Fiction Review by Jessica Man

The Three Body Problem. Liu Cixin. translated by Ken Liu. New York: Tor Books. 400 pp.

The Dark Forest. Liu Cixin. translated by Joel Martinsen. New York: Tor Books. 512 pp.

 

The first installment of Remembrances of Earth’s Past, The Three Body Problem, crossed the Pacific in 2014. Authored by one of China’s premier science fiction writers, Liu Cixin, and translated by Chinese American sci-fi rising star Ken Liu, it offers a vision of alien life from a distance, still centuries away from earth, voyaging toward us in ships obscured by the darkness and silence of space. Their fleet will not arrive for centuries, but through their mouthpieces on Earth, they make their intentions clear: Earth will be their new home someday, with or without human cooperation. It’s nothing we haven’t been warned about, either by the countless alien invasion stories told over the past century and a half, or by physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who turned our attention in 2010 to the historical results of “first contact” events.¹ Unappealing, and certainly contradictory to the hopeful stories of Star Trek and the like, but according to Hawking, much more likely. Junot Díaz has gone one step further and argued incisively that the conceit of first contact, like many other sci-fi tropes, was formed in the destructive wake of Empire: “If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the extermination of so many indigenous First Nations, most of what we call science fiction’s ‘contact stories’ don’t make sense.”²

The Three Body Problem, which has since won the 2015 Hugo for Best Novel, is a book about the trauma of first contact—political, philosophical, personal. It is simultaneously and inherently a story about colonization. Liu’s work explores the same conclusion as Hawking and Díaz while predating them by years; Three Body was originally published in 2006. It isn’t difficult to make the jump from real-life narratives of colonization to science fiction. In an article also translated by Ken Liu, Liu Cixin writes that in the Chinese science fiction of the last century…most extraterrestrials appeared as friends or mentors, who, endowed with God-like patience and forbearance, pointed out the correct path for us, a lost f lock of sheep… [Canadian First Nations’] experience with contact with an alien civilization seems far closer to the portrayal in Three Body.³

However, neither Three Body nor The Dark Forest, the second installment of Remembrances, is quite postcolonial. Three Body is an anti-colonial work, which presents us with an interesting situation: these books are a critique of Empire coming from within an empire, exported to be consumed by other colonial powers. In that sense, introducing aliens as villains is probably one of the only ways to present a non-inflammatory critique. An external threat carries none of the historical charge and weight of real-world conflicts. But this is a sort of double-edged sword: although it downplays our own biases and allows us to see the conflict without conscious prejudice, it also forces us to examine it without context, leaving out the very real and tangible effects of colonialism in our world. Any discourse generated by this book is both enlightening and self-defeating—but, of course, by no means useless. Visions of different worlds, of different futures, are inherently political, whether they are apocalyptic or utopian. They are arguments about political values and issues, trying to persuade us to choose one path or another. Using the framework of Three Body, Liu engages us in the issues of colonialism and indigenous resistance as best as he can.

 

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Remembrance of Earth’s Past gives the West one of the first ideas of what modern science fiction looks like from inside China. It’s not unfamiliar. It has humanitarian themes at its core and provides social commentary on humanity’s self-destructive behavior. The book opens on images of China in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, advertised domestically as a movement toward modernization, but here portrayed in hindsight as a time of terror for political dissidents, where families and friends were turned against each other in a confessional surveillance state. Focal character Ye Wenjie has her first contact with the “madness” or “insanity” of humanity. As a young girl, she witnesses her father’s execution by the Red Guard during a show trial, where he is accused of promoting Einstein’s theories of relativity and disavowed by his wife for collaborating with the capitalist West. Betrayal after betrayal turns Ye’s view of humanity on its head, and by the time she is confined to a secret research facility in the mountains of Inner Mongolia, she wants nothing more than to be cloistered away from greater society. In a sense, the Red Coast Project is her monastic retreat, providing a space of contemplation before she makes her next decisions.

Here we are given spiritual and scientific narrative. Liu places special emphasis on the effect that spiritual states have on the course of history. When Ye Wenjie hits the button to send a second message to Trisolaris, setting an irreversible series of events into motion, it is both the result of a discovery about the structure of the sun and the ignition of hope in Ye’s heart. Ye comes out of her despair and makes plans for the redemption of humanity; her former friend and ecologist Mike Evans does not, and makes plans for the destruction of humanity. The two resulting factions, Redemptionist and Adventist, are quasi-religious organizations vying over what kind of fate the world deserves.

