The Three-Body trilogy—a wild science fiction saga that attempts to tell the complete story of humanity's future, from its first encounter with intelligent alien life to its near-extinction to its eventual transcendence beyond this dimension—is a global literary sensation. The series sold 500,000 copies in China and won its author, Cixin Liu, a handful of Galaxy Awards before crossing over into the American market a decade later.
The opening book of the series, The Three-Body Problem, became the first translated novel to win a Hugo Award, given at WorldCon each year and considered science fiction's greatest honor. Accepting the award on the author's behalf in 2015, translator Ken Liu (no relation) noted the historical nature of the event and the appropriateness of the forum. "It's WorldCon," he said. "And this is the award for world science fiction."
Cixin Liu deserves more than this belated nod. Border-crossing books are invigorating speculative fiction—and bringing with them the realization that American parochialism has unduly constrained our vision of the future and of the capabilities of the human mind.
Though almost incomprehensibly massive in scope, Cixin Liu's sprawling series starts small, on Earth, in his own country's recent history. The Three-Body Problem begins during the Cultural Revolution, and it depicts a family shattered as the country erupts in violent chaos. The family patriarch, Ye Zhetai, is an astrophysicist who is forced into a "struggle session"—a form of mental and physical humiliation in which politically disfavored individuals were required to publicly confess to crimes that in many cases they did not commit.
Liu describes how so-called "reactionary academics" responded under pressure. "Those who survived that initial period gradually became numb as the ruthless struggle sessions continued. The protective mental shell helped them avoid total breakdown." And he describes those who were broken by the process. "The constant, unceasing struggle sessions injected vivid political images into their consciousness like mercury, until their minds, erected upon knowledge and rationality, collapsed under the assault. They began to really believe that they were guilty, to see how they had harmed the great cause of the revolution."
In this case, Ye Zhetai is forced to deny fundamental scientific facts about the nature of physical reality; when he fails, the mob kills him. It's a chilling depiction of the way that authoritarian regimes seek to control the lives of their subjects by controlling truth itself—as well as a dramatic reminder that the individual mind, and its connection to objective reality, is the last redoubt in the face of violent coercion.
It is difficult to imagine these passages being written by a Western author. Cixin Liu, who until recently worked full time as a software engineer at a power station in the city of Shanxi, based these sequences on his own experiences as a child of scientists during the Cultural Revolution, when many works of art and literature, especially those from the West, were banned as the product of ideological enemies. But that didn't stop Cixin Liu from reading some of them anyway after finding a cache of American and British science fiction novels hidden away in his own home. His fiction is very much a product of both his own culture and the ideas embedded in Western science fiction.
Golden-age science fiction has left its imprint all over Cixin Liu's work. The series explicitly references Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, and he has said that "everything that I write is a clumsy imitation of Arthur C. Clarke."
American readers—for whom the series has been rebranded as the Remembrance of Earth's Past saga—will certainly recognize many of the tropes and technologies in his novels, which rely on devices such as cryogenic freezing, cloning, and the physical and temporal challenges of traveling through space at relativistic speeds. At heart, the trilogy is an expansive riff on the first-contact scenario, a human-alien culture clash along the lines of Clarke's Childhood's End.
Yet there is something distinct and different about Cixin Liu's fiction, a sense of unfamiliarity and of, well, foreignness, and not only in the Chinese history he draws upon.
Some of the effect stems from the way that so many passages seem to work at the level of metaphor. The title of the first book is drawn from the name of an online virtual reality game that several of the novel's characters play. The game entrances players with simple puzzles that turn out to be messages from an alien race, the Trisolarans, whose planet is wracked by the chaotic and unstable surface interactions of a three-star system. These illustrative puzzle passages, which draw deeply from both physics and computer science, read more like proverbs or fables than contemporary English-language science fiction.
Western sci-fi, like most modern Western fiction, tends to prioritize depicting an individual's interior experience. Cixin Liu, in contrast, works at a distance from his characters and their thoughts. Even the most emotional passages can seem to possess a coldness of affect, a lack of intimacy, that reads as flatness—but more often comes across as a kind of polite deference.
It's a fitting stylistic approach given the revelation, midway through the series, that the Trisolarans have turned the entire planet into an inescapable surveillance state, using advanced technology that allows them to monitor all of human communication, from books to speech to news programming to encrypted computer drives. One almost gets the impression that Cixin Liu does not want to invade the minds of his characters out of respect for their personal privacy.
In place of individual interiority, Cixin Liu often delves into group psychology. His stories expend considerable effort considering the character and thinking of the community, the nation, the human species as a whole. In particular, he is interested in the tendency toward political and factional conflict, as rival powers vie for resources and control.
The first book dwells on questions of how humans would react to the discovery of powerful and hostile alien life. It posits that some would aid the invaders, but that inevitably this group would be split into warring groups too. The second book, The Dark Forest, tracks global efforts to unify around a plan to stop the invaders, as the United Nations attempts to consolidate control over resources domestic and foreign, and more powerful nations squabble with smaller countries. The final installment, Death's End, revolves in part around a secret plan to spy on the aliens that appears to break down after a combination of bureaucratic and scientific snafus. There is also an effort to develop a system that effectively stops the invading aliens, but only, it turns out, by consolidating authority over human decision making in a single, potentially erratic individual.
