Transcript - Season 1, Episode 2: Frontiers of Science

Jim: Hello, welcome to the Rehydrate podcast. This is a podcast about The Three-Body Problem. And the rest of the Remembrance of Our Past series. The unique proposition of this show is that we have four hosts, and each of the hosts has a different level of experience with the series. For example, I'm Jim, and I've only read the first book, but I have not read the rest of the series.

Dan: Hi, I'm Dan, I've read the entire series multiple times.

Tim: Hi, Tim, I'm new to the series, I've only read up to the chapters that we are covering today.

Amin: This is Amin, and I too, have only read up to the chapters we're covering today.

Jim: Let's introduce this next segment, which we're calling Following Up -- the Rehydrate Follow Up.

The first order of business is we have a website. It's at rehydrate dot space; spaces in like space and time outer space. And you could go there to listen to the actual show on the site. But you could also check out show notes and read about the background of the hosts, read the reading lists, whatever you want. do really anything you want there.

And Dan could tell us more about the reading list that's there.

Dan: On the website, we have reading lists. I went through the entire series and broke up the books by more logical chapters. That way, we're reading chunks of the story at a time. And if you want to read along with us, you can know what to read ahead, for the next show. Obviously, we'll mention it, but you can kind of see how the breakdown happens over the entire series.

And so additional follow up we had from last time, there's a discussion from Jim that we wanted to talk about. He had asked the question, "If Chinese people have the expression of 'heavy cross to bear'?" when one of the characters had tied the head had been pulled into the theater to be put on trial. So of sorts for his supposedly crimes against the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution. Anyway, he had mentioned that, it's a heavy cross to bear and Jim thought, "Does that really even register within like China? Is that a translation difference?" So I checked with a Chinese-speaking person, and that is a phrase that came from that pure Chinese people do us it's not a very Christian country. It's a very secular country. They do use that phrase. I don't know. She didn't know where it came from or why they use it, but it is something that they they use. And so even that literal Chinese translation, it says, "cross to bear". So answered.

The other piece of follow up that we want to talk about last time is I had said that Liu Cixin had said that the Uighur and other Muslim minorities are criminals. And Jim question if that he actually said that. So apparently he did not say that. But he did call them "terrorists." So it's, I don't know, that's better. So specifically, he The court said, Would you rather that they'd be hacking away at bodies and train stations and schools and terrorist attacks, if anything, the government is helping the economy and trying to lift them out of poverty." So not great. bodies? Oh, just to clarify what he actually said versus what we talked about.

Dan: For this episode, we're gonna go into the summary of chapters three and four from the three body problem.

So we started out with Ye Wenjie waking up to find that she is being transported on a helicopter. She meets Yang Weining, a former graduate student of Ye’s father, with whom they would disagree about theoretical vs. applied physics and which makes a bigger impact.

Upon arriving at Red Coast Base, Ye is given the choice to remain there and work on what they refer to as a “large-scale weapons research project” or take the helicopter back and face a 6-10 year sentence for her supposed crimes. She quickly agrees and enters the base. She witnesses a test of the base... one that seemingly generates a transmission of large amounts of electrical energy that lights up the sky.

Forty years later, we’re introduced to Wang Miao, who is met at his house by police and members of the army, asking if he has spoken with members of the Frontiers of Science. Wang Miao is told that a general has requested that he attends a meeting later that day, and Wang Miao eventually agrees to go.

At the meeting in Beijing, Wang Miao along with Shi Qiang (nicknamed Da Shi) meets with an international group of scientists, military, and police.

We find out that Wang Miao is working on nanomaterial, a technology that can be made into a string as thin as one-hundredth of a hair and cut a speeding car in half if it were to pass through it.

Wang finds out that the reason they have asked to meet with him is that several high-profile members of the Frontiers of Science, including one he was familiar with, Yang Dong, from his time at the Liangxiang particle accelerator, had recently committed suicide. The Frontiers of Science is a well-known group of academics that asks the question, "What is the limit of science?"

