The trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past, by Liu Cixin is fantastic and anyone with an interest in the future, physics, and/or China should read it.
The three books are: 1. The Three-Body Problem 2. The Dark Forest 3. Death's End
The first book, The Three-Body Problem, blow me away. The second, The Dark Forest, took a step even further. While the final book, Death’s End, released now in September 2016, did not manage to continue the positive trajectory (that would have made the final book one of the best sci-fi books I have ever read), but it is still much better than most books in this category. Without any experience of Chinese I think the language might come across a little strange, but there are so many things in this book that captures different aspects of China in very good ways.
While I have not read the Chinese original I feel confident to congratulate Ken Liu for the translation.
The books are such a joy to read on so many levels. As many good science fiction books this trilogy inspire on so many different levels. Below are some of the things I appreciated with the book:
1. The overall narrative The story begins during the Cultural Revolution in China and tells a story of our first encounter with another intelligent species from another planet. The story around the encounter is one of the best I have read. The way a very different culture is described and how we as humans try to cope with the threat of our own extinction are just two examples of well-crafted stories. The gaming aspect (you will understand when you read it) is also great.
How society explore different paths in order to avoid being extinct is written a little clunky, but also in a way that reflects how many of our institutions operate. If the way of writing in the way that reflect the institutions being discussed is very clever, or just an accident I don’t know, but it worked for me.
Perhaps what I enjoyed the most, in terms of narratives, is the story about the universe (or universes). This story, is described and experienced through multiple encounters and it is about how the universe is going through different phases with reduced number of dimensions, and that the reason for the reduction of dimensions, and corresponding reduction of the speed of light, is short-term aggression. How the need to dominate results in a race to the bottom, in multiple meanings of the word, felt like a very passionate plea for wisdom.
In terms of current discussions, the ways universes can be created in parallel was inspiring.
One link to the current mainstream discussions relates to simulations. Thirty/forty years ago, when the first computers did the first advanced calculations and helped put humans on the moon science fiction authors discussed how we could create new worlds by simulating life in computers and that we might live in a computer. Perhaps it is the fact that computers now can create lifelike objects in movies that has resulted in the current mainstream discussion about the probability that we live in a simulation.
I’m actually a bit surprised that even clever persons like Elon Musk is talking about living in a simulation in a serious way without reflecting on the underlying assumptions http://www.theverge.com/2016/6/2/11837874/elon-musk-says-odds-living-in-simulation. Of course, if we make simple extrapolations of current trends it is easy to argue that any intelligent species is likely to develop technologies that is capable of simulations and therefore that we are likely to live in a simulation.
The problem with the argument is that it is possible to make a similar argument for world making on the scale of planets, universes, or dimensions, if we assume smart use of our current technological knowledge. So thirty forty years from now we can assume that mainstream “thinkers” will make similar arguments for how inevitable it is that we live in one of many planets, or even parallel universes, created by a curious species that use the next generation of technology.
Taking a step back it is easy to argue that many of the “thinkers” tend to be extremely limited in their thinking, or just happy to make a media friendly argument, or being used by journalists who wants a good story, or a combination of the above (after all we live in a Twitter/TED/Trending world that is in love with the Spectacle).
The way we use our current level of intelligence, knowledge about science and tools, as if we are the centre of the universe and that our time is the one that will define how everything will end is fascinating. I think good science fiction books like the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” can help us move beyond the massmedia narrative.
If we want to expand the horizon, the fact that our intelligence in relation to ants might be similar to an another civilisations intelligence is to us, is also worth considering. It does not really matter if we look at the last 300 000 or 3 million years as a reference for how our intelligence has evolved. If we consider that other species might have evolved millions, or even billions of years ahead of us it becomes cute to think that we are at the ultimate threshold now and that our current technology is what defines our existence at all levels. If we add to that an exponential development during parts of the later development it becomes even more absurd to claim that we can understand how civilisations evolve.
Neil deGrasse has highlight the fact that our level of intelligence might be very simple, or very different, compared with other lifeforms so making us the reference and expecting us to be able to communicate with an intelligence that could come and visit us (or that is capable of communicating with us in real time in some other way) is not really based on any logic. And even less likely is that civilisations way ahead of us would be any more interested in talking to us than we are in talking to a worm.
A couple of (intelligent) people have misunderstood the above argument and used it to dismiss the dangers of general level AI, including Neil deGrasse himself. I think that is very dangerous. While we might not be as intelligent as we like to think, our capacity to kill ourselves seems to be greatly underestimated by most. It is difficult to comprehend that we are “intelligent” enough to have the capacity to kill ourselves as a species, and still on a worm’s level compared to other civilisations.
The above dilemma has interested me for some time, and was highlighted with reading this trilogy, and one thing that I think would be interesting to do is to develop an index for civilisations where the capacity to manipulate matter (perhaps a mixture of the Kardashev scale with the capacity manipulate matter on smaller scales, i.e. microdimensional mastery”) is combined with 1. The capacity to destroy the civilisation 2. The relation in the civilisation between solutions aiming at destroy and those aiming at evolve.
