Even what doesn’t happen is epic

Nick Richardson

  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
    Head of Zeus, 416 pp, £8.99, January 2016, ISBN 978 1 78497 157 1
  • The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen
    Head of Zeus, 512 pp, £8.99, July 2016, ISBN 978 1 78497 161 8
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
    Head of Zeus, 724 pp, £8.99, May 2017, ISBN 978 1 78497 165 6
  • The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
    Head of Zeus, 447 pp, £8.99, October 2017, ISBN 978 1 78497 851 8
  • Invisible Planets edited and translated by Ken Liu
    Head of Zeus, 383 pp, £8.99, September 2017, ISBN 978 1 78669 278 8

Science fiction isn’t new to China, as Cixin Liu explains in Invisible Planets, an introduction to Chinese sci-fi by some of its most prominent authors, but good science fiction is. The first Chinese sci-fi tales appeared at the turn of the 20th century, written by intellectuals fascinated by Western technology. ‘At its birth,’ Cixin writes, science fiction ‘became a tool of propaganda for the Chinese who dreamed of a strong China free of colonial depredations’. One of the earliest stories was written by the scholar Liang Qichao, a leader of the failed Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898, and imagined a Shanghai World’s Fair, a dream that didn’t become a reality until 2010. Perhaps surprisingly, given the degree of idealistic fervour that followed Mao’s accession, very little utopian science fiction was produced under communism (in the Soviet Union there was plenty, at least initially). What little there was in China was written largely for children and intended to educate; it stuck to the near future and didn’t venture beyond Mars. By the 1980s Chinese authors had begun to write under the influence of Western science fiction, but their works were suppressed because they drew attention to the disparity in technological development between China and the West. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when Deng’s reforms began to bite, that Chinese science fiction experienced what Cixin calls a ‘renaissance’.

Cixin himself has been at the forefront of the scene since the 1990s. He is the first Asian writer to receive a Hugo award (in 2015), and the author whose work best captures the giddying, libidinous pace of the Chinese economic boom. His monumental Three-Body Trilogy – first published between 2006 and 2010, and recently translated into English by Ken Liu, a Chinese-American sci-fi writer – is Chinese science fiction’s best-known work. Barack Obama is a fan, and the forthcoming movie adaptations are already being described as ‘China’s Star Wars’. The trilogy concerns the catastrophic consequences of humanity’s attempt to make contact with extraterrestrials (it turns out that the reason we haven’t heard from aliens yet is that we’re the only species thick enough to reveal our own location in the universe). It is one of the most ambitious works of science fiction ever written. The story begins during the Cultural Revolution and ends 18,906,416 years into the future. There is a scene in ancient Byzantium, and a scene told from the perspective of an ant. The first book is set on Earth, though several of its scenes take place in virtual reality representations of Qin dynasty China and ancient Egypt; by the end of the third book, the stage has expanded to encompass an intercivilisational war that spans not only the three-dimensional universe but other dimensions too.

The grand scale of Cixin’s story is supported by an immense quantity of research. He graduated from the North China University of Water Conservancy and Electric Power in 1988 and worked, until his literary career took off, as a computer engineer at a power plant in Shanxi province. That training might sound narrow, but his science fiction, which situates itself at the diamond end of the ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ scale (‘hard sci-fi’ has a lot of science in it, ‘soft sci-fi’ doesn’t), demonstrates a knowledge of particle physics, molecular biology, cutting-edge computer science and much more besides. The Three-Body Problem, the first volume of the trilogy, takes its title from an esoteric problem of orbital mechanics to do with predicting the motions of three objects whose gravitational fields intersect. It’s relevant because the alien race the humans recklessly make contact with come from a planet that has three suns, which causes serious climate change issues. Brief ‘stable eras’, with regular nights and days, give way without warning to ‘chaotic eras’, during which the days can last years and a sun can be so close that it desiccates everything its rays fall on. The ‘three-body problem’ is the reason the Trisolarans are delighted to find a planet – ours – that has just one sun and a predictable climate. Naturally, they want to steal it from us. Unfortunately for them our planet is four light years away, which gives us four hundred years to prepare for their invasion.

