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In Liu Cixin’s work, civilizations engagein a Hobbesian struggle for survival.
Two rival civilizations are battling forsupremacy. Civilization A is stronger than Civilization B and is perceived byCivilization B as a grave threat; its position, however, is more fragile than itseems. Neither side hesitates to employ espionage, subterfuge, andsurveillance, because the rules of conduct—to the extent that they exist—areill-defined and frequently contested. But the battle lines are clear: whoevercontrols the technological frontier controls the future.
In Liu Cixin’s science-fiction trilogy,“Remembrance of Earth’s Past”—also known by the title of its first volume, “TheThree-Body Problem”—Civilization A is a distant planet named Trisolaris andCivilization B is Earth. Life on Trisolaris has become increasingly difficultto sustain, so its inhabitants prepare to colonize Earth, a project madepossible by their vast technological superiority. Using higher-dimensionalgeometry, they deploy supercomputers the size of a proton to spy on everyterrestrial activity and utterance; Earth’s entire fleet of starships proves nomatch for one small, droplet-shaped Trisolaran probe. Yet Trisolaris’sdominance is far from assured, given the ingenuity of the underdogs. Seekingout the vulnerabilities of its adversary, Earth establishes a deterrence basedon mutually assured destruction and forces the Trisolarans to share theirtechnology.
As the standoff has intensified, Liu hasbecome wary of touting the geopolitical underpinnings of his work. In November,when I accompanied him on a trip to Washington, D.C.—he was picking up theArthur C. Clarke Foundation’s Award for Imagination in Service to Society—hebriskly dismissed the idea that fiction could serve as commentary on history oron current affairs. “The whole point is to escape the real world!” he said.Still, the kind of reader he attracts suggests otherwise: Chinese techentrepreneurs discuss the Hobbesian vision of the trilogy as a metaphor forcutthroat competition in the corporate world; other fans include Barack Obama,who met Liu in Beijing two years ago, and Mark Zuckerberg. Liu’s internationalcareer has become a source of national pride. In 2015, China’s thenVice-President, Li Yuanchao, invited Liu to Zhongnanhai—an off-limits complexof government accommodation sometimes compared to the Kremlin—to discuss thebooks and showed Liu his own copies, which were dense with highlights andannotations.
Liu’s tomes—they tend to be tomes—have beentranslated into more than twenty languages, and the trilogy has sold some eightmillion copies worldwide. He has won China’s highest honor for science-fictionwriting, the Galaxy Award, nine times, and in 2015 he became the first Asianwriter to win the Hugo Award, the most prestigious internationalscience-fiction prize. In China, one of his stories has been a set text in thegao kao—the notoriously competitive college-entrance exams that determine thefate of ten million pupils annually; another has appeared in the nationalseventh-grade-curriculum textbook. When a reporter recently challenged Liu toanswer the middle-school questions about the “meaning” and the “central themes”of his story, he didn’t get a single one right. “I’m a writer,” he told me,with a shrug. “I don’t begin with some conceit in mind. I’m just trying to tella good story.”
The trilogy’s success has been creditedwith establishing sci-fi, once marginalized in China, as a mainstream taste.Liu believes that this trend signals a deeper shift in the Chinesemind-set—that technological advances have spurred a new excitement about the possibilitiesof cosmic exploration. The trilogy commands a huge following among aerospaceengineers and cosmologists; one scientist wrote an explanatory guide, “ThePhysics of Three Body.” Some years ago, China’s aerospace agency asked Liu,whose first career was as a computer engineer in the hydropower industry, toaddress technicians and engineers about ways that “sci-fi thinking” could beharnessed to produce more imaginative approaches to scientific problems. Morerecently, he was invited to inspect a colossal new radio dish, one of whosepurposes is to detect extraterrestrial communications. Its engineers had beensending Liu updates on the project and effusive expressions of admiration.
