Jeff Wasserstrom, professor of history at UC Irvine, is the editor of The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, which came out last year, author of five books, one of them titled China in the 21st Century; What Everyone Needs to Know! He is very interested in literature as well as history, and he has written reviews of works of Chinese fiction for publications such as the New York Times and the TLS, so we invited him to tell us which book we absolutely had to feature in the GLLI series. He chose The Three Body Problem, the first installment of a trilogy by Liu Cixin, an outstanding work of speculative fiction, and in this piece, as a comparative-minded person, he explores where it sits on the global literature shelf. (Not sure what speculative fiction is? Jeff encourages us to think of it as What If Fiction)
Thanks to winning the Hugo Award in 2015, Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem, which moves from the Cultural Revolution decade (1966-76) up to the present and into the future, has become China’s most famous work of science fiction. To fully appreciate it, though, it is worth placing this tale of an interstellar threat to all humankind within a broader category—that of speculative fiction. This umbrella term encompasses such a wide range of genres (including sci-fi) that it can be hard to tell what the disparate works so described all have in common. Liu’s book, the first part of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, begins by presenting readers with the world as it is, described in realistic terms, and then introduces an event, the very slow movement toward earth of an armada of spaceships from a distant planet, that sets off a rippling series of changes, but other works of speculative fiction can focus on forays to previously undiscovered islands (think: Thomas More’s Utopia). SF stories can involve non-human actors in outer space, meaning that their settings and characters have at best metaphorical links to earth and to people (think: Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness); their action can take place wholly or mainly in post-apocalyptic futures (think: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven); and their plots can unfold in off-kilter historical pasts where the actual losers of wars are imagined to have won (think: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle). Despite this diversity, there seems to be one common thread: speculative fiction authors tend to be interested in “what if” questions. We can also, at least for heuristic purposes, see two strands to this thread: books that posit worlds that are totally different from ours (at least on the surface), and books that take a familiar world and focus on a destabilizing detail (that may well set in motion a chain reaction that alters everything).
The author of a work of the first strand might ask readers to imagine scenarios in which a traveler found himself in a land where everyone was tiny; or where all inhabitants were free from stress; or the king was a cat and all of his subjects were felines. These are very different sorts of hypotheticals from “What if things were just as they are, except that people began to notice that each day was a bit longer than the last, and they needed to decide whether to adjust their sleeping habits and activities accordingly or try to keep to an increasingly outmoded twenty-four hour framework?” Or “What if people in different countries all suddenly learned that ships from a technologically advanced interstellar civilization, likely bent on colonizing our planet, would reach the earth in a couple of generations, and needed to figure out what strategies to employ to combat this threat?”
These five “what if” questions were not pulled out of thin air. Many of you will surely have thought of “Gulliver and the Lilliputians” when I referred to a land of tiny people. Some of you, but not nearly as many, would have felt a sense of recognition when I alluded to a feline-run kingdom, which is the setting for an important early work of Chinese Science Fiction (Lao She’s Cat Country, set on Mars, published in 1932). And another small group of you may have recognised the idea of gradually extended days, a seemingly very small shift that over time changes everything, as taken from a recent American work (The Age of Miracles, the beautifully wrought debut novel by Karen Walker Thomas). And the invasion scenario is, as I’ve already hinted, at the heart of Liu’s The Three Body Problem. But what about the scenario, in which people enjoy a stress-free life? What came to your mind? This “what if” scenario very likely made different sets of readers think of varied tales. Perhaps, The Odyssey with its depiction of the lotus-eaters? Or the musical Brigadoon with its now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t happy Highland community? Or perhaps Tao Yuanming’s “The Peach Blossom Spring”, the much-loved fifth-century Chinese fable in which a fisherman comes across a community living peacefully and in harmony with nature, having had no contact with other human beings for hundreds of years. This fable, as well known in China as those by Aesop are in the West, shows us that the roots of speculative fiction may run as deep in China’s literary tradition as in any other. On the other hand, science fiction has a history of just over a century in China, and is treated as an import first known via translations of the writings of figures such as Jules Verne. But you don’t need to go back centuries or ponder the history of various sorts of speculative fiction in China to enjoy The Three Body Problem. Many of the conventions that the book employs, and to which Liu gives novel and knowing twists, are standard ones in a specific science fiction tradition that is familiar to English readers: that of humans facing a technologically advanced rival in outer space,a tradition which goes back to the H.G. Welles classic War of the Worlds (1890s) and forward to the Hollywood film Independence Day (1990s) and beyond. [You can enjoy the action and philosophizing of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series without any knowledge of Chinese literary traditions in Ken Liu’s 2012 translation of The Three Body Problem (the first book); Joel Martinsen’s 2015 translation of The Dark Forest (the second book), and Liu’s 2016 translation of Death’s End (the third book). It’s fun to just see what happens next.] [Liu Cixin and Ken Liu, by the way, are not related, though the latter is an acclaimed author of speculative fiction, as well as a translator of it.]
Still, if you have some familiarity with China’s political history and literary past, there are some enjoyable Easter Eggs hidden in the tale. Liu Cixin is no political dissident, but in The Three Body Problem one thing he describes as setting the alien invasion in motion is a scientist’s disgust with the way she sees the Chinese Communist Party despoiling the natural environment and mistreating intellectuals during the last years of Mao Zedong’s rule. At the risk of giving away just a small spoiler, she gets a warning from a kind soul on the distant planet that will ultimately threaten the earth’s survival. It alerts her to the danger of allowing any kind of radio contact with those of his ilk, as they are so devoid of kindness that things will have to end badly. She ignores his advice, feeling that humans have already proved themselves unworthy of protection. (A Chinese friend said in passing that the book could be summed up as going a step beyond the standard portrayal of the Cultural Revolution as having been a disaster for her country, in that the fictional event set a global doomsday clock running!) There is even a passing shout-out in this part of the book to Lao She, best known in the West as the author of Rickshaw Boy but as mentioned above also the author of Cat Country, a dystopian satirical novel set on Mars. Lao She was one of the many intellectuals attacked by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, who was either beaten to death or committed suicide; his death was made especially poignant (though this is not mentioned by Liu Cixin) by the description in Cat Country of a land where students beat their teachers mercilessly.
China’s past comes into play in another way in a Civilization-style computer game that becomes a venue through which conspiratorial connections between characters in The Three Body Problem are forged. People in different parts of the world can enter the world of the game, which has links to problems in astrophysics and the history of the planet whose inhabitants are threatening Earth. It also includes avatars representing famous philosophers and scientists of different traditions, including Confucius and Copernicus.
There is even a nod of sorts to Peach Blossom Spring, perhaps unintentional, when Liu describes the effort made by one character to escape the burdens of his terrible responsibility. He has been chosen as one of select group, each of whose members is charged with devising a plan to thwart the interstellar invasion—a charge that is almost impossible, as the space aliens in the book are able to figure out and stay ahead of any plan made by a human being. The character retreats from society to live, all too briefly, in an idyllic setting, doing nothing that could possibly be construed by his fellow humans, or the prying intellects on the ships heading to earth, as an effort to accomplish anything. The Three Body Problem is a dark tale, despite hints of lightness in the form of leaders and armies of China and other countries working together at times to combat a shared threat from the skies, so the character’s effort to create a personal Peach Blossom Spring, his own zone of tranquility, is short-lived. The approach of the armada from above is never something that can be ignored for long in Liu’s tense trilogy. I am not sure just how inexorably the doomsday clock’s movement is, as I am just two thirds of the way through it, with the third and final installment ahead of me as a treat to be savored when I reach it on my to-read list.
[GLLI - Global Literature in Libraries Initiative]