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In Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem, protagonist Wang Miao starts having strange experiences, beginning with a "timestamp" appearing on photographs taken with his old-fashioned non-electronic film camera. These only appear in photos he himself has taken, and not other people. Then he finds the same thing occurring when he uses a friend's digital camera. Finally, he sees the "timestamp" imprinted on his own vision.

He notices that the "timestamp" is counting down, and that it contains components of hours, minutes and seconds.

He notes:

The countdown began with 1,200 hours. And now there were about 1,194 hours left, just under 50 days.

Later, he notices that the countdown stops when he pauses his nanomaterial research, and he is given to understand that if he resumes then the countdown will also resume.

Is it ever made clear exactly what will happen when the countdown runs out?

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  • The implication is "bad things"
    – Valorum
    Sep 5, 2021 at 7:25

1 Answer 1

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In short, nothing. We learn that the countdown is caused by the interaction of 'sophons' (folded AI photons) with the victim's retina and that they lack the ability to affect matter on anything other than a subatomic scale. The countdown is merely an elaborate ruse, presented along with information from their human agents, to stop certain-minded individuals from continuing fundamental scientific research in certain directions. Some acquiesce, others go mad, others commit suicide.

If the countdown isn't sufficient, the Trisolarans will potentially use other means at their disposal (human agents again, or perhaps temporarily blinding a passing driver) to try to murder their targets.

“What happens at the end of the countdown?” Wang asked.

“I don’t know.” She hung up.

What can it be? Maybe my own death, like Yang Dong’s.

Or maybe it will be a disaster like the great tsunami that swept through the Indian Ocean more than a decade ago. No one will connect it to my nanotech research. Could it be that every previous great disaster, including the two World Wars, was also the result of reaching the end of ghostly countdowns? Could it be that every time there was someone like me, who no one thought of, who bore the ultimate responsibility?

Or maybe it signals the end of the whole world. In this perverse world, that would be a relief.

One thing was certain. No matter what was at the end of the countdown, in the remaining one thousand or so hours, the possibilities would torture him cruelly, like demons, until he suffered a complete mental breakdown.

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