In The Three Body Problem trilogy, Cixin Liu has created an extraordinarily compelling vision of humanity’s near future, underpinned by a narrative that is as rich in philosophy as it is in science. While paced like a thriller, Liu’s prose is as packed with as many multi-layered insight as there are holes in the plots of most other works of that genre. Perhaps it is the effect of altitude, but despite having only just finished reading the second in the series, The Dark Forest, as we jet over the Black Sea at 35,000 feet, I am ready to declare Cixin Liu the most exciting author of the twenty-first century so far.
I suspect, however, that markontour is a long way behind the curve on this one. Liu is already China’s most celebrated science fiction writer and while passing through Beijing, Nanjing and Shenzhen last week (parts of which themselves now resemble the set of a sci-fi film) I only had to mention that Liu to secure the kind of immediate affinity that is otherwise achieved by discovering mutual support of a sports team.
It is difficult to say too much about the plot without ruining the story, but the starting point is 1970s China, whose citizens are slowly starting to emerge from the failure of the Great Leap Forward, unaware that they are about to embark on a truly ground-breaking phase of development that will surpass all others in human history. In this context the government asks its strategists to consider what is the biggest existential threat facing the People’s Republic of China that no-one has previously identified. The winning hypothesis: there is a more advanced civilisation in the galaxy and the Americans make contact with them first.
To avoid a future in which capitalism benefits from superior alien technology, China sends out into deep space an alternative view of human civilisation and waits for a response. The answer, when it comes, is chilling – words to the effect of “You should not have told us of your existence. Now we will have to destroy you.”
From here on Liu explores, on both an Earthly and a galactic level, the possibilities of civilisations rising to achieve peaceful collaboration versus descending into mutually assured destruction.
At times his vision is crushingly dystopian, exploring not only how mistrust of the unknown can lead to devastating conflict, but also how attempts at empathy with a culture that is entirely alien in the true meaning of the word could have equally disastrous results.
For the western reader, Liu also offers a more immediate alternative reality. Although this turns into a tale of a unified global struggle the heroes are exclusively Chinese, and Americans and Europeans have only walk-on parts. It is possibly even more unlikely that a best-selling western author would have cast the socialist leader of Venezuela, a follower of Hugo Chavez, as one of four people endowed with boundless power by the United Nations to save humanity from alien invasion.
Sadly, Chinese and western science fiction alike still seem unable to imagine a future where gender equality has been realised. While there are a number of important female characters in both The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest, including the Secretary General of the UN at one point, female characters predominantly exist to provide support to, or help explain the actions of, the male lead protagonists.
In the debate on the probability of more intelligent life existing somewhere else in the universe, Liu comes down firmly on the side of this being an inevitability given the reality of billions of galaxies, each holding billions of stars, most older than our own. The alternative theory, that the unique combination of universal elements that has produced life on earth is statistically unlikely to have been repeated, even in so vast a universe or multi-verse, is not considered.
Instead, Liu’s focus, like that of Alexander Reynolds in his superb Regeneration Space series, is to consider why our galaxy appears so sparsely populated and why it has taken improbably long for superior beings to make contact with us. Liu offers “two axioms for cosmic civilisation” that echo Reynolds’ train of thought: first, that survival is the primary need of civilisation everywhere; and, second, that civilisation continually grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.
Whereas Reynolds follows this logic to conclude that as civilisations expand outside their own solar system they inevitably destroy all other life in their path, Liu provides a glimpse of an alternative future (or past, depending on your perspective in the universe). Indeed, concluding The Deep Forest brought to my mind the closing stanza of Phillip Larkin’s poem, An Arundel Tomb, and its beautiful message that “What will survive of us is love”.
The “three body problem” of the first novel’s title, by the way, refers to a physics challenge: namely, that it is relatively easy to calculate the gravitational impact of two bodies upon each other, but introduce a third object and the relative movements of each body become impossible to predict.
You will have to read the books to understand the relevance of this issue and so I will leave it there. Suffice it to say, I can’t wait to land at Heathrow and get hold of the third book in the series.