Although nominally secular, the events of the book are phenomenologically religious. The image of the three-body problem, three spheres orbiting and gravitationally affecting each other in perfect space, appears like a vision to several characters during times of personal distress, and the Redemptionists almost regard solutions to the problem as a spiritual exercise. For Ye, like a Christian saint, it appears during childbirth, in the guise of the three burning suns of Trisolaris; for Wei Cheng, like a Buddhist ascetic, it appears during meditation. Wang Miao, our protagonist at the turn of the millennium, is the only one who arrives at enlightenment in a purely scientific manner, but he, too, is motivated by disturbing visions—a doomsday clock only he can see, the flickering of the cosmic microwave background. The Trisolaran system, as portrayed in the video game Wang Miao explores, has treated its three suns the same way for millennia, sometimes as auspicious omens and sometimes as harbingers of doom.

Perhaps colonialism is born out of spiritual as well as material crisis. But this sets up one of the central questions of the novel: does the hardship of the Trisolaran environment excuse their intent to divest humanity of its natural home? Does the difficulty of modelling the three body problem, and thus their inability to prevent the repeated near-annihilation of their species, justify their colonial enterprise?

 

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The Dark Forest was translated by prolific Danwei.org editor Joel Martinsen, and voyages into the dim oceans of philosophy Liu hints at in Three Body. Now that the threat of invasion has been established, the plot examines global reactions to danger and despair. Veering away from questions of imperialism and the ethics of conquest, Dark Forest leads us through the “Crisis Era,” a centuries-long global crisis of faith and character. Luo Ji, a hedonistic, individualist, layabout academic, has a brief encounter with Ye Wenjie in her old age. She tells him to study cosmic sociology, laying a set of foundational principles for him to ponder for the coming decades. He is chosen by the United Nations and the Planetary Defense Council, along with three other strategicians and scientists, to come up with a plan for the salvation of the world, and is granted nearly tyrannical amounts of power. These four men are called “Wallfacers,” and their inscrutable thoughts are the last hope of humanity in an age where the Trisolarans have gained access to every form of data storage on Earth—except the human mind, which remains opaque.

This volume is much more explicitly spiritual than its predecessor. World leaders can perform miracles through technology, destroying planets, granting absolute faith or despair, attaining a cultish, messianic status where reactions to their every move can be summed up as: “God works in mysterious ways.” Luo Ji is the only one who does nothing, initially; as two other Wallfacers are proved to have given in to despair and used their resources to plan for the destruction of humanity, he retreats to a luxurious estate and pursues beauty, love, and leisure. He uses his UN-granted power to find the woman of his dreams, who manifests as Zhuang Yan, a painter with a gentle nature who awakens Luo Ji’s virtuous self. Zhuang Yan’s effect on Luo Ji is not unlike a visit from Guanshiyin Pusa; she counters his selfish desire with her own 觀/perception of the world’s suffering.

Although it is not a romantic novel, Dark Forest is somewhat of a Romantic novel, with some Gothic affectations. Luo Ji arrives at his great scientific revelation through contemplation in natural solitude, which instills in him an awe and terror at the natural sociological principles of the universe. Not quite the same struggle that would have been appreciated by a Romantic philosopher, of course, but it bears an intriguing similarity. The transformation of the benign void of space into the eponymous “dark forest” filled with hostile predators has the electrifying, hair-raising feel of horror to it.

Luo Ji calls his solution to the problem of invasion a “spell”; he calls his home “Eden”; the most intractable barrier to human victory is faith; even after the Second Renaissance, religious feeling abounds, and his Wallfacer status transforms him briefly into a figure like Athena or Christ; even his last confrontation with Trisolaris is a dialogue in a wasteland with the quasi-demonic presence of the sophons. The same spiritual crisis that plagued the Trisolarans has found its way to Earth centuries ahead of the fleet. Self-preservation battles against collective preservation, instinct against intellect. Every action a character takes must be analyzed thoroughly—is it justified? Is it ethical? Who benefits, and for what purpose?

 

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The science, as in most “hard” science fiction, is a way to set up ethical dramas. Alongside collective destruction, Three Body and Dark Forest fixate on the theme of self-destruction. Throughout the narrative, characters call human self-destructive tendencies “insane,” to mean that they contravene the survival instinct in an irrational and selfish way, ignoring chances for redemption. Ye Wenjie and later the Adventists despair because of the “insanity” of human beings; Ye Wenjie and later the Redemptionists place their hopes in the benevolent nature of the Trisolarans. Among the problems the Redemptionists hope to solve with external help are human greed, abuse of the environment, and political corruption. However, once it is revealed that the Trisolarans are uninterested in anything but their own survival, it becomes clear that whatever faults humanity may have, they pale in comparison to the threat that faces it. Problems like state corruption cannot be solved under destructive occupation, so the Redemptionists end up putting them aside and focusing on one thing: the preservation of humanity and the termination of the threat.

