Epic science fiction from China, on a scale spanning light years, combines narrative dexterity with a reactionary world view.
Cixin Liu’s intellectual appropriation of the science fiction genre is seriously impressive and manifested in a brain-tickling trilogy of novels: “The three-body problem”, “The dark forest” and “Death’s end”. They were published in Chinese between 2006 and 2010 and are now available in an English translation.
The story line that binds the three volumes together begins with a conventional, almost clichéd incident evoking the Cultural Revolution: a depiction of rival Maoist cadres and the murderous persecution of innocent citizens. The forthcoming film version will probably kick off with the same scene, a cinematically recognisable formula that presents extreme ideologically-driven violence with a familiar moral subtext: look what happens when the civic order is subverted by a mob mentality fuelled by political radicalism.
What follows in the first volume is maintained with a narrative relentlessness in the second and third novels: dizzying shifts of time, space and perspective that by the end of the trilogy will have you wondering how it all started.
The trilogy is a hugely ambitious undertaking but Cixin Liu’s inventiveness knows no bounds and he unpacks ideas and situations at speed and with aplomb. One incident is described from the perspective of a very small insect only for a change of gear to introduce scenarios from a virtual reality version of Qin dynasty China.
As the fiction unfolds in diverse directions and modes, so too does the whole gamut of contemporary theoretical physics, computer science and futuristic technologies.
The three-bodies problem relates to an alien race, the Trisolarans, whose planet has three suns, causing unpredictable climate changes that reck havoc with their civilization. A solution to their problem suggests itself when planet Earth unwisely signals its own location, thus alerting the Trisolarans to the possibility of a new home under optimum conditions of stability. Earthlings will be destroyed as a necessary first step.
The only hope for Earth, knowing it has become prey for a predatory planet possessing far superior scientific knowledge, lies in the fact that it will take four light years for the aliens to arrive. In the meantime, some way must be found to deal with the threat of extinction.
The narrative serves as a giant frame for hanging ideas about politics and culture .The conservative impulse behind the opening scene from the Cultural Revolution takes root and Mao’s communism becomes emblematic of a distrust of mass behaviour. A fear of revealing oneself to the Other is accompanied by trust in the possibility of scientific progress. In the right hands, technology is seen as capable of delivering progress and well-being. But the right hands must be as circumspect and as wary of radicalism as the rulers of contemporary China.
Cixin Liu’s trilogy is compulsive reading for anyone who likes science fiction.
“The three-body problem”, “The dark forest” and “Death’s end”, by Cixin Liu, are published by Head of Zeus.
(Images supplied by the publisher)