Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Three Body Problem, The Mermaid and Mr Pip

Threebody.jpgThe Three-Body Problem poster.jpgMermaid 2016 film poster.jpg

It's most people's common understanding that in outer space if you propel an object in one direction, it'll continue in that direction never to stop. And furthermore if you happen to be that object no one can hear you if you do in fact choose to scream. Unless you're in the movie Gravity. Moving in one direction in space for eternity would be a human problem but in physics it's very straightforward. There is a force that causes an acceleration, then a speed that moves a mass. Without any other forces applied to the object, speed would be constant. Of course our common understanding is wrong because in space there isn't just one object. There is a whole universe of other bodies all exerting strong and subtle influences. That is, if you are that object, you may eventually change direction but would probably have expired by then.

One body may not be a physics problem and neither are two bodies. The Moon and the Earth have regular orbits, even Iron age cultures could predict the motion of the Moon well enough to predict eclipses. And this was without understanding the true nature of the motion and gravity. Both bodies would have gravitational attraction for each other and these two forces create a regular, stable relationship. One might be simple, straight and lonely whereas two provides elegant orbits with ellipses.

However, as in conventional morality, once you add a third body into the theoretical model, all hell breaks loose. The Three Body Problem is a classic physics puzzle. Three bodies co-influencing each other creates huge calculational difficulties. And it must have been an interest in this puzzle that writer Liu Xinci started a science fiction trilogy called exactly that The Three Body Problem 三体. It was so successful that its translation won the Hugo prize for Science Fiction in 2014, a first for a Chinese author (the second book in the series has been nominated for a Nebula award for 2016).

The book's background lies in a very real Three Body Problem, the Alpha Centauri star system, but first book, Remembrance of Earth's Past, is predominantly set on contemporary Earth. It lingers a long time in China's Cultural Revolution period in a rather critical way, which might surprise those that believe there is no creative freedom in China. Science Fiction and the Cultural Revolution. Red Guards and Aliens. They aren't in the same scene, of course, but this book has a narrative that is distinctly Chinese and distinctly Science Fiction. I've finished the first book and waiting for the second and third books to be delivered. Considering my interest in astronomy, too, it's good to have fiction propelling my interest in science. Just this morning on a walk I listened to how within 50 years we might have our first sensors in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri, which incidentally has a shadow of happening in the first book itself.

And it's to be a movie soon, albeit marketed to Chinese audiences. One interesting aspect of our increasingly multipolar virtually democratised worlds we live in is that there is far more room for cross-over hits, that is a creative work that exceeds its target audience, culture and geography to become global. Go back 20 years and it was more or less one way: English works, whether British or American, going into non-English cultures. Now it's pleasantly more diverse. No matter what you think of it in retrospect, Gangnam Style's unexpected success shows that singular talent can break through any kind of barrier. Gangnam is still the highest viewed video in YouTube history almost 4 years on.

And that leaves us with the astonishing comparison of two movies Kungfu Hustle and The Mermaid. They were both movies created by comic genius, Stephen Chow. Kungfu Hustle was a cross-over success, scoring a US$17 million dollars. This may seem low but it's huge for a foreign language movie. It scored US$20 million in Mainland China and over US$100 million worldwide. And was the movie that gave Stephen Chow name recognition abroad. A few movies later The Mermaid comes and blows away all the records in China, with US$526 million in ticket sales in the Mainland alone. This even by global standards is huge. But it only made $3 million in the US market. Such is the appeal of different movies. It made a tidy $25 from us at the Events cinema on Queen Street. It'll stand to be seen whether The Three Body Problem, which succeeded in winning awards from sci-fi judges as a book or as a movie can attract audiences for whom it was not intentionally directed.

While I wait for the second book of the trilogy, I've been making up for lost time and reading another high profile award nominee of the past, Mister Pip. Though not finished yet, it akes for good reading, and paints a picture of history in a place that was only lightly sketched in my childhood memory: the instability of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The Pip in the title refers back to the protagonist of the Dicken's classic Great Expectations which I haven't read. But reading Mister Pip almost makes you feel like you've read it as the story of both books and the characters are enmeshed.

My reading enmeshes facts of my life and our modern world and my life enmeshes the reading as it happens. It's a surprise that I only became the voracious reader I am now after the age of 25.

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