The Three-Body Trilogy, Or At Least Two-Thirds Of It


From my forthcoming colleciton Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons: Notes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs, available for preorder at Amazon and Amazon UK.

One of the most complex events surrounding the Hugos, at least in terms of untangling its meaning and significance, was the victory of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, the first part of a trilogy, in the marquee category of Best Novel. On the night it looked like a triumph - a book that had originally been kept off the ballot by the Puppies that only got on when Marko Kloos withdrew himself in protest at the tactics that had gotten him on, and was the first time Best Novel had been won by a work not originally published in English, which was another welcome note of diversity in a night that needed them.

Beyond that, it was a genuinely good sci-fi book. This is in some ways distinct from calling it a genuinely good book; there’s definitely a bit of “grading on the curve” involved here whereby one excuses the fact that one of the two protagonists is woefully underdeveloped and seems to exist mostly to slowly work out one of the big sci-fi concepts (the eponymous Three-Body Problem) at the pace Liu wants that revelation to unfold and then to have a specific technical skill (and one entirely unrelated to the Three-Body Problem itself) needed in the climax. But it’s long on interesting ideas and does some fun stuff moving between two time periods, and the point of the Hugo Awards is in part to reward compelling sci-fi content over other literary merits.

And it’s worth stressing that the diversity aspect of it is a real one. The Three-Body Problem is the most successful work of science fiction in China in living memory. This matters, as does translating it into English where it can reach a smaller audience. It is of course absurd to saddle one book with the task of representing Chinese science fiction as a whole, and the topic is far enough from my areas of expertise that it’s not going to be the focus of this discussion, simply put, it’s extremely valuable just to get a window, however small, into this perspective. There’s nothing particularly strange or exotic about the book as such; there’s much more that’s familiar to a science fiction reader than not. But equally, it’s clearly a new perspective on a wealth of familiar tropes.

It wasn’t until people ran the numbers on the Hugo data the morning after that an unpleasant reality emerged, however: the margin of victory between The Three-Body Problem and the second-place novel, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, was smaller than the number of voters who had voted in accordance with Vox Day’s recommendations, which included putting The Three-Body Problem in first place, ahead of any of his actual nominees. In other words, Vox Day could fairly be argued as being responsible for the victory.

This, of course, does not invalidate the victory. Cixin Liu is not a fascist nutbag, and The Three-Body Problem is an intelligent and compelling novel. And while the Rabid Puppies may have, in the end, been responsible for putting the book over the line, the book got plenty of non-canine support. All the same, it would be naive to say that it doesn’t matter. Vox Day didn’t make his recommendations at random, and his reasons for liking the book are real and a part of its victory just as much as the many reasons that people who are not objectively evil jerks had for voting for it.

Moreover, his reasons aren’t hard to surmise. The most obvious and superficial reason is that Liu’s novel opens during the Cultural Revolution, and offers a relatively unflinching portrayal of the sheer brutality and degradation involved. The appeal of this to someone like Vox Day is esoteric, and based mainly on the belief that there are people stupid enough to think that every form of socialism and Marxism is interchangeable with Maoism and will thus inevitably share all of its flaws. This is largely uninteresting, although it’s worth noting that the character in The Three-Body Problem who most substantively opposes the Cultural Revolution ends up being responsible for an alien invasion that threatens to wipe out humanity, so it’s certainly possible to overstate the critique in the first place.

This, however, reveals a second and more troubling aspect of The Three-Body Problem, which is its treatment of aliens. As Liu himself puts it in a postscript for the American edition of the novel, “I’ve always felt that extraterrestrial intelligence will be the greatest source of uncertainty for humanity’s future,” and moreover that “we should be ever vigilant, and be ready to attribute the worst of intentions to any Others that might exist in space.” This is, to say the least, an overtly xenophobic line to take, and it’s not hard to see why it would appeal to Vox Day.

