I remember reading a book where an antagonist was on a cargo ship or large yacht with some macguffin that the protagonist needed to retrieve without the antagonist having any time to trigger something in reaction. After considering various other methods of subduing the crew the protagonist and his team erected poles on either side of a canal (Panama or Suez?) and strung “monofilament” wires between them which cut the ship lengthwise and killed everyone on board before they realized what was happening but did not damage the small macguffin.

I think that this was in a novel, and that I read it fairly recently, probably in the last 3-5 years.


1 Answer 1


I believe this is The Three-Body Problem (2006) by Liu Cixin.

The Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience the Hugo Award-winning phenomenon from China's most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

This article describes the scene you mentioned in some detail:

To start with, I loved the idea of the zither. It was a very classy, ingenious use for the cliche of the monofilament wire. Note first that this is a cliche (a ‘trope’ maybe, but I detest that word for its cliche overuse). In the form that appeared in 3BP, nanomaterial monofilament 1/1000th the thickness of hair is strung in strings like a zither between pilings across a straight section of the Panama canal as an ambush trap for an oil tanker being used by the villains. The strings are strung between the banks of the canal attached to chains that can be raised and lowered so that ships which aren’t the target can be allowed through the canal unhindered. When the target ship approaches, the monofilaments are pulled up across the canal by tightening the chains such that the filaments are held in an invisible web of horizontal strands above water line, spaced from each other by only a few feet, like a big hardboiled egg slicer. The author even makes allowances for how the monofilaments can be attached to the chains so as not to shred the anchoring when the target ship pushes against them. When the ship hits the zither, it sails silently through and continues on until the engine of the ship rips itself to pieces and causes the whole boat to slide apart in sections.

  • 1
    i recall william gibson liked very strong and thin wires. i wonder if that is properly considered part of cyberpunk.
    – releseabe
    May 7, 2021 at 18:29
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    Yeah that’s definitely where that scene came from. I couldn’t remember it because I mainly remembered that book for the high-concept stuff...the inherently unstable alien civilization and the secret societies around their pending arrival. Thanks for jogging my memory! May 7, 2021 at 19:01
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    I think the first appearance of monomolecular wire may have been in "A Hole in Space" by Larry Niven -- but it might make an interesting question to ask whether there were earlier ones...
    – Zeiss Ikon
    May 7, 2021 at 19:06
  • @ZeissIkon Larry Niven also wrote a story which included having a spacewalking villain bisected by a monomolecular wire, foreshadowing the plot line being asked about here. I don't think it was in A Hole in Space; maybe the later The Descent of Anansi? - if that is the case, it was coauthored with Steven Barnes.
    – sdenham
    May 8, 2021 at 13:33
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    John Brunner wrote 'The Sheep Look Up' in 1972, and I vaguely recall a scene with a mono-molecular wire across a harbor to disrupt shipping.
    – aMike
    May 8, 2021 at 17:36

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