Article by Malcolm Aquino
Alien invasion stories have been around since people could tell stories. There is always that fear of the other, a force we can’t understand and aren’t equipped to handle. As humans evolved and we got smarter and traveled more, the “alien” went from foreigners to extraterrestrials. We all know the story: Aliens come with superior tech and mental abilities, humans have to come together as one race, there are hugs, reconciliation, and alien ass-kicking. The aliens can’t comprehend the “human spirit,” and therefore will always lose. In my native United States, it’s usually our superior military and pretty actors prevailing and saving the world yet again; if you’re tired of those clichés, a Chinese author has produced a fascinating take on the alien invasion story.
Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy has been making huge waves in the international world. The first novel, The Three Body Problem, winning the Hugo Award (the first Asian novel to win in the award’s 50 plus year history). It was also nominated for the Nebula Award, another prestigious science fiction writing award.
The three novels are all pretty unique in scope and structure. The first, The Three Body Problem, plays out as a murder mystery that turns into an international scandal. Wang Miao is a nanoscientist and amateur photographer, who one day notices a countdown in many of his pictures. This leads him on an investigation with hard-drinking, chain-smoking, no-nonsense detective Shi Qiang. Their investigation leads them to a strange computer game and an underground terrorist organization led by retired scientist Ye Wenjie. Three Body Problem is a noir-dipped thriller that shows how the past can affect the present and future in remarkable ways.
The Cultural Revolution and its influence on the Chinese psyche is a major theme of the novel, its wide-reaching effects adding an extra layer to each character that heightens their personalities and story arcs. The novel felt like it wasn’t just about one person, but a large cast of characters. The action is fast paced and spread out enough to where you never get bored reading about science jargon. The revelation of the Trisolarans is a slow burn, present throughout the middle and climax of the novel. They are both present and very far away. The effect on society is incalculable, and it’s a great lead into the sequel.
The Dark Forest is an entirely different beast, much bigger in scope and much more philosophical. Having knowledge of the imminent Trisolaran invasion and with a significant disadvantage placed on development, the UN comes up with the Wallfacer Program, a team of four members tasked with formulating a plan to stop the Trisolaran threat. The four represent four different parts of humanity: there is Frederick Tyler, the decorated general and former US secretary of defense; Rey Diaz the revolutionary leader and president of Venezuela; Bill Hines, an English psychologist and neuroscientist; and our main character Luo Ji, who is a Chinese sociologist and biologist. The Wallfacers encounter many problems, from logistics, politics, philosophy, and many problems that the world has had since the beginning of history. The stakes are raised when another group, the Wallbreakers, try to sabotage and eliminate the Wallfacers.
This cat-and-mouse espionage story spans over 200 years. The Wallfacer program goes up and down in public opinion, there are resource problems, wars, disasters, and social upheavals. It makes it hard to worry about the Trisolarans when all of this chaos and paranoia is happening on Earth with humans. This idea is central to the novel. How do you prepare for intangible threats that won’t affect the majority of living people? How can you excuse massive economic problems for the sake of some small shot at preventing the inevitable? Things like global warming, poverty, militarization, refugees are all put under the microscope in the context of alien invasion. It’s quite the mind bender, but the payoff is worth it. Once again, while Luo Ji and the Wallfacers take center stage, humanity has other problems to deal with that affect the Wallfacers, just as the Wallfacers’ work affects humanity. One of my favorite parts of the novel is the struggle nations have trying to build a neutral interstellar fleet.
This is probably my favorite of the three, as I do love some philosophical debate in my reading. The pace is much slower than the first novel, but the first novel takes place over months whereas this one takes place over centuries. The characters are able to cryogenically freeze themselves and wake up in different time periods, hence the long lengths of time. The payoffs at the end excuse the snail crawl, however.
This dovetails into to the final novel, Death’s End. Luo Ji’s Dark Forest plan has been hatched, revealing humanity and the Trisolarans to the rest of space. Now humans, with the Trisolarans only years away, must prepare for Earth’s defense, while using its new found techonlogical breakthroughs to explore the rest of space, looking for new threats. The main protagonist of this novel is Cheng Xing, a young aerospace engineer chosen as Luo Ji’s replacement in control of what is essentially the button to a doomsday device. When the Trisolarans come, her failure leads to the enslavement of human beings by Trisolarans. However, when the Trisolarans find their homeworld destroyed by some unknown alien species, the Trisolarans reel and retreat, freeing humanity. However, things are not all happy and peaceful, as the new fear of whatever killed Trisolaris has replaced old fears. Humanity must once again prepare for the unknown.
It is a bit hard to talk about this novel without going deep and spoiling much of it. Essentially, Death’s End is about humanity’s next evolutionary step. Aliens are real, there is always a new threat, and we don’t have the capabilities to deal with new threats. This theme of cycles is very much in line with a lot of Chinese writing, from the ancient to the modern,
Liu Cixin’s take on it was fascinating, terrifying, and yet also weirdly optimistic. He thinks humans will always be around, but not in the same biological sense or even philosophical sense. All we have is time and threats to motivate us to improve, to come together and get stuff done. We might not see the results of our work until long after even our grandchildren are dead. Time is infinite and there will always be planets to go to and see and new aliens to threaten us. A grim outlook, but also a pragmatic one, and one that is very interesting to read about.