What can “The Three-Body Problem” tell us about China’s tech industry
If you could imagine the worst possible universe, what would it look like? Liu Cixin’s sci-fi trilogy “The Three-Body Problem” describes that universe, and at the peak of the novel’s popularity in China, many IT entrepreneurs saw the tech industry in a similar light — a cruel dark forest.
Since its 2006 publishing, the book has won readers from all sides of the world including famous individuals such as Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. It has also won the Hugo Award, one of the highest honors in science fiction, making Liu the first Chinese author to achieve this.
Unlike examples from the West where many innovators were inspired by the technology envisioned in popular science fiction such as Star Trek, Liu’s book captivated China’s entrepreneurs because they saw it as a mirror. The story follows humanity as it faces a far more technologically advanced rival who wants to take over Earth in order to survive. The plot unfolds as humans struggle in this zero-sum game by sacrificing their humanity.
“Commentators viewed the harsh environment in which IT companies competed ruthlessly to the cosmos of “The Three-Body Problem” in which every civilization saw survival as its highest priority,” Ken Liu, the award-winning translator of The Three-Body Problem, told AllChinaTech in an email interview.
To tech entrepreneurs in China, the drastic measures taken to eliminate the rival civilization resembled attacks among competitors in the tech industry: shameless copying of competitors’ products, lowering prices in an unsustainable manner, spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt. All of this lowered the overall quality of life and made all the competitors suffer, explained Liu.
In the trilogy, the author uses an incredibly thought-out storyline to provide one possible answer to one of Earth’s greatest mysteries, known among scientists as the Fermi paradox. In a universe as big as ours, there should be a high mathematical probability of other intelligent life, but there has been no contact so far. The reason for this lies in the theory of the “dark forest” which is based on a few simple axioms.
Firstly, the goal of civilization is to survive.
Secondly, resources are finite.
Like hunters walking through a dark forest, humans can never be sure of the true intentions of other living beings. The extreme distances between planets in the universe create insurmountable “chains of suspicion” where two civilizations cannot communicate fast enough to undo mistrust, or even negotiate, making conflict inevitable. Therefore, it is in every civilization’s best interests to preemptively strike any developing civilization before it becomes a threat. This is why the aliens won’t talk to us.
In China’s transitional environment of rapid progress, hope, and threats, this idea turned into a powerful meme. It unfolded into deep online and offline discussions, some of which included CEOs, founders, and managers in leading tech companies.
They began to see the Internet as the Three Body universe. The market is limited. There can be only one survivor. And no one can be trusted. Big companies will do anything to destroy the small ones, fearing they will gain a technological edge. The idea brought up many questions about the hunger games in China’s business world — philosophical, moral, and environmental. Perhaps, many mistakenly saw the Silicon Valley as a very different environment than China. After all, isn’t Google’s credo “Don’t be evil?”
Interestingly, the author of “The Three Body Problem” never had any intent in fostering such interpretations for his sci-fi ideas, said Liu. But as it happens so often, once they are pushed out into the world, books continue to have lives on their own regardless of what the author had in mind.
“As Louis Menand said, ‘Texts are always packed, by the reader’s prior knowledge and expectations, before they are unpacked,’” explained Liu. “I view this interpretation as purely the result of anxieties and concerns driving the readers rather than authorial intent, but many modern critical theories don’t care about authorial intent. As long as the interpretation brings the reader enjoyment and illuminates the world around them, I don’t see any point to arguing against it.”