Liu Cixin’s Trilogy

I just finished Liu Cixin’s trilogy of books, Three Body Problem, Dark Forest, and Death’s End. They’ve gotten a lot of praise as perhaps the best classic-style science fiction in the past decade. This praise usually makes sure to mention that Cixin is Chinese, and thus adds to diversity in science fiction. Which I think has shielded him from some criticism he’d get if he were white. To explain, I have to give some spoilers, below the fold. You are warned.

These books are mainly about conflicts between humanity and aliens, over a period that lasts for many centuries. Cixin assumes that even though tech and economic progress continue, we never develop artificial intelligence that threatens the central role of humans in running things, we never extend human lifespans beyond two centuries, and rates of progress never speed up substantially. Even so, a dozen centuries of progress is sufficient to achieve vast physical powers, including the ability to change basic physical parameters like the speed of light and the dimensionality of space. And hibernation is achieved early on, allowing a few characters to span the entire story.

What ends up mattering the most in human conflict with clients is the mood and personality of a few key characters, and the typical mood of humanity, which is treated as if it were a character with a mood that drift over centuries. (Impersonal economic forces aren’t given much of a role.) Specifically what matters is how hard and tough characters are – how willing they are to assume the worst of aliens and to set aside the usual human morals. When characters follow the usual human inclination to be nice, trusting, and moral, things go badly. But when characters are hard, tough, and ruthless, things go well. Key characters are often too nice, and near the end humanity is almost entirely exterminated because of this.

This tough vs. soft split within humanity is mapped explicitly onto gender. Key characters who cause problems by being soft and nice are consistently female, while the ones who most help humanity to survive by being hard and tough are consistently male. This isn’t at all accidental. Key long-lived soft females who overlap eras when typical humans are soft lament the lack of tough men around, and prefer men from prior eras. The story is told mostly from the female characters point of view, and is sympathetic to that view. Even so, consistently over many different human cultural eras men choose survival while females choose annihilation.

This patterns suggests not just that the author has chosen to depict a sexist culture, but that author holds a sexist belief:  there is a robust innate difference between men and women that makes women bad leaders during conflicts. This is what I suspect Cixin only gets away with, so far, because he is Chinese. People eager to embrace ethnic diversity are often willing to overlook sexism in newly included ethnicities. (A movie of the first book comes out next year.)

Cixin describes a universe where most resources seem to go unused, and where great old powers hide and destroy any new civilizations that they detect. And even though he has two new civilizations appearing within four light years of each other and within a few centuries of being at the same tech level, he has this basic situation continuing for billions of years. In such a universe it makes sense for new civilizations to hide and also spread out. But whether this scenario can make sense as a long term equilibrium depends on whether it makes sense for the biggest old powers to always hide, as opposed to sometimes visibly grabbing a large volume of resources and using it intensely. If you are hiding and competing with other old powers hiding near you, why risk exposure to destroy newcomers, instead of leaving that task to other old powers?

Cixin just doesn’t address these issues – his only brief passage from the point of view of old aliens doesn’t consider such things.

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  • J

    I think I’d rather live in a world where anyone can get away with writing stereotypical characters in their novels. (Not that anyone has to *read* those novels, mind you.)

    • Thiago Ribeiro

      Depends on what “getting away” means? Not being tortured, jailed, fined or killed? Sure. Not being critced? I don’t think so. Can the eventual critics “get away” with criticizing? Same thing and so on.

      • Thiago

        * criticized

  • Nathan Taylor (praxtime)

    I’ve read his books, and can’t help be overagree Cixim’s scenario doesn’t make sense. And agree people feel good about pushing Chinese SF and mention it way too often, and by doing so helped popularize his books in the US.

    But….I completely disagree on his being Chinese as the reason he’s not criticized at a plausibility level. Let’s face it, even hard SF is very sympathetic to a) tough guys winning by being tough, b) women liking said tough guys, c) space aliens being at our technology level, d) not thinking through implications of geometric space expansion as a baseline plausible scenario for aliens. These are (by now rather boring) standard SF tropes. Not at all original to him. In fact they are particularly common in movie SF tropes. So….we might just have a huge blockbuster on our hands.

    • RobinHanson

      Having men be in control and women admiring them from the background depicts a sexist culture in the story, but isn’t necessarily a sexist position for the author. But having women be in charge and that resulting in disaster explicitly because women are weak and don’t listen to strong men, and that holding consistently across many cultural eras, that seems more a description of a consistent strong gender difference. One that suggests we’d be fools to elect a female president.

      • Nathan Taylor (praxtime)

        Fair enough. On the point of manly man leaders he’s likely getting some slack because he’s Chinese. And certainly I agree with you this is pretty dumb. But I’ll stick with saying his science tropes are commonplace and would not be beat up regardless of Chinese or not. And I guess worth mentioning even his manly men tropes were commonplace in US SF until fairly recently (just compare roles of women in original Mad Max, Ghostbusters and Star Wars to remakes). And even now these sometimes still go without much comment in SF, as long as they are dialed back a bit. Hmmm….. Now that I’ve thought about this more, it’s possible to test this theory by predicting differences between the book and the movie. You’ve convinced me the woman will be more decisive and less fawning towards the manly men. But I’ll stand by my prediction that all the aliens science tropes will be just as bad in the movie as in the book. And I suspect the amount of shift for the women I’d predict would be somewhat smaller for you than me.

