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Why you should be reading Liu Cixin, China's hottest science-fiction writer

- August 8, 2015

This is not a picture of Liu Cixin, to be clear. (“Alien: Isolation,” courtesy of Sega)
“You’re bugs!”
It’s not the message we’re hoping for as we scan the cosmos for signs of intelligent life. But it’s what we get in Liu Cixin’s “Three-Body” trilogy, an epic of mind-bending ideas and innovative strategic thought from China’s most popular science fiction author. The first in the series was released in English last year, and the sequel, “The Dark Forest,” comes out on Aug. 11.
In 2014’s “The Three-Body Problem,” Liu establishes an alternate history in which Mao’s China, concerned about other powers monopolizing communications with aliens, builds Red Coast Base, a station designed to broadcast into space and listen for responses.
Ye Wenjie is a young engineer working at Red Coast Base, a woman disillusioned with humanity by her father’s persecution during the Cultural Revolution. She picks up a transmission from an alien pacifist who urges her to shut down the station. “Do not answer! Do not answer! Do not answer!” The aliens have heard Red Coast’s signal but can’t pinpoint the location of Earth. Any further communication will allow them to zero in, whereupon, the pacifist alien tells her, his aggressive civilization will launch an annihilating attack. Ye Wenjie makes a decision. “Come here! I will help you conquer this world. Our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems. We need your force to intervene.”
“The Dark Forest” picks up the story as the invaders, the Trisolarans, are en route with a giant fleet of warships. It will take them 400 years to reach Earth, leaving our panic-stricken species in a state of fevered war preparation. From afar, the Trisolarans incapacitate our scientific research and monitor our communications. We can’t bridge the gap in technology, and the second we discuss anything, the enemy knows all about it.
The only hope is strategy. As Lawrence Freedman reminds us, strategy really comes into play when facing a superior force. The Trisolarans don’t disguise their intentions. Humans, outgunned, must resort to ploys and gambits.
Our response is the “Wallfacer Project,” empowering strategic savants to harness whatever resources they need to develop plans for survival. Under Trisolaran surveillance, the Wallfacers must be inscrutable, sharing the intent of their actions with no one. Plans based on Earth, in space and in the supernatural are hatched, but against such a formidable enemy, no strategy may be enough.
Liu has a keen understanding of the human political mind, its capacity for rancor, absurdity and occasional transcendence. The Wallfacers are empowered by the United Nations and told to work in absolute secrecy, yet the U.N. insists on hauling them into endless committee meetings and second-guessing their every move.
Old political alignments are scrambled by the oncoming apocalypse: A high-ranking U.S. official thinks that suicide tactics might be effective against the Trisolarans. He visits the leader of al-Qaeda to propose an alliance, but the terrorist boss tells him that his organization has renounced violence and is lost in ennui.
Other aspects of politics don’t change. In the face of an unambiguous, planet-wide threat, we still divide into warring ideologies; of defeatism, triumphalism, collaborationism and escapism. Over the hundreds of years covered in the epic so far, humanity goes through cycles of hope and despair. All the while, the Trisolaran fleet draws closer.
Liu’s literary strength is the marriage of his vaulting imagination to startling set-piece narration. In the first book, he wends into his story a surreal immersive online game called “Three-Body.” It’s full of jarring anachronisms, as figures from world history grapple with the gyrating geometry of the Trisolaran system: three suns orbiting a single planet, the gravity of each pulling the others into chaotic orbits. In a memorable scene, the 20th century mathematician John von Neumann convinces Qin Shi Huang, the 3rd century B.C. emperor of China, to deploy his vast army in such a way as to mimic the circuitry of a modern computer, each soldier holding aloft a black or white flag and so, in aggregate, building millions of the logic gates that comprise a motherboard. Cavalry sweep through the ranks of formed-up soldiers transmitting data from one system component to another, and Qin I, the world’s first computer, attempts to predict the orbits of the triple suns and so solve the three-body problem.
In the new book, Liu’s major set-piece is the first encounter between the advance guard of the Trisolaran fleet and the gleaming behemoths of Earth’s new space fleet. As the ships fire up their fusion engines and sally forth en masse from their base on Jupiter, the scene from Earth resembles “a soul leaving a body,” lending an ethereal solemnity to the coming clash of forces.
Liu wraps his story in what he calls the theory of “cosmic sociology,” a line of reasoning reminiscent of some classic works of international relations. Posit a few key axioms, Liu writes: there are many civilizations in the universe, they all want to survive, and there is only so much space out there. Follow the logic through, and it’s clear that every civilization must regard every other civilization as an existential threat, leaving attack on sight as the only safe strategy. All that keeps technologically inferior civilizations safe is the ignorance of others about their existence.
The universe, then, is Liu’s “Dark Forest,” and each civilization is a hunter with knife in hand, carefully brushing back tree branches, ready to strike at the first sign of other life. And here is humanity firing messages into space, building bonfires and standing beside them screaming, “Here I am! Here I am!”
Stephen Benedict Dyson is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and the director of UConn’s Humanities House.