Science Fiction with Chinese Characteristics

Liu Cixin's wildly popular Three Body trilogy mirrors China’s changing zeitgeist.

The book covers for each book of Liu Cixin's Three Body trilogy. Credit: Tor.com.

The book covers for each book of Liu Cixin’s Three Body trilogy. Credit: Tor.com.

The massive success of science fiction writer Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem shocked China’s literary establishment. Three Body and its sequels have sold more than a million copies since the trilogy’s 2008 debut and are being made into major movies. This is a very big deal in a country where science fiction – when it was not suppressed by the government – was regarded as juvenile and limited to a niche readership.

The first Asian to win the Hugo Award

Liu, who until not long ago toiled as a software engineer in a power plant, is now well on his way to becoming an international literary star. The English translation of Three Body won the 2015 Hugo award for best science fiction novel, the first ever for a book by an Asian author. This was a particular pleasure for Liu, because by winning the award he followed in the footsteps of his idol, Arthur C. Clarke. The second volume, The Dark Forest, is now available in English and the third, Death’s End, will be published in translation later this year. The series has already racked up more than US $2 million in sales.

Three Body is largely concerned with the story of Ye Wenjie, a physicist in a military-run project to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence in a remote part of China, who makes contact with the Trisolarans, a doomed alien civilisation. Wilfully ignoring a warning from a pacifist Trisolaran not to do so, she reveals Earth’s location to the aliens who then launch an invasion fleet that will reach Earth in 400 years. The Dark Forest describes the complex series of events that result as humanity is divided into those like Ye, who welcome the Trisolarans as saviours and work to help them destroy an unredeemable world, and those desperately trying to find ways of defeating the aliens. 

This is “hard” sci-fi. In addition to delving into sociology, history and philosophy, Liu provides detailed expositions on multi-dimensional engineering, particle physics, nanotechnology and on the eponymous three-body problem itself. First posed by Isaac Newton, the latter refers to the difficulty in predicting how three bodies orbit one another. This is the problem Trisolaris faces. Its three suns move in unpredictable patterns that result in Stable Eras, where night regularly alternates with day, or civilisation-ending Chaotic Eras where the world is plunged randomly into deadly darkness or burning inferno. The seemingly random movements of the Trisolaran suns have already consumed the other planets in their system. They fear that theirs is next, hence their desire to colonise Earth.

Understanding China to understand the universe

Three Body’s extraordinary popularity both in China and internationally belies the familiar ‘first contact’ premise. What sets Liu apart from mainstream (read: white Anglo-Saxon) science fiction writers is a world-view, rather universe-view, that is filtered through Chinese history, especially the political, economic and social upheavals that took place in the 51-year-old’s lifetime. These include the mass violence of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s – the setting for much of Three Body – the rapid industrialisation and the associated widespread environmental destruction that followed, and today’s no-holds-barred capitalist competition and global ascendancy. 

This cultural specificity and the way Liu’s characters capture important strands of contemporary Chinese thought explain the trilogy’s surprising popularity in China. It also rewards foreign readers by reflecting a range of cultural changes in China from the country’s budding environmental consciousness to its willingness to provide global leadership to the role of the individual in Chinese society.

 Three Body begins with a searing depiction of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong pitched the country into a decade of virtual civil war to shore up his political power. Ye witnesses the public lynching of her father, a physics professor, by his students for teaching “counter-revolutionary” scientific ideas such as Einstein’s theory of relativity and is shattered by her mother’s subsequent descent into madness. Sent to a labour camp, Ye is disgusted by her work unit’s wanton destruction of an ancient forest. A smuggled copy of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s powerful critique of the use of pesticides, leads Ye to conclude that humanity is by nature evil and unredeemable.  

“Eliminate human tyranny”

Ye’s seemingly nihilistic decision to welcome the Trisolarans now becomes understandable. “Come here!” she tells them. “I will help you conquer this world. Our civilisation is no longer capable of solving its own problems. We need your force to intervene.” The rallying cries of the aliens’ supporters on Earth, “Eliminate human tyranny! The world belongs to Trisolaris!”, echo the impotent rage and hopelessness of a people who have suffered too much, for too long.

The concept of human tyranny or hatred of humanity arises again in the person of Mike Evans, an American (of course) billionaire and radical environmentalist who bankrolls Ye’s fifth column of Trisolaran allies. Evans is a “pan-species communist” who believes all life forms have an equal right to exist. Through this character and the introduction of Silent Spring, Liu mirrors current Chinese debates about humanity’s relation to the natural world that have been triggered by the country’s catastrophically polluted air and soil, part of the heavy price it has paid for rapid economic growth.

Another theme that resonates with contemporary Chinese people is Liu’s celebration of the power of the (Chinese) individual to reshape history for good or for ill. Ye, acting alone, and not as part of a collective, decides to destroy humanity. Many years later a Chinese space fleet officer is forced to assassinate several senior Earth leaders to ensure that a conservative and hidebound scientific establishment does not hamstring technological development.

The rise of the Wallfacers

In Dark Forest Liu places the future of humanity in the hands of a few individuals. While the Earth struggles with the idea of having to fight a more technologically-advanced enemy hundreds of years into the future, the Trisolarans have deployed on earth “sophons”. Sophons, a creation of Liu’s imagination, are protons that are unfolded into two dimensions and then programmed as artificial intelligence supercomputers. They are quantumly entangled, making their ability to communicate over light-years instantaneous. These sophons then, act as the ultimate weapon of Trisolaris, because they are used to confuse and stymie deep science research on earth before the Trisolaran fleet arrives.

Realising that only the human mind is inaccessible to Trisolaris, the United Nations selects a handful of the world’s best strategic thinkers, dubbed “Wallfacers” – basically so that their faces reveal nothing. The three Wallfacers are given unlimited budgets and tasked with developing secret plans to defeat the Trisolarans, while acting unpredictably to confuse the sophons. The sole Chinese Wallfacer, using clues left by Ye, unravels the puzzle of cosmic sociology.

Fermi’s paradox

Explaining the solution would give too much away, but Liu’s chilling solution to Fermi’s Paradox is truly original. Named for Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, it refers to the contradiction between the lack of evidence of extra-terrestrial life and the high probability that it exists. Most stars have planets, an alien civilisation could be billions of years older than ours and it would take just a million years to cross our galaxy even at sub-light speeds. And yet we have discovered no evidence of any other civilisation, whether through normal channels, or initiatives such as the Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence (SETI) or the latest initiatives funded by the Russian web billionaire, Yuri Milner.

In Liu’s bleak vision of cosmic sociology, the mysterious silence is a survival strategy. Again, given the dark undertones that constantly undergird the book, from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution to the ecological destruction of earth, Liu projects a bleak view of the cosmos, extrapolating from a bleak reality.

Oddly enough, then, the second book ends on a note of cautious optimism, as the pacifists find a means to put their point of view across. Liu himself is no pessimist. While he regards our belief in the benevolence of other species as naïve given the brutality that has characterised humanity’s encounters with the other, he also believes we are not condemned to repeat the past.  And we do not need alien intervention to solve our own problems.

“Let’s turn the kindness we show toward the stars to members of the human race on Earth and build up the trust and understanding between the different people and civilisations that make up humanity,” he writes. The foundation of Three Body’s phenomenal success may well lie in its underlying message of hope and trust, both scarce commodities in China and elsewhere.

The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu. Tor: New York, 2014.

The Dark Forest, by Liu Cixin, translated by Joel Martinsen. Tor: New York, 2015.