  • Kapito

    I read the first 2/3 of TBP, and skimmed the rest, and found it to be just astonishingly badly written. It won a 2015 Hugo, during the worst of the Hugo’s diversity wars, which goes some way to explain how it got the award.

    • SomeReaderGuy

      I’d be interested to hear what someone who actually speaks Chinese thinks about this, because the feeling I got from reading the novel (only read the first one, i.e. TBP, though) was less that writing was bad so much as that it had been translated in a very literal way and Chinese literary styles just don’t translate very well into a Western language, i.e. English.
      Like, many of the ways in which things were described or passages put together, the excessive terseness of the prose, and so on, didn’t feel artless so much as if they had been put together according to obscure rules that were just utterly alien to me as a reader. So as I was saying, I’d be interested to hear the opinion of someone who knows Chinese and has read it in the original, if they think the flow of prose etc. work much better in the original.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Was the Hugo based on the translation or the original?

      • Max

        Translation. Hugo is award voted by sci-fi fans, mostly American

      • wlinden

        Hugos are guided by English-language publication, because it wouldn’t be “fair” for something to have to compete before it is available to most of the world market.

      • Shirley

        Agreed! I read it in Chinese and didn’t read it in English. However, I was able to see a lot of difficulties for the translator to convey concise messages of the story on a language level, let alone the traditional and cultural differences.

        The books can be refined and the stories can be told better for sure. However, the story lines are fantastic.

  • lump1

    Interestingly, the fact the author is Chinese helped me relax about the same troubling patterns that you mention. Yeah, I noticed them too, but I didn’t become offended. It’s the same charity that comes easily to me when I read works from long ago.

    On further thought, the mild transgressiveness of it might have heightened my enjoyment. Maybe I’m getting a little bored of everything I read following the contemporary Western writing rules, in which authors are required to include the standard set of signals (strong/sciencey females, brilliant blacks/hispanics, LGBT, racism is erased in the future, etc.). I’m absolutely on board with all those things, but maybe there is something a little stifling about how it’s mandatory in pretty much every genre.

    Cixin Liu placed China at the center of all the events of global importance, and nothing of significance was done by Americans or Euros. And I thought that was really cool and refreshing for some reason.

  • mondain

    Liu Cixin mentioned in an online post that he had to revise about a thousand passages the second volume as they were deemed too sexist by the translator.

    Liu is deeply cynical of liberal values, which is now more and more typical in Xi’s China. His worldview as encapsulated in his ‘cosmic sociology’ is basically a recapitulation of Malthus’ and Lebensraum theory.

    In Angel Era, one of his short stories yet to be translated, the genetic modification of famine-stricken African nations into herbivores is proposed as the technological solution to the food supply problem. ‘Being fed is the foundation of human civilization!’ proclaims the protagonist who could pass for a Chinese government’s mouthpiece routinely defending the country’s human rights record by resorting to emphasis on the right to survival as the most fundamental human rights. In response, the UN authorized a self-righteous crusade driven by western-centric morality against the ‘self-determination’ of the African people to stop the human genetic engineering. The genetically modified super-humans finally prevail over the humanity.

  • Khoth

    > Cixin just doesn’t address these issues – his only brief passage from
    the point of view of old aliens doesn’t consider such things.

    They are addressed, albeit briefly. They don’t go expansionist because they don’t know there isn’t a massively more powerful civilisation out there, and they destroy newcomers on the basis that if they can see the newcomers, the newcomers will eventually be able to see them. (The first point is in Dark Forest, the second is in the passage from the alien POV)

    • RobinHanson

      How could it be that newcomers will soon see them but the massively more powerful civs can’t see them?

      • Khoth

        “mumble mumble handwaving”

  • Nikoras

    Ye Winjie is a rebuttal to this as a character. She has an incredibly high capacity for bloodshed, and chooses to murder her husband (even though she didn’t want to) in order to carry out her plans.

    Why must every female character be depicted as strong and bloodthirsty to be considered progressive? Yes, Cheng Xin in Death’s End is gentile to a fault, but I would hope that we could have authors write both Ye Winjie and Cheng Xin. In reality some people are gentile to a fault.

    To be honest I find many female characters these days are being written very Mary Sue like. They all end up being like Rey from Star Wars, and to be honest it’s boring and bland. Can’t we have some characters with REAL faults that don’t have to represent everyone of their gender? The “kickass toughchick” trope is getting pretty old.

  • Jeff L

    The lack of AI was at first because they couldn’t trust if aliens were interfering with it. So there was an additional reason for never letting the AI out of the box. The book also made up a story that whole brain emulation was much harder than you’d think because the brain is more complicated than we now know.

    The book didn’t get away with it’s masculinity vs femininity merely by being foreign – having men of certain time periods look and act like women presented a progressive future even while critiquing it. The critique might appear weak to those who would prefer their favored future because it relies on the existence of an external existential threat.

    The universal dark forest argument was strange, but if offense is really easy and defense is really difficult then it makes a little more sense to not have any power openly declaring themselves. And note that it isn’t all great powers who do the housekeeping – most act as you suggest, it just takes a few malevolent ones with enough reach to apply these policies to create this environment. Since the attack is done from outside a star system they aren’t putting their civilization at any great risk.