But we need to be a little careful here. For one thing, Liu makes this claim about extraterrestrial aliens as an explicit distinction from human difference, saying “let’s turn the kindness we show toward the stars to members of the human race on Earth and build up the trust and understanding between the different peoples and civilizations that make up humanity.” He is, in other words, expressly avoiding the common science fiction trope of using space aliens as a metaphor for various forms of human difference such as race and nationality, and thus firmly shutting down the political readings of The Three-Body Problem that would be most immediately appealing to Vox Day.

It’s also worth noting that this issue exists at a complex intersection between the metaphoric purposes of science fiction and the act of extrapolating from legitimate science. Liu’s book is very much in a hard science fiction tradition, and indeed the second volume of the trilogy, The Dark Forest, postulates a general theory of why intelligent civilizations will necessarily try to destroy each other as soon as they learn of each other’s existence based on plausible if not certain principles (the dodgiest being “civilization continually grows and expands”). These are reasonable philosophical explorations about hypothetical scenarios, and interesting hooks for stories to boot. Their problems come only from the long tradition within science fiction of using extraterrestrial life as a metaphor for human difference. (And it’s worth noting that the danger of extraterrestrial intelligence is framed primarily as a critique of a particular utopian vision based on the idea that human civilization is incapable of fixing its ecological problems and requires outside intervention. If one wanted to read this as a metaphor for the relationship between human societies, the main takeaway from this would seem to be a critique of the idea that colonialism is actually helpful to anyone.)

But more to the point, the overall trilogy is not quite as doctrinal as Liu’s afterword would suggest, although this is difficult to fully evaluate with only two of the three books out yet in English translation. The Dark Forest concludes with two characters, a human and an alien, discussing the possibility that the human value of love (which the aliens share the capacity for, but have apparently suppressed “because it was not conducive to the civilization’s overall survival”) will allow for a resolution to the problem of civilizations destroying each other on first encounter. How this plays out will, of course, largely depend on Death’s End, which isn’t out until 2016, but the end of The Dark Forest pretty clearly points towards the xenophobic implications getting massively undermined.

Admittedly, The Dark Forest didn’t come out in English until after Hugo voting had closed, and on the basis of The Three-Body Problem alone the xenophobic reading ends up looking much stronger. (And it’s perhaps worth noting at this point that The Dark Forest is in pretty much every regard a stronger book than The Three-Body Problem: it’s much more focused, better-characterized, and has an altogether more interesting premise. Little to no grading on the curve is required to proclaim it to be great.) Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that Vox Day was in the end completely wrong about the book if he thought it in any way endorsed or was close to his politics.

But there is, in all of this, a final issue to unpack in his endorsement of The Three-Body Problem, which is the implicit racial politics of the choice. One of the most common ways in which Vox Day tediously nitpicks his critics is by objecting to being characterized as a white supremacist. For the most part, this objection is utterly insignificant: he believes that white people are superior almost all other races, and that white Christian culture is the best culture on Earth. But it is, in point of fact, technically true. In practice, Vox Day believes that east Asians are even better than white people.

This is actually a common belief among modern-day proponents of scientific racism, and is just as much a ludicrous and racist stereotype as the idea that black people are less intelligent. It’s the same set of stereotypes that proclaims that Asian people are all good at math, and from which the “Tiger Mom” image originates, and while it’s nominally a “positive” stereotype, it is in the end still a destructive and limiting one.

But there’s a larger cultural aspect to this fetishization of Asian people - one that harkens back to the 1980s tendency to treat Japan as an unstoppable economic juggernaut, a cliche based in a large part on the idea that Japanese culture, with its supposed focus on honor and discipline, was inherently more efficient and productive. These days the same sentiment is routinely directed towards China, which has become the existential economic threat du jour in American politics. In both cases the underlying point is the same, and involves treating Asian cultures as weirdly austere and almost inhuman societies. And, unsurprisingly given the way this fetishization values conformity and respect for authority, it’s a fetishization that’s stronger on the political right.

