March 29, 2017

SHI REVIEWED | The Three Body Problem (Part II)

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Nestled in the Milky Way Galaxy four light-years away from the Earth, Trisolaris is a planet in a three-star solar system. The stars move in erratic orbits that follow no clear patterns—this is the classic “three body problem.” No civilization in Trisolaran history has been able to predict—and thus survive—the chaotic eras caused by these unpredictable orbits. The present Trisolarans, recognizing this, have begun their search for another home in the universe.

Meanwhile, on Earth, our protagonist Ye makes contact with the Trisolarans via the opening of SETI communication channels. Her message is short, but it sets the course for the collision of the two worlds: “Come here! I will help you conquer this world. Our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems. We need your force to intervene.” Ye’s sympathizers subsequently form the Earth-Trisolaris Organization (ETO) to welcome a Trisolaran arrival on Earth. The ETO consists of the highly educated and the rich. “Most of them had already begun to consider issues from a perspective outside the human race. Human civilization had finally given birth to a strong force of alienation.”

I read these developments with horror. What makes Ye think she has the right to communicate on behalf of all of humanity? What good could possibly come from an alien invasion of Earth? How delusional are the ETO members, who think they have some special access through their privilege to think “outside the human race”? I felt disgusted and betrayed. The ETO sounded like a transnational terrorist organization spewing Orwellian doublespeak: salvation is destruction; life is death; freedom is invasion.

As I mulled over these visceral reactions, I returned to the ETO’s feeling of a “strong force of alienation.” According to the dictionary, alienation is a state of being cut off or separate from a person or group of people. I find it apt that the word “alienation” contains the root “alien.” It suggests that despite our belonging to one collective humanity, we can still feel alien-ated, or cut off, from something.

Two widely known belief systems that address alienation are Marxism and Christianity. According to Marxism, capitalism alienates. It alienates the worker from other workers. It alienates the worker from the labor product he appropriates with his own hands. It alienates the worker, qua individual, from himself. He is no more than a cog in the industrial machine, an endless conveyor belt linking supply to demand. So he is “cut off” from the fruit of his labor.

According to Christianity, sin alienates. It alienates God’s creation—humankind—from its creator. God created people in his image to be good, but sin corrupted the human heart and turned it inward toward itself. Plucking fruit from the forbidden tree was an act of rebellion: Adam and Eve wanted to be their own gods. So they were “cut off” from the Garden of Eden.

Whether it is alienation from oneself or alienation from God, the notion of alienation implies lack. An alienated individual is missing something in order to live well; this is a common trope in world literature and philosophy. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that this is a conclusion borne out of experience rather than any abstract set of necessary and sufficient conditions. We have come to accept that alienation is part of human existence because we have all, to some extent, felt it. For Marxists, the remedy to alienation is to unite the working class and abolish private property. For Christians, the remedy to alienation is to repent of sin and return to communion with God.

This novel introduces the radical idea that aliens are the remedy to humanity’s alienation from itself. To be alien is to be foreign. Yet the experience of alienation, according to the ETO, is not borne out of something unknown in the cosmos, but deeply tied to what humans are all too familiar with–humanity itself. Thus the ETO inverts the meaning of alienation. No longer are the aliens the ones to be feared. It is we who must fear the worst excesses of ourselves.

In Part I of this review, I noted that Liu’s sci-fi is a probing inquiry into the human condition. Having completed the book, I can now say that The Three Body Problem goes one step further. Liu is not just fascinated by how the presence of aliens may change the way we look at ourselves. He is prescribing a warning that if humanity ignores its own alienation, there may be a reckoning to come.