Liu’s fellow sci-fi writers in China callhim Da Liu—Big Liu—but he is small, with an unusually round head, which seemstoo large for his slight, wiry physique. He has the unassuming presence,belying an unflappable intelligence, of an operative posing as an accountant.Rarely making eye contact, he maintains an expression at once detached andpreoccupied, as if too impatient for the future to commit his full attention tothe present. “There’s nothing special or memorable about me,” he said at onepoint. “I always blend into any crowd.” Sure enough, as we walked around town,I found that it was disconcertingly easy to lose sight of him, and I startedconsciously trying to keep an eye on his inconspicuous frame and clothes—darkjeans and checked tops—as if I were minding a small child.
Although it was his first time inWashington, the cityscape was already familiar to him, thanks to hispredilection for Hollywood blockbusters. As a result, our sightseeing tripsyielded disappointments. Things were invariably bigger or smaller than heexpected, and in surprising juxtapositions. The Reflecting Pool was fartherfrom the Washington Monument than “Forrest Gump” suggested, and it lookedstrange without Vietnam War protesters thronging its perimeter. When we climbedthe steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Liu expressed dismay that the seated statuefeatured Lincoln’s pensive face, rather than a simian one. “I think I preferthe ‘Planet of the Apes’ version,” he said.
When we passed a block-long brutalistbuilding, Liu immediately recognized it as the headquarters of the F.B.I. Itturned out that he had pored over its floor plan online while researching hisearly novel “Supernova Era,” which was published in 2003 and will appear inEnglish later this year. It took him twelve years to get the book published,with several rounds of revision, in part because prospective publishers worriedabout the likely reaction of the state censors. Liu, unlike many Chinesewriters popular in the West, is no dissident(......) In an afterword to theforthcoming English translation, he writes:
On the night of(...)I listened in my hotelto the chaotic noise outside, (...) That night I dreamed of a limitless expanseo f snow, whipped up by the wind into a ground blizzard, and an object—perhapsthe sun or a star—glowing with a blinding blue light that painted the sky aneerie color between purple and green. And beneath that dim glow, a formation ofchildren advanced across the snowy ground, white scarves wrapped around theirheads,(...), singing some unrecognizable song (...). . . . I awoke in a coldsweat and couldn’t get back to sleep, and that’s when the germ of the idea forSupernova Era first took shape.
The scale and the speed of China’s economictransformation were conducive to a fictive mode that concerns itself with thefate of whole societies, planets, and galaxies, and in which individuals arepresented as cogs in larger systems. The fact that state-owned enterprises wereincreasingly at the mercy of their balance sheets fundamentally changed socialexpectations(...). In 2000, the same year that Liu’s story “The WanderingEarth” was published, he was told to choose which half of his staff to let goand which to keep.
Pragmatic choices like this one, or likethe decision his grandparents made when their sons were conscripted, recur inhis fiction—situations that present equally unconscionable choices on eitherside of a moral fulcrum. An episode in the trilogy depicts Earth on the vergeof destruction. A scientist named Cheng Xin encounters a gaggle ofschoolchildren as she and an assistant prepare to flee the planet. Thespaceship can accommodate the weight of only three of the children, and Cheng,who is the trilogy’s closest embodiment of Western liberal values, is paralyzedby the choice before her. Her assistant leaps into action, however, and posesthree math problems. The three children who are quickest to answer correctlyare ushered on board. Cheng stares at her assistant in horror, but the youngwoman says, “Don’t look at me like that. I gave them a chance. Competition isnecessary for survival.”
No one is more aware than Liu of theconnection between the ambitions of sci-fi and the tendency of Chinese historyto eclipse the individual. In an afterword to the English edition of “TheThree-Body Problem,” he recalls a visit to his grandparents in Henan thatcoincided with the great flood of 1975. In a single day, forty inches of rainfell and more than fifty dams collapsed. In the course of a few days, nearly aquarter of a million people died. Recalling his experience as a twelve-year-oldin a landscape teeming with barefoot refugees draped in cloth sacks instead ofclothes, he writes, “I thought I was looking at the end of the world.”
