When Obama and Zuckerberg are your fan boys: On Cixin Liu’s ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ Trilogy

J E Frank
J E Frank
Jun 22, 2018 · 9 min read
China’s most renowned writer of science fiction meets a fan

In addition to his already fearsome reputation as a technology titan, billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates has, over the past few years, taken on a quizzical new role: that of librarian. On his official blog, Gates Notes, he regularly posts updates on books he is reading, as well as lists of his favorites. Recently, he famously purchased a copy of one of his recommendations for every person graduating college in America in 2018.

It’s one of the odd peculiarities of our age of information sharing: where we once merely ogled over the houses, planes, and other possessions of the the vastly wealthy, we now have the ability to know them (if they let us) by their bookshelves as well. Other elites have, for whatever purpose, allowed us similar glimpses into their reading lists as well. Both Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg have curated or shared lists of their favorite reads. That such lists usually serve some PR or political strategy is boringly obvious: an elite is never not political.

Left: Mark Zuckerburg Reading | Right: The Obama’s browse for books in Iowa City

Obama and Zuckerberg’s respective book lists cover similar terrain. They both tend to be focused on non-fictional, non-partisan books about the values of science, learning, as well as constructive analyses of how the world has, is or will improve itself meaningfully through human ingenuity. While some of their non-fiction choices overlap (Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Sapiens is a shared favorite), there is a bit more divergence among their other literary tastes. Obama, befitting his more affable, humane image, tends to read more fiction and memoirs than Zuckerberg, who (surprise!) tends to prefer books of a more technical nature.

There is however, a work of fiction that they both have on their lists . It’s a much-fettted epic science fiction trilogy from the Chinese writer Cixin Liu. In the US, its collective title is Remembrance of Earth’s Past. Available only recently following a brilliant, fluid translation into English by Ken Liu (no relation) and Joel Martinsen. The books have gone on to make quite a splash in Americas crowded speculative fiction scene. The translation of the first volume took home the Hugo Award, one of science fiction’s most prestigious literary prizes, in 2015. It was recently announced that Amazon may acquire the film rights to the books in hopes of building the sort of Televised, sci-fi behemoth that Jeff Bezos has openly wished would rival HBO’s Game of Thrones.

The books follow one of science fiction’s most hallowed (and tired) tropes: what happens if we contact aliens and they are bad? In the first volume, The Three Body Problem, Liu is able to bring that trope to dazzling life by posing it as a reaction to modern Chinese history.

A young physicist, whose academic family and emotional life has been all but destroyed by Mao’s cultural revolution, finds herself in possession of a message from a hostile, technologically superior race beyond the stars. In her anger at the cruelty of human life, she sends them a response: ‘come to earth and I will help you eradicate humanity and take the planet for yourselves.’ The apocalypse, it seems, will be personal.

From a narrative standpoint, it’s a curiously small moment in a book that otherwise has the overtones and pace of a global thriller, but is all the more powerful for it. Intentionally or not, Liu offers a rude commentary on the ways the totalitarian ideologies of the past 100 years still continue to ripple out and shape our world in blunt, unexpected ways. What is the recent controversy of separating and detaining immigrant children in modern day internment camps, but a potent call-back to previous regimes of state detention and bodily control, be they American, German, Russian, Chinese, etc.?

Liu’s key insight is to use those call-backs, those hatreds that breed subsequent hatreds, and take them to their dreadful conclusion: to a place where human continuity itself is cosmically threatened, and we have no choice but to attempt to organize and fight back. Mao’s chickens have come home to roost upon all of us.

Those two subsequent ideas: to organize ourselves and to fight back against an alien threat, form the entirety of the next two books in the Trilogy, The Dark Forest and Death’s End respectively. Again, this all falls well within the trope of ‘First Contact’ narratives in science fiction. Witness the ra-ra triumphalism of Roland Emerick’s Independence Day, or the Cold War parable of The Day the Earth Stood Still, or the more individualized claustrophobic terror of Ridley Scott’s iconic Alien, or the archetype of the genre itself in H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and its subsequent film adaptations.

First contact with extraterrestrials is a dicey prospect, at best. Left: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) | Right: Alien (1979)

What makes this trilogy so alarmingly different from its genre peers is not so much its conception of what that organization and fight will look like, but rather who gets to participate in it (and who does not).

The characters in all three of these books almost invariably seem to fall into one of three categories: soldier/police officers, scientists/engineers, and government bureaucrats. Every significant player is a member of a highly skilled profession who, in more peaceful times, are less visible to the public eye. We all recognize the structural need for such roles in ‘First Contact’ science fiction stories. Very roughly, the logic goes something like this: scientists have to make discoveries so bureaucrats can make decisions about who/what soldiers should shoot at.

And yet many ‘First Contact’ stories, even those choked full of technocrats and specialists, such as Independence Day and certain Star Trek films, still inevitably rely on more ‘common’ characters to provide perspective, empathy and to move forward the plot, if not to ground the story completely.

