A book review through the lenses of covid and an election.

In this swirling world of unknowns, I needed to focus my mind on something else, so today, you’re getting a book review. I promise to shortly return to food porn and Singapore sights updates….

The trilogy, in the print….

Since moving to Singapore, I’ve discovered there is a whole world of literature by Asian authors that somehow don’t really make it to the US, or do make it, but receive little promotion. I feel like I fell down the rabbit hole with Alice. My new happy place is Kinokuniya, the enormous Japanese book store here. It’s like a Barnes and noble, a Japanese and a French bookstore rolled into one. Between that store and my Asian book club, my book selecting game has evolved in a wonderful way. Plus, in the same mall is a kiosk that that sells these delicious itty bitty donuts, so really that outing is a win-win.

My best discovery has been a science fiction trilogy by the author Liu Cixin. The series is titled “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” and the three books are; “The Three Body Problem” “The Dark Forest” and “Death’s End”. While the books were written over a decade ago, they were only recently translated into English and somehow reading it in the context of 2020 made the books feel prescient. They were also one of the rare experiences where the 3rd book was the best of the series (in my opinion). The series is Hugo award winning and currently being made into a tv series by the creators of Game of thrones (I feel cool in that I read it before this announcement). It is interestingly highly critical of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but was never banned in China. It’s pretty technical sci-fi, but as with all great science fiction, it’s really about human behavior. Each of the 3 books feature different main characters, which I found interesting. While the Chinese names are a bit difficult for a western reader and the science is heavy, it’s worth the effort for the story.

For me, I know a book is good when I read it and it stays with me and I begin to see echos of the book in everyday life. Between covid and the election, of course I am seeing echos of a science fiction trilogy about the end of humanity everywhere.

I’ll leave it to you to read the books (or wait for the show, which I’m positive western creators will botch entirely), but 3 parts of the trilogy (one from each book) that I will describe as they are feeling very pertinent to the election season we are seemingly perpetually living in now. Don’t read on if you are taking my book recommendation and plan on reading, as some of these may be spoilers…

In the first book, one of the main characters, Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist, who has been persecuted and jailed by the CCP during the revolution, has discovered there is a way to communicate with the universe by amplifying a radio signal using the sun. She subsequently receives a communication from an alien race. In the communication is a warning from an alien pacifist to not respond to the message as her response will allow them to locate earth and invade it. Their home planet has become inhospitable and they are actively seeking a new home. The communication is clear, They will annihilated the human race if she responds. Wenjie alone has the choice to protect humanity or open it up to potential annihilation. She chooses to respond to the message and roll the dice with the alien race as her faith in humanity has crumbled. Wenjie, I feel you….

In the second book, humanity grapples with the knowledge of potential annihilation approximately 400 years in the future. The alien race has also dispatched a spying system (sophons) on the world that allow them to monitor activities on the earth, but not individual thoughts (CCP reference?). In this context, a world wide governing body (like the UN) tasks 4 individuals with figuring out how to defeat the aliens. They are called wallfacers. They can ask for unlimited resources from the UN. The only catch is, they can never reveal what they are doing to anyone. While 3 of them are expected selections (scientists, politicians…) the 4th is an unknown Chinese sociology professor (Luo Ji) whose selection baffles the world and Luo Ji himself. While the UN knows Luo Ji is important to the aliens, they don’t know why. While the other 3 wallfacers race around earth and space spending trillions of dollars and creating societal havoc, Luo Ji uses his wallfacer status to live in peace in an ideal location with his ideal wife and child. But a conversation he had long ago with Ye Wenji about cosmic sociology tugs at his mind. Eventually Luo Ji discovers the “dark forest” theory which in a nutshell is; in a universe with finite resources and ever expanding life, when a civilization discovers another civilization, their only recourse is to exterminate that civilization in order to attain their resources and continue expansion. In this view of the universe, if you are not the hunter, you will be hunted. A seriously dark theory that is a head scratcher for sure. Right now, it feels a little like we are living in a dark forest here on earth. Are Democrats and Republicans hunting each other? Are the US and Chinese superpowers? Has everyone in power read this book and taken in to heart? Maybe Ye Wenji was right, humanity isn’t worth saving after all…

Finally, in the action packed 3rd book (again, best of the awesome bunch) humanity is seemingly faced with divergent choices when starring down the barrel of their imminent destruction. Do they try to hide in the solar system from the sun’s destruction? Do they try to achieve light speed technology and escape the solar system? Or do they try to “hide” the solar system and essentially wave a white flag saying we are harmless and we promise to never try to leave? Each choice has societal and moral implications. Who gets to decide which is right? Can you be scientifically correct but morally wrong? Should those with wealth and power get to be the survivors? Does it matter? This is a super simplistic boiling down of a complex book, but in the end, it turns out it was never really a choice, and humanity should have been trying to do all three and why would humanity have the hubris to assume they know how a more advanced society would ultimately destroy a solar system anyway?

In the end, I’m really not smart enough to begin to understand all the complexities of these books. But I’m excited to have read them and to have them niggling on my mind. Ultimately, my take away from the three books is that in a universe filled with the limitless potential for death and destruction, there is at a fundamental level the basic building blocks of life that are constantly renewing, changing and expanding and that is something that even in our darkest days, should give us hope. That may not have been at all what the author was going for, but today, feeling down about covid life and the endless election, that is going to be mine. So thank you, Liu Cixin for that….

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