Although the Trisolarans will not arrive on Earth for centuries, they have sent two messengers in the form of atom-sized supercomputers, the aforementioned “sophons,” to interrupt the progress of science by performing little miracles, leaving humanity unprepared to make the technological leap required to defend itself from invasion. The sophons interrupt physics experiments that could lead to massive scientific breakthroughs, and freeze practical scientific progress that could lead to the development of a successful human resistance. By the third act of Dark Forest, however, humanity has massively accelerated the development of existing technology. With their own fleet of thousands of unbelievably powerful ships hovering in orbit, defeat is inconceivable. The reader is shortly forced to conceive of it, though; although Luo Ji awakens from hibernation into a world filled with technologies he could barely have dreamed of during his previous life, the Trisolaran technology is completely incomprehensible: a small probe obliterates the entire fleet and emerges unscathed. The last of humanity’s faith evaporates. The world falls into despair.

What does this mean? Perhaps that the struggle against the colonizer with superior firepower is not only material; it is psychological, spiritual, existential.

 

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The Adventist-Redemptionist diagnostic introduced in Three Body ultimately ends up being materially inconsequential. After Wang Miao and an American general collaborate to steal the records of Adventist communication with the Trisolarans, they receive a message: You’re bugs! Neither party can compel or dissuade the Trisolarans from their course of action; it was predetermined from the moment Ye Wenjie began communication with them. The dichotomy collapses into pro- and anti-colonization, or as it’s treated by Three Body and eventually Dark Forest, pro- and anti-humanity. That’s the spearhead of Liu’s critique: colonization is the material obliteration of a people. The case we are dealing with in the trilogy is a fantastic, dislocated version of real-world struggles. Again, this means that the effects of real colonialism are not apparent. However, this allows Liu to make a blanket statement without being perceived as a reactionary, and permits his work to pass safely to a Western market without being dismissed as a political tract. Without explicitly pointing a finger at real-life analogues, he can demonstrate the parallel behaviors of real-life colonizers and fictional ones while avoiding incendiary comments. He can probe us for our answers to the central question without revealing it as a dialogue on invasion. Is self preservation a reasonable justification for eradicating another, less “advanced” civilization? By the final chapters, we receive a resounding “no.” The sly mirror turns its face to us again. Did the hardship of the Separatist environment excuse their intent to divest Native Americans of their natural homes? If our beliefs about colonization are consistent, the answer should be “no,” but we are living in a world that acts on “yes.” We are on the side of the humans, both Adventist and Redemptionist, by the end of Three Body. We want the indigenous humans to survive, and fight back as fiercely as possible, but this review is being written on stolen Piscataway land.

 

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Humanity has been pitted against alien colonizers time and again in the Western canon; this conceit is not new. Worldwide government and corporate conspiracies, the threat of alien invasion, video games with ulterior motives, a protagonist out of his depth, a scorched earth, futuristic metropolises—none of these are new concepts to the American audience. Anyone familiar with the genre might draw comparisons with the multilayered political struggles of Ender’s Game, the long technical passages of Cryptonomicon, the political and ecological concerns of Dune, or the quick prose of early “console jockey” fiction like Neuromancer. The last comparison, although appropriate, would be the weakest. In fact, the prose of Three Body is one of the most common complaints that Anglophone readers have about the book. It appears to be stilted and rushed, the work of a novice rather than a potential trans-Pacific breakthrough. This is emphatically not either translator’s fault. In fact, it’s not even the author’s fault. Colloquial Chinese writing does not sound like colloquial English writing. Its grammar is different enough from English, and the Chinese cultural aesthetic is different enough from the Western, that the prose may seem somewhat alien.

The immediate reaction may indeed be to blame a clumsy translation by Ken Liu, the translator of Three Body and future translator of Death’s End, the final book in Liu Cixin’s trilogy, or Joel Martinsen, who began to acquire Chinese as a second language in high school. Apart from some inevitable stylistic differences, Martinsen’s translation does not differ enormously from his counterpart’s. A 1.5-generation bilingual Chinese American immigrant from Gansu, Ken Liu has been establishing himself as an author to watch in the American science fiction scene. His most lauded work so far is a short story entitled Paper Menagerie, which swept the 2013 Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards. It is emphatically a work about dislocation and disconnection, in some ways echoing the kind of intergenerational relationship one would find in Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, in other ways subverting it. The piece weaves together the various complications and tensions of growing up as a mixed-race child. His first novel-length work, The Grace of Kings, was published in April, a fantasy epic that draws from an aesthetic he calls “silkpunk.” This was the novel he put on hold in order to finish translating Three Body. With such a resume, along with his fluency in Chinese and awareness of Chinese literary culture, it’s not difficult to see why he was entrusted with the translation. 4