Witness Randy Quaid’s affable bumpkin sacrificing himself in Independence Day, or Sigourney Weaver’s tough, every-woman vulnerability (which masks a deeper strength) as Ellen Ripley in the first two Alien films. What, really, are Luke Skywalker and Rey from the Star Wars universe but powered up galactic hicks with laser swords?

Cixin Liu’s books, about a coming Alien invasion centuries in the making, contain none of these types of characters. Everyone is seemingly a member of a well-educated upper middle class who knows exactly what their role will be in the coming conflict.

Much of the epic science fiction in the western tradition(s) is implicitly built around a democratic/populist ideal of a common person rising to meet uncommon problems. The universe, for all its massive canvas of action, incident and woe is comprehensible to something approximating an Everyman. Luke Skywalker, Ellen Ripley, et al. are talismanic figures because we see our own commonness, our own lack of social prestige and power reflected within them. Their ordinariness is our ordinariness, and because of this the extra-ordinariness they develop becomes ours as well.

In his Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, Liu doesn’t value this idea enough to even pay it lip service. Organizing earth for a centuries-long project of developing the tools to fight a coming invasion is, in his telling, work exclusively reserved for large planning committees of technical experts given global mandates and staggering resources. In short, it’s a job only properly suited for the nascent technocratic class that has held increasing sway in our world in the last ~30–40 years (and which Liu himself, as a computer engineer in China, is tacitly a part of).

That a writer’s culture will inevitably be reproduced in their fiction is hardly a new idea. Yet Liu’s work has immense value for showing us how overly-conditioned we may be to our own democratic/populist oriented science fictions. Epic story telling in the speculative vain has become the commercially dominant form of entertainment in our age (anyone who doubts this is welcome to view the all-consuming juggernaut of Disney’s Star Wars/Marvel box office haul and then reconsider). Liu’s vision is no less grandiose than these franchises. And yet somehow it remains jarring; fundamentally apart in a western entertainment culture where, as Kate Blanchett famously spoke in The Lord of the Rings, “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

In his universe, Liu considers ‘small’ people to be fundamentally unworthy for so grand a canvas (the series, particularly its concluding volume, oozes with set pieces so huge and mind-bendingly odd that they would make the Steven Spielbergs and Christopher Nolans of the world blush).

This also means that a trilogy which contains narrative and technical ballets ranging from a military attack on a sea frigate in the panama canal, to the effective destruction of an entire solar system, at times feels more like a report than a novel. Liu’s sense of spectacle is cosmically grand and almost overwhelms with its scientific fidelity. And yet it’s anchored by a cold, technically obsessed narration which only rarely admits that its characters live anything approximating an emotional life. The humanity presented within these books is a humanity of government conferences, scientific laboratories and U.N. resolutions. It’s a humanity that is contained and constrained utterly within a world of technical and logistical problem solving. In short, the humanity presented in these books is purely that of a technocratic elite.

It’s no wonder then, that men like Obama and Zuckerberg have both proclaimed themselves fans of Liu’s work. Here at last is a world in which our nascent technocratic class, of which they are perhaps two of the grandest representatives, are the only players (and therefore the only heroes) around. In which anyone without at least one advanced degree, or a coding wizard with a billion dollar tech startup, is effectively a non-person, consigned to a fate of perpetual invisibility. Luke Skywalker would need a doctorate in nanotechnology, or perhaps merely an Ivy league J.D. before he could even leave his desert home, much less attempt to save the galaxy as Liu portrays it.

Tatooine or the Technology Lab? In western culture, we’re used to seeing the person living in the former as the ‘heoric’ one.

We live in an age in which the gap between those with technical skills and those without is widening. Our ideas of affluence and upward mobility are increasingly colored not simply by who possesses wealth, but also by who possesses specific types of knowledge and skills. Cixin Liu has written a remarkable science fiction epic which also, perhaps unknowingly, serves as a warning. A world in which a globally empowered technocratic class controls everything is a world that can achieve remarkable outcomes. But it is, by its very nature, a sterile world; one in which the overwhelming majority of human life and experience is a mere afterthought in a plenary session.

Our leaders and elite personas surely have their own ideas of humanity’s future, and it’s doubtful that either Obama or Zuckerberg’s views mirror Liu’s own vision so closely. But in tacitly promoting Cixin Liu’s trilogy (which, to be sure, is a bracing breath of fresh air in the genre), one can’t help but suspect that what attracted them to his writing in the first place is not so much its epic narrative, but rather its positing a world in which no one who is different from them has any power, or even presence. Even the most seemingly beneficent and charismatic of elites may hunger for a world built after their own image.

Mr. Liu’s most high-powered fans

J E Frank

Written by

J E Frank

I like to write about things that we can't, don't or won't talk about in politics, culture, the arts, etc.