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 aliens 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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