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Liu Cixin: Dark Victories, Hidden Thoughts

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Interstellar and The Grace of Kings.

Centauri Trio

Is science fiction really the literature of possible future histories? Or is it a veiled metaphor for the author’s own time and place, safely hidden behind a charade of robots, rocketships, and aliens?

I vote for the latter. Even science fiction that claims to be nothing more than escapist fun can be easily mined for political, social, and philosophical themes reflecting the view out the author’s window. Of course, this might be because every nation has a dark side and hidden sins, so even the most modest of inquiries can throw up menacing shadows.

It’s sometimes easier to perceive this outside of one’s own blind spots. As an example, consider Liu Cixin (instant lesson in Mandarin: it’s pronounced Lyoo Tsi-shin, and Liu is the family name). He’s one of the most popular authors in China these days, and he’s recently come to the attention of English-speaking audiences with the first volume of a trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, which won the 2015 Hugo.

Liu has apparently stated that his novels are not political commentaries, and given how Chinese premier Xi Jinping is cracking down on dissension, I can’t blame him for such claims. I’m pretty sure Premier Xi does not read this blog, so I can state openly without worrying for Mr. Liu’s safety: this is not actually true. Both The Three-Body Problem and its sequel, just published in English, is shot through with current political and social concerns.

The Three-Body Problem opens with the floridly described horrors of the Culture Revolution (described in China nowadays as “the ten years of turmoil”). The embittered daughter of one of the victims ultimately betrays the human race to menacing aliens from the Alpha Centauri system, whose triple suns’ chaotic motion continually erases notions of progress and stability.

The second book of the trilogy, The Dark Forest, tells how humankind faces impending invasion by a far superior culture and how it plays out over the centuries it takes for the “Trisolaris” to arrive. Humans are already being spied upon by sophons, higher-dimensional artificial intelligences, so we have to assume all conversations and communications are being monitored and intercepted. (No, no relation to modern day politics whatsoever.) The only refuge is in one’s private thoughts. Out of desperation humankind appoint four men to create secret plans to resist the Trisolaris, men whose orders, no matter how outlandish, must be obeyed without question.

Cultural RevolutionMeanwhile, humanity must struggle against the doomsayers and Escapists who believe the only chance for survival is to abandon home and emigrate, and those who secretly collaborate with the enemy. Worse, one by one we learn that all the secret plans for resisting the enemy involve Pyrrhic victories almost as bad as the invasion itself.

Let me pause here to say to any of you thinking this sounds a bit over the top: read recent Chinese history. Imagine if today the Zetas and other narco trafficking gangs invaded the US, defeated our military and at gunpoint forced us to sell drugs legally and openly–and you’ll have exactly the situation China faced with Western nations, led by British Queen “El Chapo” Victoria, a century and a half ago. And after that things really went down hill.

In light of that history, it’s not as shocking that by the end of The Dark Forest, the last remaining secret planner and the central figure of this volume, Luo Ji, has figured out the solution to the Fermi Paradox (“where are all the aliens?”), and boy, is it a chilling, paranoid answer, something so dark it even frightens the Trisolaris. Where this all leads will have to wait, for those of us who don’t read Chinese, for the release in 2016 of the final volume, Death’s End.

Chinese novels often do not translate seamlessly into English and English novelistic sensibilities, and this is very much so for Liu’s work. The prose, in English, caroms between between florid, overly precious metaphors and boxy, inedible infodumps. Characters are thinly drawn, women doubly so. Although I don’t see it as a fault, I suspect many English-language readers will struggle with the stream of Chinese names, even with the helpful footnotes and list of characters.

Nonetheless, I thought The Dark Forest a stronger novel in many ways than The Three-Body Problem. The themes and conflicts felt more natural and less forced than those in the first volume. (It did not help that the chaotic astrophysics claimed for the Alpha Centauri system in the first volume struck me as highly overblown.) The story arc, revolving around Luo Ji even when at far aphelion, was tighter. Most importantly, The Dark Forest, with its solution to the Fermi Paradox, comes far closer than its competitor to the putative “novel of ideas” science fiction nominally presents. Most of the “ideas” in science fiction I find shallow. Ask yourself: after reading Heinlein, did you really long for junta rule, or the joy of incest? Do you really remember any of the soporific dialectic debates among Asimov’s robots?

