For too many reasons to list, I have been comforted recently by speculative science fiction that imagines the total annihilation of humanity.
Beats reading the news, at least.
After almost two weeks of reloading media sites every 10 minutes for juicy new impeachment stories — just me? — I’ve decided instead to immerse myself in more expansive questions. Such as, why does anything even matter, because maybe in a few hundred years, or maybe tomorrow, our entire species will be wiped from the Earth by an extraterrestrial invasion, so how about that?
This, to broadly simplify, is the premise of what’s likely to endure as one of the early 21st Century’s most important works of fiction: Liu Cixin’s “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy of sci-fi and fantasy novels. Liu, the leading figure in China’s recent science-fiction renaissance, has in the past few years attracted a global audience following the English translations of the three books that have belatedly entranced me: “The Three Body Problem,” “The Dark Forest” and “Death’s End.” (The series, commonly referred to by the title of its first installment, won the prestigious Hugo Award for fantasy literature in 2015.)
The premise is boilerplate sci-fi: we make contact with aliens, and it doesn’t go well. But in Liu’s masterful hands, the ordinary becomes majestic, whether he’s unfurling the half-recognizable physics of an alien world or describing the political and existential chaos that such a discovery would wreak on Earth.
I’ll be permanently haunted, for instance, by the scene where the initial contact actually occurs. An astrophysicist named Ye Wenjie, working at a secret Chinese SETI base in the 1970s, becomes the first person in history to read a message from another world. Its source is a civilization of beings, located fairly closely in interstellar terms, who come to be known as the Trisolarans, after the unstable three-star system their planet orbits and whose unpredictability requires its residents to find a new home.
More specifically, the source is a pacifist Trisolaran who warns against any further communication, lest Earth reveal its location and open itself to conquest.
“Without hesitation, Ye pressed the button” to send a return message, thereby dooming humankind to vanquishment by a superior race of extraterrestrials.
Much of “The Three Body Problem” and “The Dark Forest” focus understandably on humanity’s collective freak-out in the face of likely extinguishment. Due to technological limitations, the Trisolarans’ invasion fleet won’t reach Earth for 450 years. This layer of abstraction splits humanity into factions that want to resist, escape or collaborate with the aliens while the world’s powers scramble to mount an adequate defense.
Here’s Liu’s description of what happens during a military strategy meeting: “The assembly fell into a prolonged silence. Ahead of them stretched the leaden road of time, terminating somewhere in the mists of the future, where all they could see were flickering flames of luster and blood. The brevity of a human lifespan tormented them as never before, and their hearts soared above the vault of time to join with their descendants and plunge into blood and fire in the icy cold of space, the eventual meeting place for the souls of all soldiers.”
Nothing like some lighthearted escapism as our own world spins evermore toward chaos! It’s common to look at dystopian sci-fi and cherry-pick what elements apply to our world — in this case, China’s ascendance, America’s decline, the marginalization of science, the enduring evils of colonialism. But “The Three Body Problem” and its sequels strive for, and frequently achieve, something a lot bigger than mere political salience.
That something, as cosmically vast and overpowering as it often seems, coheres into an unlikely hopefulness. As Liu explained in a Guardian interview following the series’ publication in English: “Crises in sci-fi mostly threaten humanity as a whole. This is a unique and treasurable trait inherent in the genre — that the human race is perceived as a single entity, undivided.”
Guess that’s what passes for solace these days: We may or may not be alone in the universe, but at least we’ll suffer (overcome?) our impending demise together.