Sunday, October 22, 2017

stories I've experienced: The Three-Body Problem Series

As a VR content creator and believer, it's probably no surprise that I'm also a lover of science fiction novels, especially "hard" science fiction. Hard science fiction is just like regular science fiction, in that it explores a story under the influence of shifted, twisted, or evolved technological expectations, but with a scientific rigor that makes it feel believable. Some of my favorite books include Isaac Asimov's "Foundation", Vernor Vinge's "A Deepness in the Sky" and Carl Sagan's "Contact" (the movie is also one of my favorite science fiction stories).

I just had the pleasure of finishing a great set of hard science fiction books written by Cixin Liu, once a nuclear engineer, now an acclaimed Chinese science fiction writer, and brilliantly translated by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen. Called the "Three-Body Problem Series" (also known as the Remembrance of Earth's Past Series), the series is three books starting with "The Three-Body Problem" and finishing with the "The Dark Forest", and "Death's End".

three-body problem series

Cixin introduces a wild premise of how we might discover and communicate with antagonistic inter-stellar neighbors who are an alien race evolved so dramatically different from us because of the three sun system their home planet orbits in.

The series explores interesting ideas around scientific discovery and the stagnation of it, a civilization in which members can hibernate for eras of time, wireless electricity, space cities with various designs for centrifugal based gravity, fusion drives, a mind bending invention called curvature propulsion, and a fascinating theory on how the speed of light may have once started out as near infinite but is variable and monotonically decreasing because of the advanced weapon warfare between civilizations in an overpopulated universe.

In the first book, a secret group of trisolaran loyalists find and communicate with each other by using a form of virtual reality in which they can move around and even feel their environment by using a full body suit. The author doesn't go into too much detail how the devices would work and it's one of the softer bits of the fiction. In many ways, although Cixin's ideas were fresh and incredibly novel, I didn't feel like the story was written with an especially foreign perspective. That may be a credit to the translators, but what I do find interesting is how a book written by a Chinese author uses virtual reality almost as a foregone conclusion of what would be available to us in the very near future. This gives me hope for how virtual reality is seen in Asia, especially at a time where there seems to be more doubt in the states.

On top of the fun thought experiment of how an alien culture may be so different if they evolve under the harsh conditions of a three sun system, the series proposes a fascinating and believable axiom of how interstellar species might treat each other if our galaxy was overcrowded. Cixin proposes that in an overcrowded space, there would be limited resources, and therefore a natural fear among all of its inhabitants that any competition for those resources is best treated as a threat. Earthlings soon find out (a little too late) that those species who discover life outside of their own systems are better off concealing themselves instead of reaching out. This "Dark Forest" theory is a great canvas in which Cixin explores one of the more interesting ideas in the series: what if we could prevent war with a neighboring alien race by threatening to reveal our neighborhood to the rest of a hostile galaxy and therefore keeping a fragile peace through mutually assured destruction?

Another interesting idea that Cixin explores across the many years the story takes place is how gender expectations may change during times of survivalism and during times of comfort. Through out the book, as Earth advances and struggles against a strange and foreboding enemy, it goes through eras of extreme suffering and extreme luxury. During each extreme, Cixin proposes that when times are good, gender expectations trend to a feminized average, but when times are hard, gender expectations differentiate so that men are bearded, muscular and brutish and women are smaller, more fragile, and more maternal. It's an idea explored in other science fiction I've read, the most notable being "The Forever War" by Joel Haldeman.

With a lense towards our own culture, as technology continues to make life more comfortable, we may currently be seeing this trend towards a more feminized expectation for men (the term metrosexual comes to mind) and a more evolved expectation for women (as antiquated views on the domesticated wife are finally fading). I think our evolution out of antiquated stereotypical expectations for men and women is a good thing, but Cixin's is an especially thought provoking idea since it considers taking this trend to the extreme. I'm a big believer that great teams combine the perspectives of men and women with equality across all roles. But I also believe it's dangerous to say each individual must trend towards the thinking of the average. Homogenous thinking, even when balanced, leads to a lack of adaptability. There is a great benefit for men to be less brutish, but I worry that if this comes at the expense of our survivability, we should be cautious about losing our the classic gender expectations. Cixin doesn't try to make a case for what's best. He simply suggests that mankind is adaptable through out the extremes, and that we would most likely revert to our more primitive instincts and expectations when our day to day survival becomes the priority. I wonder how global warming may lead to a regression of our cultural evolution over the coming years.

In any case, I highly recommend these books. Cixin introduces and explores a lot of clever ideas with compelling characters and delivers the kind of great science fiction that uses "what if?" to make you think deeply about our own civilization and perspectives.