My own conclusion is that science fiction is not a literature of ideas, but it is a literature about our response to ideas. That’s the case here too. The Dark Forest is not that much deeper intellectually, but the mad secret at the heart of the novel, and what it says about us and the scarred fears we carry with us, is more chilling than any bat-winged tentacle-faced monster Lovecraft dreamed up. Ji’s discovery whispers of the terrors that almost destroyed us during the Cold War, that did destroy millions of lives during the twentieth century.

And have we shaken it off? Reflect on events of the past ten years, or even just the past year. I say any statement that Liu’s trilogy is apolitical is an untruth; but in his defense, one can convincingly argue it’s not just about Chinese politics. It is about living deep in the shadows of the dark forest of the human condition, everywhere, and in every time.

Athena’s postscript: I haven’t read Liu Cixin’s novels, so I can offer no opinion of either the works themselves or their translation. However, my views on SFF as “the literature of ideas” are contained in The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction and To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club.

Images: Top, comparison of size and star type between Sol and the three stars of the Alpha Centauri system; middle, Cultural Revolution poster; bottom, Liu Cixin.

13 Responses to “Liu Cixin: Dark Victories, Hidden Thoughts”

  1. John Thiel says:

    I think there should be more close looks taken at science fiction as it relates to our present-day existence.

  2. CWJ says:

    I think it’s easier to see it when you are outside a culture, and harder to see the implicit assumptions and connections when you grow up inside it. When we were in China recently, the “propaganda” aspects, and blunt historical revisionism, in many museum displays etc. seemed obvious to us. But it also caused us to wonder: how many unspoken and unchallenged assumptions, how many clumsy “edits” to our history, are there in our museums and cultural programs back home? It caused us to consider our own blind spots.

    (Thanks for coming over from F&SF, John.)

  3. Mark Pontin says:

    CWJ: “Most of the “ideas” in science fiction I find shallow. Ask yourself: after reading Heinlein, did you really long for junta rule, or the joy of incest? Do you really remember any of the soporific dialectic debates among Asimov’s robots?”

    Come now. If you’re picking Heinlein, you’re setting up a total straw man — pretty much the emblematic Dunning-Kruger figure of American magazine SF.

    Even in American magazine SF in the (post)Campbellian tradition — and even in Campbell’s ASF — which was an outgrowth of the pulps, there were more intelligent things than the highly-overrated Heinlein. The best of the Kuttners’ stories — and they were actually far more the mainstay of ASF during the 1940s than Heinlein — are far better, for instance.

    More to the point, SF is more than American magazine SF. H.G. Wells’s SF still stands and the ideation in Stanislaw Lem’s HIS MASTER’S VOICE, FIASCO, SOLARIS, or GOLEM XIV or “The New Cosmogony” is pretty breathtaking. Even within the American tradition, I’d guess that something like Budrys’s ROGUE MOON provided grist for thought experiments among a few 1960s-era students who later became philosophers. See forex Derek Parfit on personal identity —

    And even in 1950s-era American magazine SF product on the level of Pohl/Kornbluth THE SPACE MERCHANTS and GLADIATOR-AT-LAW or Frank Herbert’s UNDER PRESSURE, those authors were thoughtful people and there’s a lot they got right about how the future would be. Alas.

  4. Athena says:

    I’ll let Calvin answer Mark’s comment for himself — but I’d like to point out that even today, (too) many people say “AsimovHeinleinClarke” when asked where to start in SFF. Especially when the concept of “novel of ideas” raises its hoary upper and lower heads.

    ETA: My views on SFF as “the literature of ideas” are contained in The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction and To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club.

