Review of ‘The Three-Body Problem‘, by Liu Cixin
Warning: this post contains details of premise which are not revealed until midway through the first novel.
I suppose there comes a time for every dedicated science fiction reader when they must ask themselves, ‘would I collude with an alien species to destroy the human race?’
I have just finished the first two books of Liu Cixin’s ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ trilogy, best known to English readers by the title of its first book, ‘The Three-Body Problem’. ‘The Three-Body Problem’ was nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel and won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel (the first non-English language novel ever to win, I believe, and the award was shared with his translator Ken Liu), and has met enormous acclaim since its publication in English.
The premise of the trilogy is thought-provoking: during the Cultural Revolution in China, a persecuted physicist discovers, via the Chinese equivalent of the SETI program, evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization. These aliens live on a planet which is located within the gravitational field of three suns, and since three objects do not form a repeating orbit (the ‘three body problem’ of the title), they are subject to lethal climatic extremes. The aliens are thus in need of a new planet and the human scientist, who had become convinced that humankind is unable to govern themselves justly, reveals the location and suitability of Earth to them. The first two novels of the trilogy tell the story of this scientist and the organization she builds to destroy humankind, and, once she is discovered, of humanity’s preparations of for the coming of the alien fleet.
The best purpose of science fiction is to pose moral problems in a context which, through novelty, clarifies them, and, by that metric, ‘The Three-Body Problem’ is a success. The problem it poses is a particularly acute one for me. The scientist at the heart of the premise believes that humans are innately and ineradicably evil – I believe that humans are innately and ineradicably evil. She believes that, if left to govern themselves, they will always and inevitably turn to murder and wickedness – I believe that as well. And so when she sees a technologically superior race, she decides to hand over mastery of our lives and world to that race – would I do the same?
No, of course not. There are several glaring errors of thought required to reach her conclusion, several unjustified leaps of logic.
First, technological superiority does not imply moral superiority. Simply because aliens are more advanced scientifically does not mean that they are more “advanced” ethically. You encounter this thinking often in science fiction; the notion is that civilizations which divert resources into constant, intra-species strife lack the resources for the development of interstellar travel. The conclusion is that, therefore, any extraterrestrials likely to reach us are probably going to be some hippy-dippy, beatific, highly pacifistic race which has “evolved” past war.
This is completely bogus. If human history is any example, war is a great engine of technological progress, not an impediment to it.
More than that, the fact of the approaching alien fleet almost certainly tells the morality of the approaching alien fleet: any race willing to conquer an alien planet and either enslave or exterminate another intelligent species is not pacifistic. They are not morally superior to us; they are not better or kinder. They are, to put it simply, as evil as we are.
The last problem is this: that you are capable of evil does not mean that you necessarily deserve death. It does not mean that you are capable only of evil and not capable of good, that evil and evil alone defines you, or that individuals among your population are incapable of living entirely good lives. A species like ours which carries its capacity for evil within it, innate and unchanging, may also carry a like capacity for good, just as innate and just as ineradicable. And each generation of that species should be given the chance to choose their own goodness over their own evil.
So, after much thought, I have decided that, when the time comes, I will not help extraterrestrials exterminate humankind. It was a tough call, but I’m going to throw my lot in with us. I still think we’re our own best bet.
From the 1996 movie ‘Independence Day’