It’s also, however, is something that Liu’s books cut sharply against, most obviously in their eventual positioning of love as the force that can solve the problem of inevitable interstellar war. And indeed, in this regard one is put in mind of Vox Day’s largely ridiculous distinction between “Pink SF” and “Blue SF,” where the latter is proper male-driven adventure fiction whereas the former “is about feelings rather than ideas or action.” Because with the turn towards love as the solution to a set of hard SF tropes seems like as effective and thorough deconstruction of the entire ridiculous divide, making the obvious but necessary point that empathy is not even remotely opposed to values like science or rationalism.

So to recap, Vox Day used his four-hundred and some-odd lackeys to give the Best Novel prize to a book that ultimately rejects his racist ideology and undermines his entire view about how science fiction works.



Kate 5 years, 2 months ago

Say, is "Guided" gonna be available in dead tree format?

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

Yes, but that listing will go up closer to release.

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Riggio 5 years, 2 months ago

I haven't read Three Body Problem yet, but it's been on my (increasingly long) list of books that I'd like to get. I'm especially interested now that I've learned from you that ecological concepts play a major role in Liu's trilogy. For one thing, it's a serious political and philosophical interest of mine. Environmentalism is an issue I care deeply about, and I wrote an entire (still too expensive from the publisher) non-fiction book about ecological activism, politics, science, and philosophy.

But just regarding the book itself, I want to see how Liu tackles ecological issues. Because a Chinese person would be quite likely to think of humanity's ecological problems as so massive that they'd need foreign-planetary intervention to solve. I mean that in the pragmatic sense: some of the worst ecological disasters have happened in China and the Chinese spheres of influence in central Asia. The worst industrial smog in human history, the disastrous flooding from the Three Gorges Dam (which may also have caused the Szechuan earthquake several years ago), thousands of massive e-waste and metal dumps, and some of the world's most horrifying river pollution.

I'm glad Liu seems more hopeful about it, as it's at least a sign of hope that still exists in human cultures. But I'd also like to see some of the really pessimistic dystopian fiction that emerges from modern China, grappling with all this ecological destruction.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

One of the two main characters of The Three-Body Problem comes to the exact conclusion that "humanity's ecological problems as so massive that they'd need foreign-planetary intervention to solve." Nearly to the word.

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Aberrant Eyes 5 years, 2 months ago

"The appeal of this to someone like Vox Day is esoteric, and based mainly on the belief that there are people stupid enough to think that every form of socialism and Marxism is interchangeable with Maoism and will thus inevitably share all of its flaws."

Nobody stupid enough to think that is smart enough to think at all, or even to rearrange their prejudices, but you don't need to go very far here in Unistat to find people who are ignorant enough to believe it. The typical Unistater has, in the words of a great English exponent of socialism, "an outlook similar to that of the ancient Hebrew who knew, without knowing much else, that all nations other than his own worshipped 'false gods'."

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Jarl 5 years, 2 months ago

American exceptionalism. Exceptional fast food and exceptional dance moves.

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Camestros Felapton 5 years, 2 months ago

I think Vox Day's motives were simpler. The points you mention (e.g. the Cultural Revolution section) were primarily just elements that meant the book had elements he could spin. The main motive was that he could pick something that could 1. could win and 2. wasn't Leckie or Addison.
Aside from a core set of 'payload' ideological works (primarily John C Wright) neither set of Puppies put much effort in considering ideological aspects of what they were nominating (most obviously Guardians of the Galaxy which included literal tree-hugging) as opposed to what they objected to.
None of the Puppies (including Wright and Day who have pretensions towards this) have particularly good critical skills. Their ideological objections to particular works tend to be very shallow and politically inconsistent regardless.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

I don't dispute this on a factual level, but I think it remains helpful to pretend as if they did, simply because the result displays a sort of unexpected perversity that serves as an effective critique in ways that mere demonstrations of their stupidity do not.

