If you want to feel bad about the future, the best place to start is modern science fiction. This probably isn’t where it was supposed to be going, but it’s where we are now, based on the most popular and acclaimed sci fi literature being published. A previous column discussed recent sci fi on the big and small screen, but it’s worth looking at books because they’re the raw material for future movies and TV series – books like Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award-winning The Three-Body Problem.
Published in 2014, it’s the first in a trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past, detailing a slow-motion crisis that overwhelms Earth when we learn about an imminent alien invasion. Liu is the spearhead of a renaissance in science fiction literature coming from China, and his trilogy is being adapted for both movies and television not just in China but here as well, as a Netflix series produced by the showrunners behind Game of Thrones.
Liu’s story begins in an actual dystopia – the Cultural Revolution that swept through China when Liu was three years old and saw his father, a manager at Beijing’s Coal Mine Design Institute, sent to work at a mine in Shanxi province. Ye Wenjie, an astrophysics student, witnesses her father being beaten to death by Red Guards at the local high school; she’s branded a traitor and sentenced to a hard labour. Inspired by Rachel Carson’s environmentalist tract Silent Spring, she helps draft a letter to the government but is betrayed by a co-conspirator and sent to prison.
Recruited behind bars for a secret project using radio waves to destroy spy satellites, she finds that it’s even more covert – a Chinese version of SETI, the search for alien life using radio telescopes made famous by Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel Contact. She receives a warning from an alien civilization, the Trisolarians, whose unstable home is a stellar equivalent of a well-known physics problem about chaos, and one that gives Liu’s novel its title. A pacifist alien sends a warning that Earth will be targeted for invasion by the Trisolarians if they learn of its existence; angry and disillusioned, she sends a message anyway, inviting the alien invaders to come and do a better job with the planet.
It will take four centuries for their invasion fleet to cross the vast expanse of space. There are murders, government conspiracies, secret societies, private armies and rich fifth columnists siding with the invaders, whose first interactions with Earth come in the shape of sophons – multidimensional supercomputers the size of protons that spy on the planet and disrupt our defenses by retarding technological innovation and causing hallucinations.
The book’s fans include Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg and China’s former vice-president, Li Yuanchao, who retired in 2018 when he seemed to lose one of the Communist Party’s many internal power struggles. Liu’s novel perspective as a Chinese writer is cited as one of the reasons for his incredible success, and the harbinger of a whole new wave of science fiction writers emerging from the country, some of whom were never conventionally published in their original language.
Fans of Liu’s work speculate about how life in China has influenced the books, and if there are metaphors to be found there, perhaps even coded protests against the regime. He acknowledges that Supernova Era, an early novel, was inspired by Tiananmen Square, but Liu is careful not to help anyone position him as a dissident.
In her 2019 profile of Liu in the New Yorker, staff writer Jiayang Fan is obviously disappointed when the author parrots standard government positions on the persecuted Uighur minority (“Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks?”) and the infamous one-child policy, recently reversed (“How could the country have combatted its exploding population growth?”).
He tells her that democracy is not a priority for the Chinese people, adding rather darkly that “If you were to loosen up the country a bit, the consequences would be terrifying.” Liu’s stories are full of heroic collective actions, sacrifices for the greater good, and instances where cold, pragmatic solutions are shown as the correct ones, even if they offend sentiments that value individual human life.
In his bestselling novel Aurora, published in 2015, writer Kim Stanley Robinson tells a story more sympathetic to individual humanity, though no less bleak. It’s the story of a “century ship” – a massive spaceship designed to host generations of human passengers as they travel across the vast distance of space from our solar system to a potentially inhabitable planet orbiting the star Tau Ceti.
Robinson, like Liu, is counted among the proponents of “hard sci fi” – writers who scrupulously research the science behind their stories, abjuring the conventions of fantasy and “space opera” science fiction: no warp drives are faster than light travel, space battles, anthropomorphized alien species or plentiful earthlike planets. Even just a handful of light years will take lifetimes to traverse, and Robinson builds his story around Devi, the lead engineer and de facto leader of the expedition to Tau Ceti and her daughter, Freya, who becomes our viewpoint character.
The book begins as the voyage nears its end, and the hopeful colonists settle on a moon of one of Tau Ceti’s orbiting planets. In the last years of her life, Freya’s mother has been troubled by the slow breakdown of the technology and ecosystems of the station, so there’s jubilation when they begin to settle the surface of the windblown, apparently lifeless moon they call Aurora. The planet isn’t lifeless, however – it hosts a tiny, bacteria-sized life form, a “slow prion” or perhaps a tardigrade that’s lethal to the settlers.
The crisis caused by this discovery reveals that the ship had in fact sailed in tandem with another identical craft that had suddenly destroyed itself during social unrest that took hold on both ships during the 68th year of the voyage. Protocols developed by the ship’s artificial intelligence (AI) to respond to the crisis prevent civil war, and the colonists agree to separate, one group staying behind to try to terraform another, Mars-like moon while the rest plot a return to earth.
Life on the ship entailed sacrifices, and adherence to rules that cause constant rebellions, like restrictions on child-bearing and personal mobility. Devi and Freya both begin to question the mission’s ultimate value, and upon returning to Earth Freya discovers that it was just one of many, doomed to fail like their own, given the odds of survival on hostile worlds and factors like “zoo devolution” where birth defects caused by cosmic radiation and the accelerated evolution of bacteria and viruses in the closed biomes of the ship mean reduced height, shorter lives and lower IQs with each spacefaring generation.
The ship’s AI develops sentience, and during one of the chapters it narrates, speculates on the motivation for our wild lunge into space: “Human beings live in ideas. That they were condemning their descendents to death and extinction did not occur to them, or, if it did, they repressed the thought, ignored it, and forged on anyway. They did not care as much about their descendents as they did about their ideas, their enthusiasms.”
Robinson’s book upset may proponents of the “generation ship,” which has been supported by both NASA and DARPA. Writing about the controversy in a “Letter to the 22nd century” on Mashable.com, Chris Taylor notes how research has shown the damage space travel and closed systems do to life forms. Robinson himself responded to critics who charge that Aurora purposefully made interstellar colonization look unworkable, saying that “Well, God put his thumb on the scale.”
This has led to even more out-of-the-box speculations on how we might colonize the universe, ranging from hollowing out small planets that will take millennia to reach their destination, to “DNA printers” that will recreate human beings upon reaching their destination – a scenario that’s truly nightmarish. In Aurora, after they return to Earth, Freya’s father Badim and his friend Aram rediscover “A City,” a poem by C.V. Cavafy. (It’s wonderful to speculate that we’ll still be reading poetry in six or seven centuries.) They recite Lawrence Durrell’s translation to each other:
“There’s no new land, my friend, no
New sea, no other places, always this
Your earthly landfall, and no ship exists
To take you from yourself. Ah! Don’t you see
Just as you’ve ruined your life in this
One plot of ground you’ve ruined its worth
Everywhere now – over the whole Earth?”