Yang Dong had said in her suicide note, “All the evidence points to a single conclusion: Physics has never existed, and will never exist.”

After some goading from Da Shi, Wang agrees to join the Frontiers of Science to find out a potential cause.

Wang leaves the meeting and General Chang gives him an ominous warning: life as he knows it will be changed, and he should prepare for the worst.

Tim: I kind of like the setup here. It's doing a lot of kind of mysterious, "What what the hell is going on?" -- good sci fi setup here. I was, a little jarred by the kind of 40-year jump here, because I was kind of hoping at the moment... and I'm expecting part of the premise of this book is maybe to go back and uncover what has been going on in this 40 years and what this research facility was doing. But in the short term, I was kind of hoping to spend a bit more time with Ye.

I don't know if this is like an ensemble cast, or if it's going to like jump back and forth between time periods. But I kind of liked the setup here: mysterious facility doing mysterious sciency things, birds falling out of the sky, showing that there's massive amounts of radiation being emitted from this thing.

She didn't hesitate to take on the job of being sequestered in this facility.

Jim: So I read that as she wasn't necessarily interested in the project, at least at least in these chapters. I imagine she just didn't want to go to prison, and experience the rest of that outside world and all that insanity, and was just happy to just live inside this facility forever because everything's so crazy and chaotic.

Tim: I mean, her lawyer or whatever it was explaining to her that she'd probably get off with a fairly light sentence. So I don't know, it seems like she was pretty drawn to whatever was going on in here.

Dan: I disagree with Jim that she wasn't as interested in the actual stuff that's happening. I think she was interested, and her background in physics, and other stuff that seems to be associated with it, really was what drew her to making a decision.

Jim: But they also gave her a chance to think more about it and all this stuff. And I don't think you would jump at that. About the thing about getting off with the light sentence: that was the sweet offer, right?

Dan: She had known the person who was escorting her as well. And knew that he hid his background. So that's, that's kind of what I'm thinking, based off of his questions, her knowing that he was like a person who would argue the more theoretical versus applied nature of physics. I think that's why she kind of jumped at the chance of working on this mysterious project.

Jim: No, I think that's the other way around. He was for his political savvy, right. And he is for Applied Science.

Dan: But we don't know that she is not also for Applied Science versus theoretical science.

Amin: I think this discussion is a sign of what I was most frustrated with, which was the writing in general, and maybe it's the translation of these books. Around this time, they do a terrible job of exposition through the whole thing where people are just talking so we, the readers, know a lot of stuff. One of the soldiers who's escorting her in the helicopter says, "I did find two possible candidates, but both would rather stay at the May 7 Cadre schools than come here. Of course, we could forcefully move them, but given the nature of this work, we can't have someone who doesn't want to be here," but they're kind of forcing her to be here. So I found all of these motivations and everything else to be -- Basically, I just took it as the author needs to move everything forward. So he's just going to pretend like this is what's happening regardless of why.

Jim: On one hand, I don't think that's necessarily bad writing to make it hard to tell what somebody's motivations are. Sometimes that ambiguity is interesting. But you are right about the exposition, which I actually didn't notice the first time I've read through this. There's a part I marked in chapter four, when they're talking about Da Shi -- he's the McGarnagle character -- and then after after he busts in like the the like somebody else's talking about him about how how rude he is, and he says, "He's got quite a record during a hostage crisis crisis a few years ago. Didn't recklessly." And that's like that's like one quote, like this is supposed to be one person, just like talking in a conversation.

Tim: Like a prosecuting lawyer-like opening.

Amin: To me that sounded like something you would see like in a bad 90s action movie just to get the plot started this one.

Jim: Yeah, it's also like the kind of thing you see in role playing games when you're pressing 'A' to get through the stuff. I think the reason I didn't think too critically about that is I'm sort of used to things like that. Like, if you read like HP Lovecraft, he's just bad. He's just not a good writer. But they're interesting ideas and you want to see what happens.