The fault lies in reader unfamiliarity with the source language, which is neither the reader’s fault nor the translator’s. Not only does Chinese function as a topic-based rather than a subject-based language, the ways in which information is communicated have been formalized much differently over the last few millennia. As a result, even the most graceful translation of the most colloquial Chinese writing may sound clunky, overly stiff, and inappropriately formal. This often leads to perceptions of Chinese literature (and the fine arts in general) as naturally cold, removed, and focused on representations of feelings rather than evoking an emotional response from the reader. This is not an uncommon sentiment amongst Western audiences exposed to Eastern works. One of the most notorious examples of this cultural disconnect is Berthold Brecht’s analysis of Chinese traditional operatic theater, jingju. Upon seeing the careful, calculated motions of the actors, and the highly symbolic content of the actors’ performances, he concluded that jingju was meant to “alienate” the audience from the performance by eschewing naturalistic theater and forcing them to engage as critics rather than as participants; he subsequently formulated a theatrical technique commonly called the “alienation effect.” This technique, although interesting and influential in its own right, was based on a Westerner’s view of jingju. Because Brecht himself felt alienated, he supposed that all viewers must have experienced it the same way. But that isn’t necessarily true—is it not equally possible that the Chinese audience engaged jingju the same way an English audience would engage Shakespeare? These are aesthetic values that developed independently for thousands of years. Isn’t it possible that people could learn to engage either with as much emotional investment, as different as they are from each other?

I suggest that we change our frame of reference. Ken Liu has brought us an
authentic translation, if not one that is terribly aesthetically pleasing to those of us who are used to the stylistic conventions of the Western canon. 5

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Although we directly share centuries of economic and political history, our view of China has been colored by accompanying centuries of propaganda. American opinions of the Chinese have swung back and forth between “pitiable barbarian” and “fearsome barbarian.” These opinions even extend to American Chinese, who have historically been considered to be so non-assimilationist that they are indistinguishable from Chinese nationals anyway. Part of this historical paranoia lies in the stereotype of the deceptive Chinese: the swindler, the spy, and the ruthless businessman do not operate according to Christian morals of honesty and transparency. Arguably the most pre-eminent villain in science fiction is Ming the Merciless, a tyrannical alien residing on the planet Mongo (i.e. “mongoloid”). It’s not too unreasonable to draw the connection between alienness and foreignness. After all, foreigners were the first aliens. The white Flash Gordon gets to represent Earth, and Ming the Merciless gets to represent Mongo. The closest reversal of this trope even approaching equal stature in the Western cultural lexicon is George Takei, a Japanese American actor, playing Hikaru Sulu in the television series Star Trek.

In that light, for readers on this side of the Pacific, Three Body and Dark Forest are an alien’s science fiction. Fear of Chinese domination of the American economy is the fear of (neo)colonization. From inside the subject of our xenophobia comes a piercing reflection of our past. For Chinese American sci-fi enthusiasts, it is that and more—the world that might have been ours, under other circumstances, has opened a window into one of the most tumultuous times in its history, and predicted a destiny for itself that is lofty and cynical, strange and familiar. Possibilities for the past, written out alongside possibilities for the future.


 

1. Ki Mae Heussner, “Stephen Hawking: Could Alien Contact be Risky?” (ABC News, 26 Apr. 2010, http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/Space/stephen-hawking-alien-contact-risky/story?id=10478157).

2. On the The FanBrosShow Podcast (8 Nov. 2013, Chico Leo, DJ BenHaMeen, Tatiana King-Jones, http://fanbros.com/junot-diaz-episode/).

3. Liu Cixin, “The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction” (Tor.com, translated by Ken Liu, 30 Oct. 2014, http://www.tor.com/2014/10/30/repost-the-worst-of-all-possible-universes-and-the-best-of-allpossible-earths-three-body-and-chinese-science-fiction/).

4. In fact he’s on record as saying that the preservation of Liu’s voice and technique is a higher priority in his translations than making a Western reader comfortable with his use of literary conventions. See “An Interview with Speculative Fiction Writer and Translator Ken Liu” (21 Aug. 2014, Karissa Chen, Hyphen Magazine, http://hyphenmagazine.com/blog/2014/8/21/interview-speculative-fiction-writer-and-translator-kenliu).

5. Though we might remember that certain complaints, in particular about flatness of characterization, haven’t deterred the public from making such SF works as Neuromancer, The Matrix, or Blade Runner immensely popular; nor has the plot-driven nature of those works detracted from their immense influence on the development of the genre. Characterization is by no means a strength of Three Body, but privileging plot over character is informally a hallmark of idea-driven SF.

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