New technology and the science behind it are always well explained (though never boringly) by Cixin. The best bits in his books are set pieces that would be hallucinatory, or surreal, were it not that everything is described with such scientific authority. One of the most visionary scenes comes towards the end of The Three-Body Problem, when the Trisolarans develop ‘sophons’: tiny robots made from protons that have been ‘unfolded’ into two dimensions, according to principles derived from superstring theory. The plan is to send them to Earth to confuse the results from particle accelerator experiments and report news of humanity back to Trisolaris. But attempts at unfolding the proton, using a giant particle accelerator, go wrong. On the first try, the Trisolarans go too far and unfold it into one dimension, creating an infinitely thin line 1500 light-hours long that breaks apart and drifts back down to Trisolaris as ‘gossamer threads that flickered in and out of existence’. On the second attempt the proton is unfolded into three dimensions. Colossal geometric solids – spheres, tetrahedrons, cones, tori, solid crosses and Möbius strips – fill the sky, ‘as though a giant child had emptied a box of building blocks in the firmament’. Then they melt and turn into a single glaring eye, which transforms into a parabolic mirror that focuses a condensed beam of sunlight onto the Trisolaran capital city, setting it ablaze.

Besides theoretical physics, Cixin appears to have read widely in history, political theory, game theory, sociology, even aesthetics. The main character in the second volume, The Dark Forest, isn’t a scientist but a sociologist called Luo Ji who comes up with the ‘Dark Forest theory’, according to which the universe is like a forest ‘patrolled by numberless and nameless predators’. Any planet that reveals its location is prey; survival depends on stealth. Luo Ji is appointed by the UN as one of the Wallfacers, a small group of individuals charged with formulating plans to combat the Trisolarans. They are called Wallfacers after a Buddhist meditation technique that involves staring in silence at a wall, because in order to evade the sophons they work alone and don’t have to reveal the details of their plan to anyone, not even the authorities who set up the programme. Most of the plans aren’t put into action: the former US Defense Secretary Frederick Tyler, for example, has the idea of offering the Trisolarans a Trojan horse: a hydrogen bomb hidden in a mountain-sized shard of ice (in the trilogy, even what doesn’t happen is epic). Luo Ji’s plan involves threatening to broadcast the location of Trisolaris to the universe, and it succeeds at least in forestalling humankind’s destruction. In the final novel, Death’s End, it emerges that there are civilisations even more technologically advanced than the Trisolarans: they monitor the universe for signs of intelligent life and wipe out any potentially threatening solar systems with the push of a button – they see it as a cleaning job.

This pessimistic view of the universe, in which civilisations must exist in isolation for the sake of their own safety, illustrates a point that Cixin makes throughout the series: that virtuous behaviour is a luxury, conditional on the absence of threat. The Trisolarans aren’t bad, they just want to survive. After a devastating confrontation between Earth’s space fleet and Trisolaran weaponry, a handful of Earth ships escape into space. The plan is to re-establish civilisation away from the solar system, but their crews soon realise that the ships’ combined supplies aren’t sufficient to get all of them to their destination. The first to act on this realisation is an American ship called Bronze Age, which nukes the others, harvests their supplies and continues on its way. Early in Death’s End, Bronze Age is recalled to Earth. Humanity hasn’t been destroyed, thanks to Luo Ji, and is now living in peace and prosperity. The men and women aboard Bronze Age think they’re going to be welcomed as heroes but when they get back home they’re charged with crimes against humanity. The actions of a chaotic era – Earth’s, not Trisolaris’s – are judged by the standards of a stable era. The same thing happens to Luo Ji. Earth enjoys stability because Luo Ji is waiting by a button, ready to broadcast Trisolaris’s location. But after he retires he is charged with genocide: in order to test his Dark Forest theory, Earth transmitted the location of another (presumably inhabited) solar system, which was subsequently destroyed. Immediately after Luo’s removal from office, Trisolaris attacks and the whole of humankind is banished to a gulag in Australia, where it descends into brutal civil war.