  5. CWJ says:

    Hi Mark, glad to see you over here!

    I won’t argue that Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke are the absolute pinnacle of thought in SFF, but as Athena points out, they are among the most representative. We can’t really claim SF as a literature of ideas if we have to exclude some of the biggest names. You and I and Athena know who Kuttner and Budrys and Kornbluth are, but does the average Hugo voter know? I’m not sure. (I would hope they do but….)

    Even for most of the examples you give, I would say the strength of those novels are not the ideas themselves but the vividness of the images. Few or none of those novels provide truly great intellectual insights, and I say that as someone who enjoys those books. Rather, they are more akin to political cartoons–brilliant cartoons, in some cases.

    Let’s look at some of your examples. Wells for example. War of the Worlds is a brilliant inversion of Western colonialism, but it is a cartoon: the Martians are literal bloodsuckers, and they are stupid bloodsuckers, too, who can master interplanetary travel but apparently have no concept of the germ theory of disease. War of the Worlds is a brilliant sucker-punch of a novel, but if you really want to understand the devastation wrought by colonialism I recommend Congo: the epic history of a people, by David van Reybrouck. The Time Machine is wonderfully memorable, but it too is a cartoon version of socialist critiques of class structure. The Invisible Man suggests we would all be monsters if only we could escape societal constraints. And so on. In all these cases Wells has written vivid, memorable stories—but they are not, I submit, deep analyses.

    It’s been quite a few years since I read Rogue Moon, but what stays with me is not the central conceit, the killer maze on the Moon and the teleportation whangdoodle, but the gruff, introspective characters and their oblique dialogue, so different from what had been found in SF up to then. (Frankly, for my money, Budrys’ Who? is a better novel of ideas, although, since the basic idea is already summed up in the title, it too is not that deep.)

    The Space Merchants is a wonderful send-up of American consumerism, but it’s not like one needed a Nobel Prize in economics to think that up. And while the novel is clear-eyed on the grotesqueries of capitalism, it’s still shackled to the assumptions of the 1950s, particularly in its roles for women. I’m not saying we should judge novels from 60 years ago by our standards today–but I am saying that their perceptiveness had a very narrow field of vision. (If you want a truly worldview-changing book on American capitalism, read Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, which documents thoroughly how US fortunes were literally built on the back of slavery, both in the south and in the north.)

    I’m not saying the stories you list are not great books. They are vivid and memorable and at their best they poke holes in the accepted narrative. But that is mostly what they are: hole-pokers. Poking holes in the accepted narrative is a very valuable service, but it is not the same as a deep analysis.

    I know you to be a smart, perceptive, and well-informed critic, Mark, and if we don’t see eye to eye on this it may be as much a matter of definition. It may be that we just aren’t starting from the same idea of an “idea” or “deep.” I fully admit I am prejudiced by being a scientist. I value evidence, and I value systematic evidence, and I value falsifiability, all of which is missing in most “novels of ideas.” Science fiction strikes me as a collection of ideas which _sound_ good. Some of the ideas sound _really_ good. But _sounding_ good isn’t the same as _being_ _correct_. I have different standards for that. I have a talent for ideas, even in physics, which _sound_ good, but proving them to _be_ good is another order altogether.

    This is why I tend to insist that literature in general, and SF in particular, can be very powerful in describing our emotional response to events, including to ideas. I just am not that impressed by the ideas themselves.

    My apologies for the long response.

  6. steven johnson says:

    Haven’t read the second volume yet. But the notion that the Cultural Revolution justifies the annihilation of humanity seems to me to need a little justification. There was a line in the novel to the effect that a class enemy of the revolution would of course be hostile to humanity at large. I suspect it was just put their for political deniability, but the thing is, that being a legitimate viewpoint is essential to the plot, and the to the characterization of the heroine.

