By James LeVan
Speculative fiction is an amazing genre, not only because it takes us on a journey across time and space to far off worlds, but also because it manages to hold up a mirror to humanity and makes us confront our very nature. That is what Chinese author Cixin Liu does in his “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy , consisting of “The Three-Body Problem,” “The Dark Forest,” and “Death’s End.” The books detail the thousands of years of conflict between humanity and an extraterrestrial race of aliens who seek to conquer the Earth and eradicate humanity. Liu uses his trilogy to discuss questions of human nature, the importance of the greater good, humanity’s role in the universe and how to fight mass surveillance. Each book individually is a masterpiece of literature, but to genuinely appreciate the story Liu has written, one should read all three, as he takes us from the fall of Constantinople to rural China at the height of the Cultural Revolution; the novels also include large city-space stations and a pocket dimension at the end of the universe.
Ever since I first learned of this series from my professor, I was eager to get my hands on the book. I learned that my local Barnes and Noble had only one copy left, so I rushed over there to get it just as they were closing. As soon as I grabbed it, I saw that it earned the praise of several noteworthy people including “Game of Thrones” author George R. R. Martin, Mark Zuckerberg and even former President Barack Obama. Curious, I began reading it two weeks before classes started and was immediately hooked. Once I was done, I ordered the complete trilogy, and what I found was an epic writer who deserves some more acclaim than he currently has.
The first book in the series, “The Three-Body Problem”, is a mystery tale about a nanotechnology scientist named Wang Miao and a detective named Dai Shi who investigate the strange deaths of several scientists. These deaths connect to a bizarre computer game, in which players attempt to understand the nature of a distant world that rotates between stable and chaotic eras. “The Three-Body Problem” is unique because it feels like a mystery novel. It is set on the eve of humanity’s realization that they are not alone in the universe and are set to be exterminated in four centuries.
The second book, “The Dark Forest,” feels like a wartime novel. Humanity begins to prepare for the eventual arrival of an alien race. The book’s main protagonist, Luo Ji, a former astronomer turned sociologist, has been chosen by the world government to join an elite group of individuals and plan humanity’s counterattack in secret. The third and final book in Liu’s trilogy, “Death’s End”, is a historical story and features a young prostitute who visits the Byzantine Emperor and informs Luo Ji of a strange power she has that may save his empire.
“Death’s End” is the largest of the three texts, taking readers thousands of years into the future as humanity and the aliens are locked in a relationship of mutually assured destruction. Liu takes us through various periods of human history as our species goes further into space and becomes a part of an epic intergalactic struggle.
One of things the author does well is that he manages to tell his stories, not from a single perspective or character, but from multiple perspectives. Each book has its own protagonists but the trilogy is about humanity as a whole. There is one chapter in “The Dark Forest” where Luo Ji is talking to another important character, and they give him the secret to saving humanity. The whole scene is told from the perspective of a spider, who observes the ordeal while crawling on a tombstone. The scene is incredibly beautiful and the fact that Cixin Liu can write from these different perspectives is a testament to his skill.
Each book asks various questions about whether we are redeemable and if so, how do we redeem ourselves? Several characters in the books ponder the nature of humanity and whether we can evolve on our own, or if we need the aid of an outside force to make us do so. Liu tackles the use of mass surveillance technology and how to get around it, and the struggle between sacrificing personal desire in the name of duty. Each of the characters struggle with this as they must decide whether to sacrifice their own wants and needs for the good of humanity. The final theme I gathered was that opposing factions need one another. The trilogy shows that both sides are needed to balance one another; humanities help us to understand the mental and spiritual reasons for why we are, while the sciences explain physical reasons. Alone, each only tells half of the story, and both are needed to understand the bigger picture.I only have one major critique about Cixin Liu’s work. The amount of hard science in his books can be daunting. Liu’s background is in computer engineering, and as a result, he sometimes spends pages discussing theoretical science. If you are not familiar with those fields, it can make his books intimidating and hard to follow at times. However, you eventually learn to skim to get the gist of what he is saying and can understand. The main story is good enough that you can train yourself to either get around or understand the basics of what he is saying.
The “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy is a trilogy that will supercharge your imagination. As I read each book, I was left pondering human nature, our place in the universe and what will become of us when the universe begins to fall apart. It is a humbling epic and strongly recommended for anyone with the time and patience to read them.