Over the past few months, as China captured the world’s imagination for all the wrong reasons, coincidentally I happened to read the English translation of the Chinese science-fiction trilogy ‘Three Body Problem’ by Cixin Liu.
The trilogy starts with the cultural revolution in China when most intellectuals and academicians were persecuted by kangaroo courts inspired by Mao. The inflection point comes when one of the first protagonists of the story happens to establish contact with Trisolaris, an alien civilisation 4 light-years away. The series meanders through centuries and millennia as it follows the fate of various protagonists and that of the Earth and human civilisation itself.
The premise of finding alien life is indeed a very interesting proposition to start with; if and when humanity can establish communication with an alien lifeform (an intelligent one at that), it would be the most defining moment in the history of human civilisation. While I only have a basic idea of science and astronomy, I found the entire storyline more science and less fiction; it is believable and does not seem to have many bizarre elements. The major leap of faith the novel takes is in the domain of certain advanced lifeforms having the ability to manipulate dimensions (change a 3-dimensional world to one with 2 dimensions and so on) and the descriptions of this aspect make for a fascinating read.
The purpose of this article is not to act as a book review, the preceding paragraphs were just meant to build the basic premise for the uninitiated. Though the novel from the face of it is about interactions of humanity with alien civilisations, it is more of a window into the civilisational psyche of humanity and various facets of it.
First and foremost, the novel beautifully puts in perspective how mankind is unique and special, but at the same time immaterial to the larger scheme of things. I was always fascinated by the ‘Pale Blue Dot’, an image of the Solar System captured by the Voyager spacecraft from some point near its boundary. In this image, the Earth appears little more than a pixel in size. Like the Pale Blue Dot is a humbling realisation of the fact that this Earth is all we have and must cherish it and preserve it, this trilogy broadens your horizons to accept the fact that for all our intelligence and technological prowess, in the huge (unimaginably huge) expanse of the Universe, human civilisation could be one among billions of others, many of which could be far far (unimaginably far) more advanced than us. Once we understand this fact, co-existence with one another and so many other species with whom we share this blue planet would become much easier, as it would inevitably lead us to give up our ego and superiority complex.
The myriad of reactions which the imminent invasion of Earth by Trisolaris generates is a thought-provoking read.
Like in any crisis, there are defeatists- who have lost all hopes, there are escapists- who want to escape Earth into the endless space and then there are realists- who want to work in the existing framework of science and technology available on the Earth to fight back the Trisolarans.
The crisis presented by the alien invasion, as rightly remarked by the author himself, is the starkest inequality humanity would have ever faced- if the rich get to escape into space before the invasion, the poorer nations would have no choice but be left to die at the hands of the invaders. Though looking back at the history of human civilisation, I could not help but wonder how different a colonisation of humankind by aliens would be, from the experience of natives of South America, who had their entire civilisation wiped out by the Conquistadors?
Humanity’s response to the crisis as depicted in the novel is equally intriguing. After the initial chaos, the leadership of the world manages to get its act together and like the quintessential joint family faced with an existential external crisis, differences within are papered over and resources pooled to mount the most effective response possible. Just like Mir Jafar and Jaichand, even this crisis has its own share of traitors who are more than willing to join forces with the enemy; but the motivation for most of them is interestingly their disgust with the society of the day and they feel it is better off if the human society is either radically transformed by or totally cleansed by the incoming aliens. The only way which works out, in the end, is something familiar to those who have even a basic knowledge of the Cold War- mutually assured destruction; going on to show that the civilisational urge for self-preservation could well be the fundamental characteristic of any intelligent civilisation.
The era of peace ushered in after the protection bought by the hanging sword of mutually assured destruction shows a mirror to how progress and prosperity breeds complacency. As humankind benefits more and more from the technological secrets shared by the Trisolarans, doves outnumber the hawks by a wide margin and the civilisation gradually feminises (in the author’s words) over the passage of time. The pacifism and trust over Trisolarans reach a crescendo when humanity elects a mother-like, soft and sensitive figure to take charge of the system of mutually assured destruction. What consequences this has on the future of mankind is for the interested reader to read from the book itself, but I could not hold back the thought of how that society is similar in many ways to the world of today. Awed by the glamour of the West, more and more developing countries are queueing up to cede more and more control of their lives and systems to the giant MNCs in return for a promise of progress and prosperity. This wave is akin to a creeping and covert neo-colonisation which operates on the same principles as the previous overt colonisation, but is merely packaged differently.
Another interesting insight which this novel trilogy offers is into humanity’s behaviour towards religion and person (or objects) of worship. A section of people is so awed by the superiority of the Trisolarans that they start seeing in them new Gods. When one of the protagonists puts in place the system of mutually assured destruction which protects the Earth, he too begins to be worshipped by millions. It is a different matter that as the culture became more and more pacifist, the same person began to be seen as a cruel and heartless villain and hated as much as he was respected. Sounds similar to the ‘cancel-culture’ unleashed by the wokes in the recent protests in the USA, where statues of various historical figures are being taken down, is it not?
The core of the entire novel is its take on what hinders and what helps in the survival of the human species and its culture? Just like there have been comparisons between handling of Covid-19 pandemic by countries like China and democracies like India and the USA, the author also tries to draw contrasts. On one hand, is the democratic Earth, which choses a pacifist as the leader in line with the culture of those times and on the other is a spaceship with a few hundred humans sailing out in the endless abyss of space, which turns to an autocratic and unitary system of governance. The author’s opinion is that when it comes to the question of life, death and survival, the latter system with its discipline and ruthlessness would triumph. The transformation of formerly civilised humans into mean and menacing individuals with single minded focus on survival (ethics and morality be damned) is depicted in an interesting way.
To put it another way, the Universe is much like a forest ecosystem where every civilisation is looking to ensure its own survival and is simultaneously on the prowl to annihilate any other civilisation it can find to reduce competition to itself- Darwinism at its pinnacle and on a much larger scale. Humankind is but another naïve civilisation- eager to establish contact with any extra-terrestrial life form it can find, while most other mature civilisations believe in the motto that ‘stealth is survival’. Hide yourself from others in this forest of the Universe if you want to remain alive; to be discovered is to put a gigantic question-mark on your own future. It leaves one thinking, if the North Sentinelese are indeed the smartest people around.