Put another way, I note that Vox has basically crawled away like a hurt puppy since his debate with me, lobbing sophomoric softballs like drawing me as a Satanic zombie pedophile in an editorial cartoon (while simultaneously, in doing so, elevating me to the level of the Nielsen Haydens and Scalzi among his nemeses) without so much as an attempt at refuting me. And frankly, I enjoy getting under his skin so. :)

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Camestros Felapton 5 years, 2 months ago

//And frankly, I enjoy getting under his skin so. :)//

It is certainly entertaining :)
I think you discombobulate him because you superficially fit his fever-dreams of what a SJW is like (all Marxism and literary criticism, & an earnest stances on things) but you are quite happy to use humour, hyperbole and general not-giving-a-shit-at-petty-insults.
The Right habitually confuses the center with the left. They assume the various actual liberals they meet really are the rhetorical-socialists that they portray them as. Consequently they tend to not know what to do when they encounter people who are ACTUALLY left-wing i.e. people who respond to the supposed insult of 'You are a socialist' with 'Yes, of course I am.'

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Shannon 5 years, 1 month ago

I have that "problem" with my father-in-law. While I'm not a Marxist, I'm also not the stereotypical New York State Democrat that just follows along with the straw man talking points he imagines they have. So my answers frequently surprise him because they seem to come out of left-field, despite the fact that they're very consistent with my personal philosophy.

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Vivienne Raper 5 years, 1 month ago

I also think Vox Day's motives were somewhat simpler. In 2012, critic Paul Kincaid wrote an essay about the exhaustion of science fiction - focusing on the short story.

I wrote an essay about it around that time and reading some Hugo short fiction finalists from 2014 (and earlier) has only reinforced this point-of-view. You can see the Puppies as a rebellion against that exhaustion, but I think - with a few exceptions - they don't really have any counter-examples to champion themselves. The causes of that exhaustion are cultural and apply to them too.

Instead of speculating on whether Vox Day is a 'fascist' (and fascism is ultimately ideologically difficult to define because it is anti-intellectual and lacks a philosophical basis), you might be better served analysing why too much of the fiction appearing on recent Hugo short fiction ballots is meek, self-indulgent, narcissistic and abhorrently 'right-wing' in its support of superficial consumerist identities.

I could have a field day doing a Marxist reading of 2010 Hugo-nominated "Eros, Philia, Agape" - a beautifully-written whinge about the desire for radical self-expression of a rich woman and her superficially vapid robotic boyfriend.

This self-indulgent writing is arguably a result of structuralist thought and the surrounding theory. A model of oppression that is diffuse and constantly created by social relationships provides NO model for positive political struggle other than haranguing individuals. And NO way for labour to mobilise en masse because cultural identities and oppression are defined across class boundaries. People with more education/money inherently find it easier to discuss other forms of oppression they may experience, meaning that the whole movement becomes about elites.

If Vox Day is both religious and popularist right (at least in his language), you can see the appeal of a book that grapples with geopolitical and philosophical issues - rather than the whining of the privileged over the politics of small differences. This would also explain his expressed enthusiasm for China Mieville - a materialist (?) leftist writer.

I don't like Vox Day's politics (at all), but at least he seems to be trying to encourage ideas-driven fiction. Where the ideas go beyond "I am an upper-middle-class writer - allow me to interrogate my feelings of butthurt."

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Jarl 5 years, 2 months ago

>The Three-Body Problem is the most successful work of science fiction in China in living memory. This matters, as does translating it into English where it can reach a smaller audience.
heh heh heh

Reminds me a bit of the Cinema Snob's ambiguous statement that Godfrey Ho would splice American and British actors directed in Hong Kong action footage into films from China, Japan, Thailand, and elsewhere in order to reach a wider/whiter audience.

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Camestros Felapton 5 years, 2 months ago

In terms of the numbers. There were 453 1st preference votes for 3BP that in the race for 2nd place transferred to Puppy nominees. In the last round of preferences for 1st place, the difference between Goblin Emperor and 3BP was 200 votes. So there certainly is cause to say that the Rabid votes made a marginal but significant difference.

