn't affect the general thrust of Christianity. If this is what you think, then you NEED to read Misquoting Jesus. You see, scholars have closely examined the surviving Bible manuscripts. The manuscripts are usually dated to centuries after the time of Jesus, and scholars found ten thousands of variations in them. While it is true that most of these changes are insignificant, but others do affect Christianity remarkably; sometimes the changes set Christian theology on a very different course, while other times the changes lead to contradictions in narrated events. This book talks about all these changes in details. Yet, the best thing about Misquoting Jesus is that Professor Ehrman digs deeply under the surface. He doesn't just show you the changes that were made to the Bible. No, Professor Ehrman employed textual criticism and reconstructed what the “originals” probably looked like, then he examined the changes in its historical context, and finally showing us “who” changed the Bible and "why" they changed it. 

I enjoyed reading Misquoting Jesus, it is like a piece of detective work. On a deeper level, I think this book also reminded us, just like the human scribes who physically changed the Bible, every generation of Christians are also changing the Bible every time they read it; they are re-interpreting the words in the Bible, to see how those words might make sense to their own situations in life, 

A personal note, I found this book valuable because I realized, without all these changes, the Bible probably wouldn't sound as good as the preachers made it out to be. 

Postscript 1:

Here I will provide an example to demonstrate the problem of Sola Scriptura: 

The doctrine of trinity, where does the Bible say God is EXACTLY three? 

Let me put it this way; suppose I tell you, there is a TV, a bookcase, and a bed in my home. Without adding or removing information, how can you conclude that I ONLY have those 3 items in my home and nothing more?  

If Sola Scriptura is to be employed with integrity, then the logical conclusion should produce the doctrine of AT LEAST TRINITY. So where did the doctrine of trinity come from? From the ancient church tradition! The scripture alone is "not sufficient" to justify this core Christian doctrine. I have no vested interest at debating which church tradition should be included, but I think there are other reasons to take an interest in the doctrine of trinity. What sort reasons? It will become more apparent, if you read Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus and his other book, How Jesus Became God, where you will find the fascinating history behind the conception for trinity.

Postscript 2:

This is a tangent to Misquoting Jesus. While apostolic tradition stabilizes the Catholic and Eastern churches from the shakiness produced by Sola Scriptura, but these ancient churches face a different challenge - they need to demonstrate that apostolic tradition, passed down orally, has never changed in 2000 years. Personally, I think it is very difficult to justify this claim. 

Until the next time, happy reading!