The three body problem

There’s a problem in mathematics called the ‘three-body problem’. How two bodies interact can be encapsulated in a relationship where everything is clearly understood; what is termed as a closed-form expression. When there are three bodies that interact with each other, a lot has to do with how they start out, the initial conditions. Unless the initial conditions are specified in some way, it is difficult to model how these three bodies will interact with each other, unlike say when two bodies interact.

How do two bodies interact? Take any franchise like Vampires versus Werewolves or Aliens versus Predators. There’s an A versus B configuration — there is a clear winner and the one who loses. Good versus evil. A Manichaean duality. A binary. When there are two bodies involved, things are, erm, usually, predictable. A lot of the science fiction is premised on a duality — aliens versus human beings. Or this species versus that. And that’s why I was intrigued when I started reading the Inheritance trilogy.

I am not a fan of trilogies — it is like a long-term commitment; and comes with all its attendant worries. People renege on promises. I am looking at you Patrick Rothfusss. I started Patrick Rothfuss’ books and the second one irritated me so much that now I don’t care if he writes the third or not (I don’t think he will. If he has to tie all the threads, it will be a five-o-logy. ). I am waiting now for Tomi Adyemi to give us the third and final (yay!) instalment (sources say she has finished second draft). Yet, I wasn’t too concerned starting off on the Inheritance trilogy, for it was by NK Jemisin. I had already read the Broken Earth series and it ticked all boxes, and then introduced some boxes you didn’t even know existed.

The Inheritance trilogy starts off with the story of three gods. There are humans, gods, godlings, and all sorts of other creatures, and the whole cosmos gets more layered and intricate as the series progresses. What to me was so striking about the way the tensions are built in the book is that it is about how the Three interact; the balancing, the imbalances, the jealousies, and the quirks. This series demands a trilogy, for it is not just three different stories, but the story of a different universe, which needs that kind of space and time for all the unravelling to happen.

In some ways, I have begun to think of this trilogy as a myth. Now, the Greeks had two ways of understanding what was going on with our lives. First was logos, logic, the stuff of science and maths that tells us that there’s something called a three-body problem. The second is mythos — the stuff of stories. That tells you when there are three people in a relationship (or more, hello polyamory!) what happens. The trilogy has the heft of a Myth, with a capital m, as it weaves a crackling storyline with existential questions about mortality, gender, power, love, madness, and loneliness, add what you will — all that which makes us difficult to capture in neat variables and equations.

An article by Karen Armstrong:

Whenever I read such a fantasy book, I imagine - can it be made into a movie? And I can happily report that it would be atrociously hard to do that with the Inheritance trilogy. There are a lot of concepts that deal with the metaphysical — dimensions and spaces inhabited by the Gods, which defy a visual description; in a way, the telling is more powerful here than the literal showing of it.

There’s an undercurrent of humour through the series — a sort of snark, that makes the sound of the book (yes, books have distinct soundscapes) like a fireside tale rather than a sermon from the mount. Many Indian books in English who write about gods flounder with the language — either it has terms such as ‘pros and cons’ (I am looking at you Amish T for permanently searing that paragraph into my brain) or it has a wonky idea of how gods would speak (strange third-person lines). On the other hand, Jemisin wields language in a way that serves both the banter and the bizarre.

In the acknowledgements in a book, NK Jemisin thanks her subconscious, for conjuring up certain characters (I cannot tell you more about those characters; it would come in the way of you savouring the books). In another time and place, I would have thought of those as visions — signals from another dimension, a sly craft that constructs worlds and beings, and you dwell there long after her voice has left the page. In another time and place, I would say, she is a mage, or perhaps, even today that is true. For what are stories but homespun magic?