Autistic Book Party, Episode 28: The Three-Body Problem

Today’s Book: “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu.

The Plot: A mysterious online game invites humans to explore the lives of aliens living in a trinary star system, and factions emerge on Earth with various attitudes towards the real aliens who might be behind the game.

Autistic Character(s): Wei Cheng, a member of one of the factions.

Wei Cheng occupies a brief but important role in Liu’s Hugo-winning novel. He shows up midway through and tells his life story to the viewpoint characters in order to explain a point. He’s the husband of another researcher in one of the factions. He’s reclusive, and is shown having difficulty with activities such as personal grooming, face recognition, creation of appropriate facial affect, knowing when to stop talking, and executive function. It’s the executive function, combined with flattened emotions, that cause him to identify, not as autistic, but as “lazy”:

I’ve been lackadaisical since I was a kid. When I lived at boarding school, I never washed the dishes or made the bed. I never got excited about anything. Too lazy to study, too lazy to even play, I dawdled my way through the days without any clear goals.

The way Wei Cheng describes himself is actually really interesting to me. Of course I am familiar with autistic people who are described as lazy, and who internalize that description. But the way Wei Cheng centers “laziness” throughout his narrative is something I had not encountered before. It strikes me, not just as internalized ableism on his part (although it is), but as a whole different way of looking at how his neurotype works and at what the central deficits are, compared to neurotypical people. I suspect that this is due to Wei Cheng being from a non-Western culture (the book is set in China) but I don’t really know enough to say that for sure.

Despite his “laziness”, Wei Cheng is gifted at mathematics. He struggles in math classes because he cannot explain his intuitive ways of solving problems, but even very advanced problems come easily to him. After earning a PhD, he has difficulty with the non-mathematical aspects of the jobs he is qualified for and drifts around until he meets his future wife, who welcomes him into her secret faction so that he can help solve the three-body problem.

Wei Cheng’s role in the plot confuses me a little. On my first read, he struck me as an autistic person who had been inserted as a plot device. He shows up, tells his life story, suggests solving the three-body problem with an evolutionary algorithm, reports on some ominous events, and then does very little else. But his big scene isn’t even really a plot device, because it isn’t crucial to what else happens in the rest of the book.

A reviewer who is familiar with modern Chinese culture and its view of neurodiversity might have better insight into Wei Cheng than I do (and I would welcome comments in that vein in the comment section!) In the absence of that, I find him a puzzling but interesting minor character who, despite his internalized ableism, is not really badly portrayed.

The Verdict: Marginal

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.