Dan: But I also think that the entire series really I think Ye Wenjie is actually the most fleshed-out character and does have the most known motivations. Where Wang Miao was more just like deer-in-the-headlights, foil for... The character doesn't know anybody need to know anything. He's the proxy for the reader. Right?

Tim: Yeah, he's the audience insert. In these four chapters I'm setting myself up to see if this... This seems to be -- I'm thinking more like Michael Crichton of China, rather than... I think there's been a lot of glowing praise of this book, more than a contemporary, great novel would, and I think that's partially just due to the cultural crossover. People are kind of discovering this for the first time.

Jim: Sounds a little more philosophical than then Michael Crichton. There's a lot about the nature of reality, and stuff like that in this book.

Tim: But Crichton was more like, "Here's a cool science thing.

Jim: And then when he did get philosophical, it was, "You know what? Men could get sexually harassed, too."

Actually, this reminds me of this part where I noticed where after Ye decides she's gonna go for it says, "Other than the Undiscovered Country beyond death, from which no one has returned. The place she wanted to be most was this peak separated from the rest of the world." I was just wondering, what is the Undiscovered Country? Is that a phrase for the afterlife? The Undiscovered Country?

Tim: Are you asking, "Is that a Chinese translation thing?"

Jim: Yeah, is that a cultural thing? Is that, like a heaven kind of place? Or is it like, Canada?

Tim: It's just such a purple prose way of describing the afterlife to me. And it does seem okay, just stemming from some translation thing.

Dan: Generally, in these things, and we'll probably find this throughout the series, we're gonna see kind of weird phrasing like this one or "bearing a cross." And so what I do is I go back to the original Chinese version of it. And then I have a source who speaks Chinese, who's able to look at it and give me more context around what it actually means. And so that'll probably be a common thing that we do throughout this series, I bet.

The book translations are actually done by two different authors. So Ken Liu does the first one, the third one, but then the second one is done by someone else I forgot the name of. But you might even see even different kinds of translation weirdness based off in the second book than than the first one.

Tim: How did you all I feel, upon first reading it, feel about the Frontiers of Science?

Because this to me, seems like a total literary type construct: this clandestine group of free thinking scientists. Now, obviously, the context is different in China, but if somebody tried to describe something like this in contemporary Western culture, I would just assume that the Frontiers of Science is just a bunch of pseudoscience weirdos mixed with Ayn Rand-ian types. Like they'd all write for like Quillette or something like that.

Jim: I think he says, though, that they're all accredited, established scientists, and that that's why they're able to get people in there.

Dan: I don't think it's clandestine at all. Wang Miao knew about it. And it seems like a maybe they don't have a website.

Jim: It's legit.

Dan: It's a bit like it's like a loosely-affiliated group of high-minded scientists who get together and talk about science-y things.

Jim: Yeah. It does remind me of another trope of the secret that kills you: The Ring where you watch this video and you die, that kind of thing. Didn't didn't Snow Crash have something like that in it? It's you learn this phrase, and then something will happen to you.

Tim: Yeah, that was all about weird phonetics or repeated phrases or something like that.

Dan: Amin, what did you think since you're the other non-reader here?

Amin: I agree. It's if it was a real thing, it would seem like some weird, flat earth or climate denial or something like that kind of thing. But otherwise, I thought it was a good construct to bring people together.

Tim: Yeah, it's a very literary-type group only occurs in sci fi stories or fiction.

Dan: It's also weird that they all kind of know each other. I don't know how big the scientific community is in China. But China is a big country. It seems like, "Oh, Wang Miao knows this person and this other person. And Ye Wenjie knew this other guy."

Jim: Well, it is a thing among mathematicians, right? They have the Erdős number, which they each keep track of how many degrees of separation there is between them and Erdős. I forgot his first name, but he is a famous mathematician, Paul Erdős. He used to travel and work with mathematicians throughout the world. And therefore, people were able to say, "Oh, I know him," or, "I knew a guy who knew him."

And they seem pretty aware of each other. I think he knew...

Dan: He knew Yang Dong.

Jim: Yang Dong. I think he knew of her because she's famous, right?

