The Big Idea: Cixin Liu
The name Cixin Liu is largely unfamiliar to English-speaking science fiction readers, but to Chinese science fiction fans, he’s a superstar of the genre, amassing the sort of award tally and name recognition — and sales! — that would be the envy of any writer in the world. Now for the first time his novel The Three-Body Problem is available in English, translated by Ken Liu, himself a multiple award winner in the genre. With the help of Ken, Liu is here now to tell you his acclaimed work, and how it cuts against the grain for Chinese science fiction.
As a longtime scifi fan—I’m probably among China’s first generation of scifi enthusiasts—I’ve always believed in the existence of a large number of intelligent species and civilizations in the universe. If some of these civilizations discovered each other and could communicate with each other, they would form a cosmic society of civilizations. I’ve always wondered about the form of such a cosmic society and the kinds of relationships between its members.
In Chinese science fiction, extraterrestrial civilizations were usually imagined as benevolent and wonderful. This set off the contrarian in me, and I decided to imagine a worst-case scenario.
The only reference point we have in the study of cosmic society is human society. There are many different civilizations on Earth itself, each with its own internal complexities and relating to each other in complicated ways. Politics, economics, culture … feed into each other in an intractable knot. It’s very difficult to come to any clear conclusions about cosmic society based on this example.
But a soccer match inspired me. It was the first big-stadium match I’d ever been to: a game between the Chinese national team and UC Sampdoria of Italy at the Beijing Workers Stadium. I had just started my job back then, and all I could afford was one of the cheap nosebleed seats all the way in the last row. From that distance, the complicated technical moves the players made on the pitch were filtered away, leaving behind only a shifting matrix of 23 dots—one of the flitting dots being the soccer ball. Even the brightest star of the match, Ruud Gullit, was just another roving spot in my eyes. I regretted not bringing binoculars with me, but I also realized that the elimination of details revealed the clear mathematical structure of the game.
This is just like the stars, I realized.
Interstellar distances hid and made inaccessible the internal complexities of each civilization. In the eyes of observers like us, extraterrestrial civilizations appear as only points of light. The complicated internal structures and forces within each civilization are reduced to a limited set of variables and parameters associated with each dot. This also revealed a clear mathematical structure for cosmic society.
I came up with a set of axioms as the foundation of this approach to cosmic sociology:
- Survival is the primary need of civilization.
- Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.
Axiom number one should be self-evident, but the second half of axiom number two has not yet been proven by cosmologists. However, as a premise for a science fiction novel, I thought it was logically sound.
I also came up with three conjectures based on the facts as we know them:
First: barriers to communication. It is very difficult for civilizations to communicate with each other and to understand each other across the universe. This is due to 1) the insurmountable time delay imposed on all communications across interstellar distances (at least based on known physical laws); and 2) the vast biological differences between the two sides in any attempt at communications. On Earth, biological organisms are classified into domains, kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, species—the higher you go in the hierarchy, the larger the differences between taxa in the same rank. Humans cannot communicate effectively even with animals in another genus. At the cosmic level, if one takes into account the possibility of non-carbon-based life forms, the differences between them and humans may be greater even than the differences between domains on Earth.
Second: technological explosion. It took humans about a hundred thousand years to advance from stone tools to the age of agriculture, but only two hundred years to go from the steam age to the information age. Explosive advances in technology could occur at any moment in any civilization in the universe. Thus, even a primitive civilization that appears as harmless as a baby or a sprout is full of potential danger.
Third: detection reversibility. This concept is based on the Principle of Reversibility in optics. If one civilization can detect the existence of another in the universe, sooner or later, the second civilization can also detect the existence of the first.
Based on these axioms and conjectures, one can deduce a possible shape for cosmic society, and it is indeed a worst-case scenario, which sits at the foundation of my Three-Body series. The details of the deduction process is set out in the second book in the series, The Dark Forest, and as the title hints, the universe is a dark place where only one kind of relationship is possible between different worlds: as soon as one civilization has detected another, it must do all it can to destroy it. This has nothing to do with the moral conditions of the civilizations involved—as long as one accepts the two axioms, all civilizations must behave in this manner. Chinese readers dubbed this conclusion “The Dark Forest Hypothesis.”
This is also an answer for the Fermi Paradox, a very dark answer. If any civilization exposed itself in the universe, it would soon be destroyed. This is why the universe is so silent.
Of course, this is just a possibility explored in fiction. Faced with the eerie silence of the universe, right now we have no way to prove or disprove this hypothesis.
There is something to the old saw about science fiction being the literature of possibilities. It presents various possibilities for the reader, and sometimes the possibilities that exert the most attraction are also the least likely. But in this wondrous universe, anything that seems impossible also has the potential to be reality. As G.R. Burbidge once said, “If stars did not exist, it would be easy to prove that this is what we expect.”
At the very least, it would be irresponsible to not consider the worst of all possible worlds as one possibility for the reality of our universe.