The great flourishing of science fiction inthe West at the end of the nineteenth century occurred alongside unprecedentedtechnological progress and the proliferation of the popularpress—transformations that were fundamental to the development of the genre. Asthe British Empire expanded and the United States began to assert its poweraround the world, British and American writers invented tales of space travelas seen through a lens of imperial appropriation, in which technologicalsuperiority brought about territorial conquest. Extraterrestrials were often aproxy for human beings of different creeds or races. M. P. Shiel’s novel“Yellow Danger” (1898) imagined a fiendish Chinese plan to take over the world,and warned that “the bony visage of the yellow man, in moments of unbridledlust and mad excitement, is a brutal spectacle.” The most famous novel of theera, H. G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds” (1898), in which Martians attack anunsuspecting Earth, was inspired by the violent struggle inearly-nineteenth-century Tasmania between Aboriginal people and white settlers,in which the indigenous population was almost completely obliterated.
In my days with Liu, he repeatedly playeddown any sense of state interference, but the issue emerged glancingly when webegan discussing the great Polish sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem, whom Liureveres. “What’s remarkable is that he lived and wrote in Soviet Poland!” hesaid. “Yet he managed to be as beloved in the East as he was in the West.” Iasked how he thought Lem had managed it. “He had a wondrous imagination, trulyone of a kind,” Liu replied. Still, even Lem did not wholly escape hisgovernment’s crackdown on free speech. When questioned about stories thatseemed to allude to Stalinist conformism and paranoia, Lem said the same thingthat Liu says about geopolitical interpretations of his trilogy—that he was notwriting a veiled assessment of the present but merely making up stories.
One day, Liu and I went to lunch at aChinese restaurant not far from his hotel. It was half past two and therestaurant was empty, a void of crisp white tablecloths, punctuated by tacky,oversized ceramic vases. Large TV screens burbled to themselves in everycorner. As soon as we sat down, Liu called a waiter over and asked for twobeers. I said I wouldn’t be drinking, but Liu clarified that he was happy tolay claim to both bottles. After the waiter had brought Budweiser—“I don’tdiscriminate: beer is beer”—Liu gingerly pulled a bottle of Southern Comfortfrom his backpack and poured generously into his drink. He had bought thebottle the day before at a liquor store. “I couldn’t make out the labels,” hesaid, explaining that he’d picked whatever was cheap and easy to reach on theshelf. “I chose wrong—this stuff is way too sweet.” Several times during ourdays together, he alluded both to his dependence on alcohol and to the need toabstain from hard liquor for the sake of his health. “At least two of my formercolleagues have drunk themselves to death,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s notuncommon among engineers. You know the type.”
Liu’s stories typically emerge from aspeculative idea that has the potential to generate a vivid, evocativefable—more often than not, one about mankind’s ability to bring about its owndemise. “The Three-Body Problem” takes its title from an analytical problem inorbital mechanics which has to do with the unpredictable motion of three bodiesunder mutual gravitational pull. Reading an article about the problem, Liuthought, What if the three bodies were three suns? How would intelligent lifeon a planet in such a solar system develop? From there, a structure graduallytook shape that almost resembles a planetary system, with characters orbitingthe central conceit like moons. For better or worse, the characters exist tosupport the framework of the story rather than to live as individuals on thepage.
Liu’s imagination is dauntingly capacious,his narratives conceived on a scale that feels, at times, almosthallucinogenic. The time line of the trilogy spans 18,906,450 years,encompassing ancient Egypt, the Qin dynasty, the Byzantine Empire, the CulturalRevolution, the present, and a time eighteen million years in the future. Onescene is told from the perspective of an ant. The first book is set on Earth,though some of its scenes take place in virtual reality; by the end of thethird book, the scope of the action is interstellar and annihilation unfoldsacross several dimensions. The London Review of Books has called the trilogy“one of the most ambitious works of science fiction ever written.”