Dan: Well, He worked at the same place. He worked at the particle accelerator.

Jim: Oh, right.

Dan: And she's the leader. And everyone was like, "Oh, it's a female running this?" because ...

Jim: Oh, yeah. There's all that creepy stuff about how he's taking a picture of her and stuff. Yeah, it was weird. "Oh, my photographs all my life hav been lacking because she was not in them." I think literally, he said that, right? Almost.

Amin: He said "Wang had always thought that his photographs lacked some kind of soul. Now he understood that they were missing her," and 'her' is in italics.

Jim: Well, you know what? I think this is not an uncommon scientists type.

Amin: So this is a complete tangent. But have you ever heard of the Erdős-Bacon Number?

Jim: Kevin Bacon plus?

Amin: Well, yeah, Erdős number plus your Kevin Bacon number. And so the lowest you can get is a two, I guess.

Jim So the people who have are basically mathematicians who know Kevin Bacon?

Amin: Apparently through some mathematician who was in Good Will Hunting, who also has an Erdos number of one. So I think, I think he's at a three. And I think he's one of the lowest in the world with an Erdős-Bacon number anyway.

Jim: Oh, three, three. Okay. So somebody in Good Will Hunting* was in something with Kevin Bacon.

Jim: Okay. TLDR everything. It's sort of feasible that you know about other famous physicists.

But I thought it was interesting that the PLA officers showed up with McGarnagle and the other guy. And he was able to say, "No." It's just like, "Shut up and get out of here. It's not your business." That's kind of interesting. I always thought that's it's a lot of trouble if the PLA shows up at your door. Obviously, things have changes since the Cultural Revolution and all that. Maybe every episode I'll comment on something that's surprising about the liberalism of China.

Dan: That might be intentional to show how much has changed in 40 years, right? Like China has become not way more liberal. Still, compared to here... All right. Well, I don't know if that's true. It's a more closed society and a more authoritarian society, then here. But it's still changed a lot in 40 years, where scientists would be murdered and put on trial for their beliefs. But now you have some nerdy science guy saying, "Get the hell out of here."

Jim: I guess you could do that. But I was thinking about that one guy who -- that doctor who just said in a private, "private," WeChat, "Hey, guys, there's this new thing called the Coronavirusin Wuhan. Everybody, be careful about that." And the government was looking through those logs and said, "Oh, hey. We need you to publicly state that you're lying about the existence of COVID-19."

Dan: I think even in America, if you had a story where the Army showed up and asked you to go somewhere and someone refused that also be surprising, right? Usually if the army shows up that's serious business. "I gotta go. I don't really have a choice."

Jim: And I think the rest of the chapter, they had the big council getting together about this. And it's sort of interesting that had such an urgent issue. But I guess this is all... Who knows? I was thinking Wang Miao was the only lead they had into the Frontiers of Science. But they could have invited a dozen other scientists that have gotten invitations to the Frontiers of Science.

Dan: Well, they had the other scientist, Ding Yi -- Yang Dong's boyfriend.

Jim: Wasn't he in other books of Liu Cixin? Is he a recurring character or something?

Dan: I'm not sure.

Amin: Yeah, there was a footnote about that.

Jim: Oh, yeah. Okay.

Amin: Also towards the end of that chapter. I laughed at the way the cop tricked, "tricked," Wang Miao into joining. The reverse-psychology-trick.

Dan: I put that on my notes too, is that he Marty McFly-ed him.

Jim: I was thinking of Bugs Bunny. The Bugs Bunny-Daffy Duck thing.

Dan: I have it right here: "It's better this way. I disagree with the plan anyway. So many bookworms have already killed themselves. If we send him, he'd be a meat dumpling thrown to the dogs." Wang Miao was like, "What did you call me? You call me 'chicken'?"

Jim: I think it explicitly states that Da Shi is there because he's such a master of human psychology and perception and stuff like that.

Dan: Well, they also establish that Wang Miao hates him, right? Or he doesn't like him. Like, "I have to sit next to this guy."