The benefit with such an index would be to encourage a discussion about how we as a civilisation are directing our knowledge and how we can avoid a situation where our capacity for things like reflection and empathy are so far behind our capacity to do destroy things. It would also be a measure of how vulnerable a civilisation is to small groups, or even individuals, that want to kill everyone.
By measuring the difficulty to deliver civilisation ending technologies it would also indicate how prone a civilization is to a mistake/freak accident. It is a big difference to have the capacity to destruction is that require a number of people collaborating and using very sophisticated technology that few have access to (say large scale nuclear war) and the potential possibility in the future to use a future 3-d printer that is available on the open market to manufacture a tailor-made virus that could kill everyone.
2. The role of science in society When the aliens are able to block our frontiers in science (on the quantum level) this is described in a way that oozes of love for science and the scientific process. The way the lack of progress in science does not only brings much of the development to an halt, but also results in deep depressions is fascinating reading.
3. The nods to history and culture As many good books this provides fun links to literature and art. Sometimes it feels as a fun idea that got a little shoehorned into the story, but as many of them make you smile that is more than OK.
An example is how they discuss that some of Van Gogh’s paintings can be described as portraying a two-dimensional sky.
Another example is how a story (unknown to me), Ivan Turgenev’s “Threshold", is used: “People dug up an ancient story, Ivan Turgenev’s “Threshold,” and used it to describe her. Like the young Russian girl in that story, Cheng Xin had stepped over the threshold that no others dared to approach. Then, at the crucial moment, she had shouldered an unimaginable burden and accepted the endless humiliation that would be her lot in the days to come by refusing to send out the signal of death to the cosmos.” 4. Nods to the author’s experiences in China So much of what we read is still from the west and while most western authors (especially the English speaking) does not reflect on the language or references they use, it is very clear that Liu Cixin has. The way key characters in the future have names that are a mixture of western and Chinese, how rituals like the tea ceremony are described when we meet alien cultures, and also small references to the bad air in contemporary China, are all obvious example of a new set of references. References that are aware that they might be part of the future, but not necessary. And this is very refreshing.
”Cheng Xin could not imagine a more perfect beauty, a beauty animated by a lively soul. She smiled, and it was as though a breeze stirred a pond in spring and the gentle sunlight broke into a thousand softly undulating fragments. Slowly, Sophon bowed to them, and Cheng Xin felt her entire figure illustrated the Chinese character 柔, or soft, in both shape and meaning.”
” “Luo Ji, who had said nothing so far, seemed relaxed. He appeared familiar with the Way of Tea, and holding up his bowl in the palm of his left hand, he rotated it three times with his right hand before taking a drink. He drank slowly, letting time pass in silence, not finishing until the clouds outside the window were colored a golden yellow by the setting sun. He set down the bowl slowly, and said his first words.”
5. Basic scientific “facts” As all great science fiction books scientific facts are included in a way that makes you smile. The speed of light and the number of dimensions have been used before many times, but the way they become the very core of the story is really well done. The number of dimensions also gets a link to Chinese philosophy and our search for beauty.
“The universe of the Edenic Age was ten-dimensional. The speed of light back then wasn’t only much higher—rather, it was close to infinity. Light back then was capable of action at a distance, and could go from one end of the cosmos to the other within a Planck time.... If you had been to four-dimensional space, you would have some vague hint of how beautiful that ten-dimensional Garden must have been.”
Now over to the “negative parts”. Note that they are minor grievances in relation to the overall story and should not be seen as a reason not to read the books. I should also add that they manly refer to the last book, so there is no excuse for not starting (and after the first two books you will read the last).
1. Word explosion As many authors with a brilliant idea and a compelling story Liu falls into the trap of expanding the books in quantity rather than quality. The first book clocks in at 300 pages, and the expansion of the second book is more than welcome, I even think the 400 pages could have been extended. However, the third book could have been cut in half to 300 instead of 600 pages.
2. Boring/irritating character The third book manages to create the first character in the trilogy that is both boring and irritating. The fact that she is the main protagonist who is at the centre of many of the key events makes it difficult to ignore her. All other characters are interesting in some ways, or help move the narrative forward in fascinating ways, but she is given a personality that is not only boring but also irritating. It is as if she was created to push the story in the most uninteresting direction and do so in a boring way. On top of that, she has a way of talking that is hard to describe, but it is like a bad movie with a bad actor reading from a bad script. Sometimes this happens when sci-fi authors are accused of having to little character development and they try to develop characters that focus on the more “human aspects”, usually resulting in clunky dialogue related to romance. Perhaps this is what happened in the last book?
3. Lost opportunity for an interesting ending It is hard to write a really good book, and even harder to end such a book in a way that is inspiring. The good thing with this book is that up until the end it is hard to know where it will end, but then it just takes a standard route.
I want to end by stressing that I think the book should be read by almost everyone today.