Quislings to All Humanity

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?’

The Three-Body Problem Cover     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.

aliens-peace

     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.

The three novels of the ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past‘ trilogy are: ‘The Three-Body Problem‘, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End.

Featured Image:

From the 1996 movie ‘Independence Day

Peaceful, Evil Man

To Tony Judt, With Humility and Apologies

     There are minds so strong and lovely that one quails at the idea of disagreeing with them.  The error must be yours, you think, because their thinking is so sure and clean and reliable.

     When I find a discrepancy between my thinking and that of a greater mind, I usually retire, but every once and awhile, an admired intellect will assert something that I feel strongly is incorrect, and I find myself unable to give way.

     That happened to me this week.  I have been reading, with enormous pleasure, ‘When the Facts Change‘ by Tony Judt, the lucid, moderate, incisive historian of post-World War Europe. Judt is the sort of author is who is so reasonable and articulate that he is dangerously persuasive, and I find myself, usually, in total agreement with him.

     So I was caught up short when I read something in this book with which I disagree pretty categorically:

“It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity.  War – total war – has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era.  The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899-1902.  Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either Communism or Fascism would have seized hold of modern states.  Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust.  Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot.” (p. 274)

     These data are cherry-picked.  

     First of all, it is certainly coherent to lay the victory (though not the rise) of Communism in Russia at the feet of World War I, but to suggest that, for example, the millions of deaths in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) were a result most proximately of World War I is ridiculous – the People’s Republic wasn’t even established until 1949!

1966 Struggle Session
A ‘struggle session’ in Harbin in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, featuring public humiliation.  From scmp.com

     Or: perhaps the first British concentration camps in Africa were built because of the Boer War, but what about the detention camps they used for massive deportations of Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950’s?  Describing the “Mau Mau Uprising” as ‘total war’ seems like an enormous stretch, even when one considers how reluctant the British have been to be honest about it.

Mau Mau
British soldiers looking for Mau Mau fighters in Kenya in 1954.  From guardian.com

     Or: what about the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the truly blood-curdling actions taken by the occupying forces there?  

Rape of Nanking
A Japanese soldier poses with decapitated heads in Nanking in 1937.  From ‘The Rape of Nanking’ by Iris Chang

     Or: if we must restrict ourselves to the treatment of African-Americans in modernity, what about the Jim Crow era in the United States, which was nothing if not atrocious?

Lynching
From atlantablackstar.com

     There are more.  The truth is, there is no limiting circumstance on human evil.  To suggest that there is, is to indulge in optimism completely without cause.

     Judt’s assertion offends me because it implies that, in the absence of war, people can be trusted not to lash out at each other genocidally, and this is clearly not the case.  The arc of human history does not bear this out; the history of the twentieth century does not bear this out; neither the history of my nation or his bears this out.

     Humans require no special context to commit evil.  They do not require war to commit genocide.  They do not need to be in extremis to commit atrocities.  They do it in all places at all times whether or not they have war as an excuse.

     This capacity to annihilate one another is not a limited or circumscribed capacity – it is a human capacity.  If we keep looking for reasons why we could never have done the same terrible things as other people, if we keep looking for special circumstances which explain why cruelty and murder and evil are not universal, then we aren’t going to see the next evil coming.

     We have to take responsibility, not for the evil we have or have not done, but the evil we are capable of doing.  To say that only people in certain circumstances might commit atrocities is logic preliminary to explaining why we cannot commit them.

     But every nation, people, or creed will have the opportunity to strike cruelly at another people, and, if they are convinced beforehand that they are not capable of it, then they will think less critically about what they do.  It is only by acknowledging that we may all do terrible things unless we are careful that we will see the need to take care.

     And we must take care.

 

Featured Image from law.georgetown.edu/library

Chairman Mao Will Seat You Now

In 1918, a young Mao Zedong moved to Beijing and went to work as a junior librarian in the Beijing University Library.  He wrote later:

“My office was so low that people avoided me.  One of my tasks was to register the names of people who came to read newspapers, but to most of them I didn’t exist as a human being.  Among those who came to read, I recognized the names of famous leaders of the ‘renaissance’ movement, men…in whom I was intensely interested.  I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men.  They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.”

Mao was a nobody from Hunan province, and he was ignored by the prominent intellectuals he so admired.

This passage is excerpted very early in Philip Short’s biography of Mao, and I am well past what was, in the grand scheme of things, a brief episode in his life.  But this vignette has stuck with me more than any other from Mao’s life.

Mao Zedong would go on to rule the most populous country on earth.  He would preside over a regime that would kill tens of millions of people.  He would become, by some estimates, the most accomplished mass murderer in this history of humankind.

But in 1918, he was being snubbed by men history has forgotten, and this story has haunted me since I read it.

With how many people do you interact every week?  How many people serve you coffee, check out your items, pull your car around, pump your gas, see you to your table?

And those are the ones you see!  What about the people who clean up after you, fix what you break, prepare the food you eat, pick up your trash, deliver your packages?  How big is the army that serves you invisibly?  How many lives intersect with yours every day?

And what if one of them will become Mao?

There are two aspects of this idea I find disturbing.  The first, and the more ordinary, is the possibility of our unwitting proximity to evil.  It’s not pleasant, imagining that history’s next great killer might be taking your order.

But what frightens me even more is the thought that, perhaps, the clerk in the Beijing University Library wasn’t evil.  He would become Mao Zedong, we know now, but he had not yet.  And maybe, he need not have,

And if it is a question not of ‘When’, but of ‘If’, if he might but might not, then who else might?  Might one of my brothers?  My husband?  Might I?

There are two ways to see the future which lay ahead of that clerk: in one, he would find his way to his role, he would make space in history for himself.

But is it equally possible that history had an opening and that it would fill it?  Who is to say that Mao was the only man who might?  Perhaps many men might have done the job – perhaps most.  It may be that the murderers will out; it may also be that history could make murderers of us all, and she chooses.

This isn’t a lifetime movie: I don’t believe that Mao became a mass murderer because of those slights.  I don’t believe that, if one of these Chinese eminences had simply paid Mao Zedong the respect of answering him, the great storm of the Chinese Communist Party might have turned at the last moment and headed out to sea, that millions might have been saved.  And maybe this whole idea is wrong, and historical monsters aren’t borne of a diathesis-stress model: maybe Mao came into this world broken and dangerous and nothing was going to change that.

But isn’t it frightening to think that, perhaps, some large number of us carry the potential for great or terrible deeds inside us, and we wait only for the right combination of events to draw us into the open, where we become the stuff of statues and nightmares?

I don’t like my reflection in this mirror: I like to believe, as most of us do, that there are no accidents of fate which would twist me into shape to order millions of my fellows to their deaths.  There is no lower creature than a genocidaire – I choose to believe I could not become one.

But that anonymous clerk in the Beijing University Library is dogging me and now, I see the monsters of history everywhere I look, in the world all around me.  Because, if we are not monsters yet, who knows what we will become?

Featured image taken from Wikipedia.