Much of the books’ resonance, however,comes from the fact that they also offer a faithful portrait of China’sstringently hierarchical bureaucracy, that labyrinthine product of Communism.August Cole, a co-author of “Ghost Fleet,” a techno-thriller about a warbetween the U.S. and China, told me that, for him, Liu’s work was crucial tounderstanding contemporary China, “because it synthesizes multiple angles oflooking at the country, from the anthropological to the political to thesocial.” Although physics furnishes the novels’ premises, it is politics thatdrives the plots. At every turn, the characters are forced to make brutalcalculations in which moral absolutism is pitted against the greater good. Intheir pursuit of survival, men and women employ Machiavellian game theory andadopt a bleak consequentialism. In Liu’s fictional universe, idealism is fataland kindness an exorbitant luxury. As one general says in the trilogy, “In atime of war, we can’t afford to be too scrupulous.” Indeed, it is usually whenpeople do not play by the rules of Realpolitik that the most lives are lost.
The society of resettled populationstransformed in profound ways. People realized that, on this crowded, hungrycontinent, democracy was more terrifying than despotism. Everyone yearned fororder and a strong government. . . . Gradually, the society of the resettledsuccumbed to the seduction of totalitarianism, like the surface of a lake caughtin a cold spell.
Liu closed his eyes for a long moment andthen said quietly, “This is why I don’t like to talk about subjects like this.The truth is you don’t really—I mean, can’t truly—understand.” He gesturedaround him. “You’ve lived here, in the U.S., for, what, going on threedecades?” The implication was clear: years in the West had brainwashed me. Inthat moment, in Liu’s mind, I, with my inflexible sense of morality, was thealien.
It was an opinion entirely consistent withhis systems-level view of human societies, just as mine reflected a belief indemocracy and individualism as principles to be upheld regardless of outcomes.I was reminded of something he wrote in his afterword to the English edition of“The Three-Body Problem”: “I cannot escape and leave behind reality, just likeI cannot leave behind my shadow. Reality brands each of us with its indeliblemark. Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, andI can only dance in my chains.”
When Liu is at his most relaxed, which isusually when he’s looking at, or learning about, something, he sounds almostlike a child. There’s an upward lilt to his voice that suggests a kind of naïvewonder—someone happily lost in his own boundless curiosity. But at the ClarkeFoundation award ceremony, at the Harman Center for the Arts, on his finalnight in Washington, he was in adult, professional mode. Talking to fans,publishing types, and Chinese journalists at a cocktail party before thepresentation, he spoke with authority and gravitas, and was more obviouslyformidable than I’d previously seen. Yet, at the same time, he seemed ill atease and looked like the person who least belonged at the party, even though itwas in his honor. I noticed that he wasn’t drinking, despite the open bar. Hewasn’t here to enjoy himself. He was doing a specific job and enduring thesituation with stoic discipline.
The next morning, Liu and I did some moresightseeing, accompanied by a translator his publisher had provided. The skywas cement-colored and heavy and we soon had to duck into a pharmacy to buyumbrellas. As I struggled with the jammed spines of my purchase, I recalled aline from his speech in which he compared the future to “pouring rain” that“reaches us before we have time to even open the umbrella.”
Liu’s observation was more practical: “Thequality of umbrellas that China sells to the U.S. is not good.”
We made our way down Constitution Avenue,past the National Archives and the colonnades of the Smithsonian. Liu set asurprisingly brisk pace and remarked that he had not exercised since being onthe road, whereas he was used to working out an hour or two a day. Nothing he’dsaid or done previously suggested a concern with fitness, but it turned outthat he had a specific eventuality in mind. “To make it on a spaceship for daysor weeks, maybe even months, is not easy,” he said. I asked if he was planningto be a space tourist. “You never know when that will happen,” he responded.“Opportunity doesn’t wait for you to be ready.”
We paused by the World War II Memorial, andlooked at the names of various countries carved in clusters around the lip ofits fountain. Liu squinted, displeased with the peripheral placement of China,which had been put with India and Burma. Like a man unsatisfied with aphotograph of himself, Liu balled up his hands and placed them on his hips.Surely, China had contributed to the war far more than Burma had, he muttered.
This article appears in the print editionof the June 24, 2019, issue, with the headline “The War of the Worlds.”