Jim: He knows what buttons to push. And he's able to figure out, "Oh, based on the way your eyebrow is..." It's a little bit of like the Sherlock Holmes-thing. "I could figure all this stuff about you from your reaction while reading this piece of paper."

Do you think this is a common literary archetype in China?

Dan: Didn't The Departed have something like this? That's where they had those common things? And the kind of cop stereotypes right? But like they consumed Hong Kong media as well.

The Departed is super famous, the Chinese version. It's really big in China. And all the Jackie Chan movies probably have hardboiled cops or whatever. They also consume a lot of American media to where it's prevalent here.

Tim: There's a lot of John Woo and Chow Yun Fat movies that are all pure, cop stereotypes. And Chow Yun Fat flicking his toothpick at the angry police chief. "I'm gonna do it my way and slide down this banister and just blow everybody away."

Dan: I remember I had a positive impression in my mind of Da Shi. And I remember you talking about that last time, too, Jim. Is that because of the stereotype? And we think it's funny because it's the Chinese version of this? The hardboiled cop stereotype?

Jim: I mostly think he's obviously a very functional character. And you need somebody like this to move certain parts of the storyline. But no, I thought it was funny that he's just basically a really, really on-the-ball, on-the-nose sort of version of this character living here in this science fiction story.

Amin: There was a passing footnote where they referred to an author named Qian Zhongshu. And in the footnote, they described him as a "Chinese Thomas Pynchon." So I was intrigued enough where I bought what Wikipedia says his most famous book, called Fortress Besieged. I am going to spend my time reading that this next week, because it sounds interesting.

Tim: So that's, that's a cool book title.

Amin; Yeah, I might have something to share next week about Fortress Besieged.

Jim: Dan, any other thoughts?

Dan: It's interesting I think like you I'd never thought about the kind of exposition dump kind of writing and that kind of stuff in it. I didn't think about it when I read through. I hope it doesn't cover my opinion of the book. I don't think it will, because I think that bigger concepts of the book are the things that are important. So I'm excited for you guys to get that revealed. And I'll just say I think the story is wrapped up extremely well. And there's not going to be unsatisfying mysteries. So I'm excited for it to kind of talk about that as they reveal it.

Tim: The story as self-contained in this book or in the trilogy itself?

Dan: It's self-contained in this book.

Jim: I did think about whether or not this format is unfair to books. It's a format where it's easier to talk about small things that jumped out at you that were not good, like all the hardboiled detective stuff. But I guess that can't really be helped. I mean, we could try to be like really mature about this or something.

Tim: It kind of works okay for this format, in that we're just doing a couple chapters at a time. But things are moving quickly. You can tell that this probably will be pretty well-adaptable to a TV series or something like that. I've read plenty of fantasy novels or other types of novels, where if we just broke it down into a couple chapters, we'd have nothing to talk about, because it was like all exposition and slice-of-life stuff, but no real plot points being moved forward.

Dan: One interesting thing might be another perspective for you guys. If you have time, or for the listeners if you want to: there's a movie called The Wandering Earth that was also written by Liu Cixin. And when I watched it, it very much reminded me of his writing style. So that kind of gives you an idea of like how his writing could be filmed. So it might be interesting for you guys to watch -- I think it's on Netflix -- to watch it and kind of see how his stuff actually translates to the big screen.

Jim: All right, So next time, we're going to talk about the next couple chapters, I believe? Is it the next two chapters, Dan?

Dan: Yes, chapters five and six. I know it's kind of a slow pace. But story-wise, it made sense to stick to the next two chapters. Throughout this book, we have between two to four chapters, depending on how the story ends at particular points. And I tried to think about it like as if the TV show, had episodes. It's all in the reading list. I think this season will have 13 episodes.

Jim: I appreciate you going through and structuring all this for us. And these next couple chapters are pretty interesting. They're, I think I recall, they get more into the nature reality and questioning various axioms that we count on to make the world work and cool stuff like that.

All right. We'll see you next time.