Using the numbers provided, it is possible to run a hypothetical version of the 1st place race with those 453 'Rabid' votes missing by deducting them from 3BP's 1st preferences and then assuming all other votes went the same way. If you do that then Goblin Emperor wins by 253 votes.

However, the question then is would 200+ non-puppies have voted differently if Vox Day had NOT endorsed 3BP? Given the size of the anti-Puppy vote that is plausible but there is no way of demonstrating it.

Taking the counterfactual further, with zero Puppy nominations (including Gannon and Torgersen's works as well) then the works would have included John Scalzi's Lock In and Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs. There simply isn't a way of knowing how everybody would have voted in that case :)

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Roderick Long 5 years, 1 month ago

Even assuming it's true that "civilization continually grows and expands," the inference from that thesis to the further thesis "intelligent civilizations will necessarily try to destroy each other" depends on a rather unimaginative and narrow conception of what civilization expanding has to look like. There's no reason in principle why two cultures can't influence each other in a peaceful way that counts as both of them expanding. Indeed, real-life cultural interaction often involves just that, even if it all too often involves the violent-supplanting mode of interaction as well.

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Froborr 5 years, 1 month ago

It also makes some rather narrow assumptions about what an alien civilization would NEED. I'm reminded of that one group of Niven aliens who RULE THE GALAXY, by which they mean they claim all habitable planets, and by "habitable" they mean small, tidally locked rocky planets orbiting red dwarf stars.

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Aylwin 5 years, 1 month ago

It does sound a rather mercantilist outlook, as it were. Needs a read of The Wealth of Nations [ducks].

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Inst 4 years, 9 months ago

One of the most interesting reviews of The Dark Forest was from people with International Relations backgrounds, and they argued successfully that The Dark Forest was essentially a descriptor of the doctrine of offensive realism.

I'm not sure whether or not LCX actually believes in that, though, since even in the text he doesn't hold The Dark Forest as a doctrine that necessarily holds; for LCX; there simply need to be enough civilizations that believe in The Dark Forest as their game-theoretical optimum to nova any exposed civilizations.

From the spoilers I've read, Death's End is not an optimistic work, but it does tackle with the flaws of TDF theory successfully.

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Inst 4 years, 9 months ago

One other thing; I think it was ascribed to John Mearsheimer that "Western civilizations often forget that they achieved their dominion through force of arms, whereas non-Western civilizations never forget that". From the history of human civilization, there are way too many examples of civilizations with more advanced organizational and military systems subjugating less militarily-capable peoples; if you're an American, you're living on land that was conquered or colonized away from the Amerindians. When European peoples first encountered South, Southeast, and East Asian trading networks, they did so pacifically, focusing mainly on their religion and their profits, but with their inherent military advantage they rapidly transitioned to full colonialism. It's this history that LCX is considering and rebroadcasting; as Westerners, we forget the noxiousness of our origins quite quickly, especially when we clothe our materialist victories as that of values and ideology (Enlightenment vs Imperialism and demographic expansion to escape the Malthusian trap that destroyed China after the Song Dynasty), but in the Islamic World, in South Asia, and in East Asia, they will not forget the structuralist dynamics that led to our profiting at their expense.

The most interesting reviews of LCX's SF magnus opus are those from a post-Colonialist perspective; as less political writers have proposed, Remembrance of Earth's Past is a Banksian Outside Context Problem. Instead of friendly aliens subliming into other dimensions, however, the Culture becomes the equivalent of Pacific Islanders first meeting Europeans, who then exploit, subjugate, then turn their island into an atmospheric nuclear testing site. This has happened way too many times, why shouldn't we expect this to be the median scenario?

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Doctor Memory 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Cixin Liu is not a fascist nutbag

Welp, we regret to inform you...

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