Wednesday, May 06, 2015

First Contact - bugs versus gods?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, first contact, china, cultural revolution

What could induce someone to such deep hatred for humanity, as to wish our total destruction? A good place to begin might be the Chinese "Great Leap Forward", known in the West as the Cultural Revolution (hereafter, CR). This great leap backward set China back about a century, and it was only because of a massive shift in political attitudes—facilitated by Mao's untimely death in 1976—that the nation has been able to (nearly) grow into a 21st Century superpower. Make no mistake, China's leaders are still committed Communists, but their social mind-control is only a whisker of what existed prior to the 1970's.

In The Three-Body Problem author Liu Cixin, using evocative and shocking prose, begins by setting the stage upon the background of the CR and a handful of persons so traumatized by it that they abandon hope that humanity can become upright and beneficent. One in particular, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie, determines a possible way to send a powerful signal to nearby stars using the Sun as an amplifier. When she gets a response more than 8 years later, a key element is in place. She devises a plan and eventually becomes titular leader of a group devoted to inviting the aliens to invade, and promising to collaborate with them in either reforming or destroying human society and perhaps the human race. As that sentence hints, there are factions within her organization, upon which much drama later in the book depends.

The star system thus contacted is commonly called Alpha Centauri, a 3-star system that is the "nearest star" to our solar system. Any planets of such a system are likely to have chaotic orbits, or at best alternating between stable and unstable orbits and thus climates. Thus the book's title. These aliens have strong motivation to move to a planet with a billions-of-years history of climatic stability, at least relative to theirs. They are called Trisolarians, for their three suns, and in late chapters are seen to have a considerable technological advantage over humans. I find that paradoxical; few of their hundreds of civilizations lasted longer than several generations, so how could they advance so far?

The book's translator, Ken Liu, writes in an afterword of the responsibility to provide not just a word-by-word translation (our different grammars don't really allow that anyway), but one that evokes emotions and illustrates concepts in such a way that the reader can partake of the author's thinking. (The author and translator are probably not closely related; Liu is the fourth most common Chinese surname.) For me, the writing is more straightforward than most modern English prose, which I found refreshing. It harked back to the fiction of my youth, when at least science fiction writers had fewer literary pretensions.

This is book one of a trilogy. All three have been translated, so I intend to track down the other two so I can see where the author is going, after closing with the foolishly arrogant message from the Trisolarians, "You're bugs!". However, their fleet will take four centuries to arrive. Can humanity achieve enough progress in that time to avert species-wide disaster? That is no settled matter, and curious Trisolarian AI's called Sophons may make it moot. I guess we must stay tuned.

For a Chinese writer to produce such a novel, in China, strongly indicates just how far that nation's leaders have moved from Maoist super-totalitarianism.

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