Cixin Liu is particularly alive to the politics of panic, to how governments can both stoke and reflect people's paranoia. In Death's End, he writes about the fear that overtakes humanity after learning that the universe is a "dark forest" in which intelligent species hunt each other while seeking to keep their own existence secret. "During the first few days," he writes, "even mobile phone use was forbidden, and antennas around the world were forcibly shut down. Such a move, which would once have caused riots in the streets, was widely supported by the populace." It's security theater, but for alien invasions rather than terror.
Even the fear of factionalism is consistently portrayed as a form of trouble: The second and third books both deal with Escapism, the desire not to defend the Earth but to leave it permanently, and the way that Escapism becomes viewed as traitorous and unacceptable. One way to understand the Three-Body trilogy is as an extended meditation on the human will to survive—as well as on its capacity for self-defeat.
Throughout the series, Cixin Liu demonstrates a keen sense of the difficulties of international cooperation and bureaucratic competition, which are closely related. Nations and organizations tasked with stopping the alien invaders are often as focused on maintaining or increasing their own power as on preserving the species; bureaucracies pursue critical missions not to succeed but to gain political prestige. Alliances are always temporary and self-interested, and countervailing forces of varying strength are always working, in secret and in public, to advance their own agendas. Distrust between rival groups is constant. Even the eventual detente between humans and the Trisolarans is based on the threat of mutually assured destruction from a common enemy.
One needn't look too hard to find real-world international parallels. In Death's End, Cixin Liu makes the Cold War comparison explicit, explaining how the ussr developed computer-controlled second strike capabilities to ensure that America would be turned into a nuclear wasteland even if it managed a first strike that wiped out all of the Soviet command structure. At other times, he seems to be writing about China's recent growth: The books describe Earth's entry into the interstellar community as a weak power, relatively speaking, and outline the risks and benefits of joining the ranks of major players on the galactic stage.
But the most interesting points of real-world overlap in the series aren't the ones that obviously relate to the complexities of contemporary global affairs. Instead, they are the implicit parallels that describe the sense of being a lone individual caught up in a powerful system of social control, whose only defense is his or her own mind. That starts with Ye Zhetai's struggle session and extends to the all-encompassing surveillance system set up by the Trisolarans. Cixin Liu, who himself lives in one of the world's largest surveillance states, is particularly gifted at capturing the weariness, defeatism, and paranoia that come from being absolutely certain that everything one does is being watched by enemies and authorities.
So it is no surprise that all of the books tend to revolve around the salvific power of one's private mental life. The struggle session at the beginning of The Three-Body Problem foreshadows a plotline later in the book in which a man is exposed to communication with the Trisolarans that only he can see. In Death's End, a lonely, dying scientist is stripped of his body and sent into space as a brain in a vat; his ability to survive without social interaction, the book explains, has made him perfect for the mental rigors of a long, bodiless journey through the cosmos.
The idea that humanity's hope lies inside the secrets of the individual mind is even more apparent in The Dark Forest. In that book, it is revealed that there is a single gap in Trisolaran monitoring: They cannot read the thoughts of an individual human mind. In fact, the aliens have difficulty even conceptualizing the idea of a private thought, because their own thoughts are projected publicly, making it impossible to have an inner life. The plan put in place by the United Nations is to let four individuals—dubbed Wallfacers—carry out vast and inscrutable designs that they will explain to no one, in hopes that the Trisolarans will not discover their intentions. The book's hero, a scientist and Wallfacer named Luo Ji, has a gift for imaginative mental creation; he spends the first part of the story falling in love with a fictional woman, in a fictional place, and much of the rest of it pursuing a plan to make his personal fantasy a reality. In the end, it is Luo Ji's quietly powerful inner life that saves humanity from destruction.
Cixin Liu is no dissident writer. His fiction has been published in the prestigious Chinese literary journal People's Literature, a signal that his work is in favor with the government. And yet his fiction consistently evokes a sense of unease with the sort of control that China continues to assert over its citizens, even in an age of modernization, and with the real-world international order. It is a sense that governments and coalitions of governments cannot really be trusted, that they are always, somehow, working to advance their own power, and that an individual's private life is the only thing that anyone truly has for himself.
It is that particular capacity of each and every individual to maintain an inner life, to develop for himself a creative imagination and an ability to engage with the physical reality of the world, that ultimately gives humanity the power to survive in a harsh and dangerous universe. The Three-Body trilogy is a science fiction parable about the triumph of the hidden mind.
And like all fiction, it is a portal into the author's own inner life. At the 2015 Hugo Awards ceremony, translator Ken Liu finished by reading remarks prepared by the author. As with most such speeches, it was mostly a list of thank-you's, but there was a particular poignancy about Cixin Liu's list. He thanked voters, and the science fiction community, and the Hugo Awards themselves, noting that many had taken the reverse journey of his own, having been translated from English into Chinese. "As a faithful science fiction fan, I have read many Hugo Award winners, many of which have been translated and published in China." He praised science fiction for helping to bring humans together as "members of a single whole, in reality, even before the aliens come."
He also addressed his readers, the people he invited into his sprawling futuristic fantasy life, even as he describes through his writing the risks of doing so. "Thank you," he said through his translator, "for sharing my imaginary world."