In this context, radical political movements are shown to be self-deluding. They appear during stable eras but are made irrelevant, or are transformed past recognition, by real crisis. Cixin wants us to know that communism, especially, sucks. In the first scene of The Three-Body Problem, a 15-year-old girl is murdered in a battle between communist factions with almost identical names: the Red Guard and the Red Union. A few pages later, a physicist is subjected to harrowing treatment for refusing to accept that Einstein’s theory of relativity is reactionary. He is denounced by his wife, who has been pressured into taking the side of the ‘revolutionary youths’. ‘Its static model of the universe negates the dynamic nature of matter,’ she says of Einstein’s theory: ‘It is anti-dialectical!’ In Death’s End humankind is eventually forced to leave Earth and build a system of artificial planets to live on. One of these is a junk planet with no gravity inhabited by crooks, hobos and ‘political activists’.

During the stable era brought about by Luo Ji, human societies enjoy high levels of welfare: no one has to work if they don’t want to, and there’s no inequality – but this is a consequence of technological progress, rather than political revolution. The best thing a state can do is support – but not direct – science on its way to saving the world. Inferring a novelist’s political position from their work is always problematic, but politics is one of the central preoccupations of the Three-Body Trilogy, and its ideological underpinning complements contemporary neoreactionary thinking. This gives it a very different feel to most current Western sci-fi (China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, Margaret Atwood and others), which is largely pro-left. It’s not just the books’ portrayal of revolutionary groups and the state’s economic role. In the novels, the world hundreds of years in the future is still organised cladistically: America is a power run by Americans, China a power run by Chinese people. Indeed, the trilogy can be read as a parable about the perils of inviting into your country foreigners whose ethics have been forged in more violent circumstances. The feminised men of the prosperous era, who are indistinguishable from the women, with long hair, slender bodies and make-up, are shown to be completely inadequate to deal with hardship. As soon as Luo Ji hands over responsibility for the button to a woman, the Trisolarans attack, because they don’t believe she’ll have the balls to press it – and they’re right.

Cixin’s view of the universe as a dark forest may be pessimistic, but his view of humanity and its future is extremely optimistic. We are not in the end times: we are babies at the foot of a long staircase. We will develop superhard nanomaterials that will allow us to build an elevator to space. We will develop rockets powered by nuclear fusion that will take us way beyond the Oort cloud. One day we will be capable of building ring-shaped artificial planets that produce their own gravitational fields. We will live in houses shaped like leaves that dangle from the branches of enormous artificial trees; we won’t carry mobile phones or smart devices since any surface can be turned into an information screen at will. Cixin constantly reminds us of our technological infancy by imagining civilisations that are way ahead of us, lighting the path. One of the most powerful sequences comes towards the end of The Dark Forest, when Earth’s fleet meets a Trisolaran vehicle that makes our most advanced spaceships look clunky:

The probe was a perfect teardrop shape, round at the head and pointy at the tail, with a surface so smooth it was a total reflector. The Milky Way was reflected on its surface as a smooth pattern of light … Its droplet shape was so natural that observers imagined it in a liquid state, one for which an internal structure was impossible.

But by the end of the trilogy, humanity’s technological capability has exceeded the Trisolarans’.