    As to being a literature of ideas, there is an absolutely crucial scene in which the heroine’s father, questioned by Red Guards, resolutely insists on the Copenhagen Interpretation and the compatibility of supernatural beings in another universe with science and such. Now these are ideas, but does it count as literature of ideas if reviewers don’t bother to engage with or criticize them? At any rate, I don’t think there are really very many cases where the ideas are the point. Even bad writers are generally interested in writing a story, not an essay. The rare exceptions, like G.G. Simpson’s SF novel, are not representative of the field, I think. Also, since an essay is also literature, why couldn’t they be a part of stories too?

    (By the way, Liu Cixin acknowledges only cynical motives for Red Guards in the first novel, and acknowledges no rational motives for any Red Guard factions at all, not even those aligned with Liu/Deng.)

  7. CWJ says:

    Steven, of course the Cultural Revolution doesn’t rationally justify the annihilation of humanity. People, including fictional characters, can and do respond irrationally to traumatic events.

    I don’t think the professor’s defense of the Copenhagen interpretation rises to a central idea in the first novel. I read that scene merely as example of where ideology raged against science. I would say, and other readers may have different ideas, the central thesis in The Three-Body Problem is how easily we human betray one another. That’s not really an intellectual idea, but it is certainly a powerful and pervasive theme in the novel.

  8. steven johnson says:

    The first novel’s heroine thought so. I don’t think the novel really presents her as responding irrationally, the novel really does consider her response a fundamentally reasonable response. I don’t think the fineness of her perceptions and the wisdom and serenity attributed to her are accidental traits. And that’s why the martyrdom of reason in the person of her father wasn’t just about the Copenhagen Interpretation but the reasonableness of religion too.

    My opinion, of course, not yours. I suspect the thing is, I believe there are more sciences, more knowledge than physics. And looking at the evidence provided by chemistry and biology and the history and sociology of real world religions, I think it was the professor who provided an example of raging ideology. I mean, what kind of human being would condescend to insist that science can’t tell us there isn’t a Santa Claus in a North Pole kids can’t ever get to? All the while implicitly insisting their official position made this nutty opinion the best truth available?

  9. CWJ says:

    I’m afraid I have gotten lost as to what point you are trying to make.

    I don’t accept that the protagonist’s (I won’t call her a heroine, given that she sells out the human race) beliefs necessarily represent the views of the “novel” or of the author. I don’t in general, and I certainly don’t for this trilogy. The second novel in particular is focused on the theme of people hiding their true thoughts and intentions.

    If you think the novel presents her response as “fundamentally reasonable,” that just means to me the novel successfully presented her point of view.That’s what skilled novelists do.

  10. steven johnson says:

    I thought Ye Wenjie is the woman most admired by other characters. I’m not literary, so I’m easily confused into thinking this is a statement about her, not her point of view.

    Yet of course you are correct that I haven’t even read the second novel, so my perspective is necessarily skewed. Thanks for your patience.

    As for the point I was making, again I’m not sure that any significant number of authors are writing novels of ideas, not even Peacock who was doing character sketches. Although it occurs to me that you could consider novels of character exercises developing the writer’s Theory of Mind.

  11. CWJ says:

    One of the themes of the first novel is how easily humans can turn on each other. The opening scenes from the Cultural Revolution–where people, especially young people, have been encouraged to turn savagely on their families, teachers, and friends, are a prime example. I read the admiration of some characters for Ye Wenjie and her treachery as being in parallel. Others made read it differently.

  12. CWJ says:

    Germane to the discussion of the “novel of ideas:”

    “A novel with ideas is one thing: Any good novel, and indeed any bad novel, has plenty. A novel of ideas is something else. Ideas, after all, so easily slide into ideology.”

    [Cue discussion of Ayn Rand in next blog post]

    Also, and this is my key critique of “the novel of ideas”:

    “Philosophy, however, must not seem real. It must actually be real, advancing its arguments, as in a geometric proof, through a succession of facts.”

  13. Athena says:

    Moser got it right, including his point about love (even in — horrors! — War & Peace). Mishra got it wrong. Perhaps to project gravitas, he ignores all the “non-default” US experiences and the literature they elicit/ed.