Thoughts on Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem series

Several weeks ago I read through the entire Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, which starts with The Three-Body Problem then continues with The Dark Forest and Death’s End. While somewhat disappointing from a literary perspective, the series nevertheless has a fresh perspective on certain aspects of society and culture, which I will briefly discuss.

Overall narrative structure

Generally speaking, this series is typically compared to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. I would largely say that such comparisons are off the mark. In the Foundation series, there is the notion of an animating teleology (of psychohistory), but ultimately the Foundation books are a character drama where the idea of psychohistorical destiny is itself somewhat countermanded by the notion that people can substantially affect the unfolding of future events through planned intervention.

Ironically, I would say that the core idea of the Foundation series, that social development is shaped by the existence of laws which form a coherent theory, is a much larger factor in the Three-Body Problem (3BP) series. In 3BP, the story starts out as a character drama focused on Ye Wenjie, but throughout the series, and especially the third and final volume, the story “zooms out” to increasingly larger contexts in a way that minimizes the impact of individual action relative to the inescapable flow of certain “laws” of the interstellar society.

While the Foundation series at least makes an attempt at character development (although it is by no means a masterpiece of literary fiction), it really does feel like the characters of 3BP are relatively hollow, standing in for little more than archetypes or ideas (the unwilling but ultimately valiant hero, the perfect maiden, the stoic warrior, and so on). It is actually the first character introduced in the entire series, Ye Wenjie, with whom I could empathize with the most, perhaps because her personal backstory is explored in some depth and we see how she changes over different stages in her life. The other characters are almost paper-thin cutouts in comparison.

Perspective on sociological development

From a sociological perspective, the 3BP series presents an interesting perspective on human development, which is that there is a certain “heart of darkness,” so to speak, latent in all men and women, which is only temporarily obscured by the development of human civilization, but that these primal, zero-sum instincts return to the fore when the circumstances are appropriate. This is analogized to the interstellar society at large in the “dark forest” theory (which does not originate with Liu himself, but which plays a large role in the narrative).

Generally, I would adjudicate this perspective as being more or less correct. After all, while humans have been subject to some selection pressures, in the end, we are physiologically quite close to the same creatures that we were ten thousand or so years ago at the end of the Stone Age. In a very real sense, then, we still have the same innate capacity for brutal, internecine violence that was so characteristic of primitive manーa capacity only suppressed, barely, by the development of elaborate socio-cultural mechanisms that facilitated the rise of agricultural and, eventually, urban civilization.

This is essentially the same view promulgated by the “intellectual class” throughout the 3BP series. Over and over, this view is given as the explicit rationale as to why the upper echelon of society sympathized with the alien (Trisolaran) civilization and actively worked against the interests of mankind: because, with their broad understanding of human history and culture, they were able to come to an understanding of mankind’s unworthiness in comparison to hopefully greater and more enlightened alien civilizations. Indeed, this is exactly why Ye Wenjie signals the presence of Earth to the Trisolaran civilization and asks for their intervention in the first placeーbecause she and her family were terribly persecuted by the Cultural Revolution, causing her to lose faith in the fundamental goodness of man.

Ironically, I find that this is actually a somewhat optimistic perspective of the intellectual class. I feel this is really a consequence of the Cultural Revolution, which left a deep and enduring scar on the psyche of the older Chinese generations. The rise of the Chinese Communist Party and the brutal persecution of the bourgeois and intellectual classes were a truly dramatic departure from the previous era, where, while the state was incompetent and unable to govern in an orderly manner, we did not see anything like siblings and children turning on their own families for political valor. These experiences inured the Chinese psyche to mankind’s innate capacity for brutality, and this sentiment is well reflected in the narrative of the 3BP series.

However, this attitude is already fading with the Westernization and liberalization of newer Chinese generations. In general, the modern, liberal view is that society more or less improves with each successive generation, and that this reflects an intrinsic improvement in the state of mankind itself; there is little to no recognition that humanity is, at a physiological level, quite similar to how it was many thousands of years ago. (One could in fact argue that this is the entire message of the pseudonymous writer Bronze Age Pervert, whose message has been thoroughly condemned and rejected by the mainstream establishment!)

The wrongs committed by previous generations are largely forgotten. In fact, we barely even remember what atrocities happened a year or two ago! One imagines easily that the tribal warfare in the Middle East or in Sub-Saharan Africa is somehow “separate” from our own experiences of humanityーthat in our own lives, we would never countenance such a level of inhumanity and primitive violence. Yet whatever genetic difference separates us from our compatriots across the globe is, at best, minor. That which separates us from their brutish nature is, therefore, not a difference of kind but one of degree.

Given that our collective memories are so short, and our recognition of our own failings so shallow, it is almost a little sad to imagine, while reading 3BP, what it would be like to have an academic class with such broad perspective and awareness compared to what actually prevails today.

Closing thoughts

Many reviews of the 3BP series focus on comparatively superficial aspects of the narrative, such as the existence of unified, pan-national governments or an implausibly high degree of global coordination, as being tell-tale signs of a uniquely Chinese influence. However, I think that if one were to really look around a little bit, it would not be difficult to find plenty of such examples in second-rate Western science-fiction! To my knowledge, no review until now has pointed out what I feel is the actual contribution of Chinese thought to the 3BP series, namely the realistic (some might say nihilistic or pessimistic) view of human nature.

Perhaps because we are so acculturated to the peace and tranquility of modern civilization, it can be disturbing to imagine that there, in every single person, the potential for a return to primitive, thoughtless, man-against-man, brother-against-brother violenceーa potential that, while difficult to awaken, has clearly been triggered at least once in the past century (the Cultural Revolution). A great deal of maintaining the social order comes from voluntary compliance with innumerable social rules; one might say that this is the defining characteristic of a functional, “high-trust” society.

I wonder if the appeal of the “blank slate” theory of human cognition is, in part, an instinctive avoidance of these darker elements of the human psyche. If we all begin with nothing, then it is in fact possible for man to be innately “civilized” and for the lot of man to really improve, generation after generation, building better, more ethical, and more humane socio-cognitive states to “imprint” upon our children. If not, however, then we are forced to ask what it is that constitutes our inborn instincts, and that line of thought leads us directly back to the capacity for violence and atrocity that once rendered our lives “nasty, brutish, and short.”

The actual examples in the 3BP series where the “heart of darkness” of man manifests itself in full are more than a little contrived. Although the series touches upon some profound themes, I cannot say that Liu does them justice. Nevertheless, they are themes that are seldom explored in the genre fiction of the West, and readers would likely do well to reflect further upon them.

January 27th, 2023 | Posted in Books

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