The stories gathered in The Wandering Earth, though short, have the same tone of awesome grandeur as the novels. There’s one in which the Earth, to avoid being destroyed by the sun, is turned into a spaceship and piloted away to another part of the galaxy. In ‘Mountain’, humans encounter a civilisation that once lived in the spherical centre of a vast, rocky planet, and so had the opposite view to our own of what constituted earth and sky. The story that perhaps best represents the infectious aspirational energy of Cixin’s work is ‘Sun of China’, in which China builds an enormous artificial sun to resolve climate change. A peasant called Shui moves from his village to the city, gets a job cleaning windows, then gets a job cleaning the artificial sun, and eventually becomes a space explorer in his own right. Each chapter is headed with a ‘life goal’: the first is ‘Drink some water that is not bitter, make some money’; the last is ‘Fly to the stars, draw humanity’s gaze back to the depths of the cosmos.’ The message is clear: China is a land of possibility, and anyone with the requisite drive can succeed there. ‘Modern society is full of opportunities,’ one of Shui’s housemates, a scientist, tells him: ‘The skies are thick with golden birds. Perhaps one day you will reach out and seize one, but only if you learn to take yourself seriously.’

*

None of the stories in Invisible Planets (besides Cixin’s own) strikes the same note of galloping teleology and scientific triumphalism as the Three-Body Trilogy and The Wandering Earth. Most of the writers in the collection are quite a bit younger than Cixin, who was born in the 1960s, and they appear more jaded. Hao Jingfang, a graduate in astrophysics who went on to do a PhD in economics, contributes the strongest political parable. ‘Folding Beijing’, much like Miéville’s The City and the City, uses the idea of several cities occupying the same geographical space to critique Beijing’s class structure. In the story there are three different versions of Beijing, each inhabited by a different social class: First Space, where the five million members of the elite live; Second Space, which is inhabited by the 25 million members of the managerial class; and Third Space, which is inhabited by the 50 million members of the working class. When the inhabitants of each Space go to sleep, their houses, factories, shops and parks are mechanically shuffled to make way for the buildings of another Space. (Hao describes this process as a marvellous architectural ballet: ‘The skyscrapers bowed submissively like the humblest servants until their heads touched their feet; then they broke again, folded again, and twisted their necks and arms … The ground then began to turn. Square by square, pieces of the earth flipped 180 degrees around an axis, revealing the buildings on the other side.’) The story takes the opposite line on social mobility from ‘Sun of China’: society’s upper echelons are inaccessible, gated by time and space.

There are stories in Invisible Planets that could be seen as taking a dissenting view of China’s administration and its rapid industrialisation, such as Ma Boyong’s ‘The City of Silence’, which critiques the stifling effect of government censorship, and Chen Qiufan’s ‘The Flower of Shazui’, which is set in Shenzhen. The narrator describes how in the reform era villagers rushed to build tall towers on their land, but real estate prices rose so high that they were unable to sell them and the buildings remain empty and crumbling ‘like historical ruins’. Chen is also the author of a novel called The Waste Tide, which was inspired by a real community of e-waste recyclers who are parasitic on the high-tech industry of the special economic zones: ‘On Silicon Isle, an island in Southern China built on the foundations of e-waste recycling, pollution has made the place almost uninhabitable. A fierce struggle follows in which native clans, migrant workers from other parts of China, and the elites representing international capitalism vie for dominance.’

‘What makes Chinese science fiction Chinese?’ Xia Jia asks in her essay. She links the sci-fi surge to China’s growth, but describes the different ways writers have responded to it. Sci-fi comes naturally in a place with an ambitious space programme like China’s, which aims to land a rover on the dark side of the moon this year and to get an orbiter, lander and rover to Mars by 2020. But the younger writers are also conscious of the boom’s corrosive effects on the environment and on Chinese tradition and customs, and of the stressful, highly competitive culture it has created among the young. In an essay called ‘The Torn Generation’, Chen writes about the anxieties of his colleagues at the web company where he works:

What I sense in them above all is a feeling of exhaustion … They worry about skyrocketing real estate prices, pollution, education for their young children, medical care for their ageing parents, growth and career opportunities – they are concerned that as the productivity gains brought about by China’s vast population have all but been consumed … they are left with a China plagued by a falling birthrate and an ageing population, in which the burdens on their shoulders grow heavier year after year and their hopes and dreams are fading.