Chinese Sci-fi, Viruses, Politics: Three Dystopian Bodies
The last few years have been unsettling for Sino-American relations as administrations on both sides have steadily ratcheted up tensions — intentionally or unintentionally — with domestic politics taking a front seat, particularly since the onset of COVID-19. This coincided with my research on Chinese science fiction and preparation to teach a class on author Liu Cixin’s 刘慈欣 internationally renowned sci-fi trilogy, The Three Body Problem 三体 (serialized 2006).1 When I taught my new Chinese sci-fi class in the fall of 2020, it seemed fitting that we all stared hard at computer screens to see each other and discuss the language and literature of an increasingly dystopian Three Body universe while simultaneously attempting to cope not so bravely with our own non-fictional new world of mostly isolating from social contact.
As my class studied Liu Cixin’s plot motivator, the cruel excesses of the idealistic Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (circa 1965-1975), the U.S. administration was gearing up for a reelection campaign and determined not to “panic” the population with fears of pandemic, thus choosing instead to ignore science and downplay its seriousness. The resulting millions of U.S. cases leading to more than 400,000 deaths by the time of the transition to the new administration in January 2021, in comparison to scientifically, socially, and politically adept places like Taiwan which effectively minimized the virus threat to about 976 cases and 10 deaths (as of March 9, 2021),2 suggests a Cultural Revolution parallel in which political extremes result in the exact opposite of their intended purpose – a flip from idealized utopia to realized dystopia. Science was spun as fakery and conspiracy theories occupied the vacuum created by downplaying the situation. The previous administration staged a science fiction reality show that continues to afflict us despite cancellation of the show and the new administration’s corrective course of action.
These developments found me contemplating dystopia and confronting big questions about truth, fiction, reality, humanity, and how science fiction can help us navigate our reality. More specifically, what does science fiction tell us about the relationship between ideology and a dystopian world view?
A look at the last century of science fiction in China facilitates exploration of this question. Science fiction came into China during the late Qing and early Republican eras introduced by Liang Qichao and Lu Xun.3 Liang’s 1902 magazine New Fiction 新小说 “extolled a genre he called ‘philosophical science fiction’”4 and Lu Xun’s first published work was his translation of Jules Verne’s 1865 novel De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon 月界旅行)from Japanese in 1903.5 Soon thereafter Chinese writers began publishing their own works of science fiction,6 but the genre didn’t come to the fore in China until the 2000s, with the major exception of Hong Kong author Ni Kuang (1935 – present). In the following paragraphs, I briefly analyze three works of Chinese science fiction that provide clues to the propensity toward an ideologically driven dystopian “future” faced by humanity. First, I introduce the extreme satire in the form of socio-political allegory in the Republican Era Cat Country 猫城记 (1933 by Lao She 老舍 (1899-1966)), which is narrated by a character who crash-lands his spaceship on Mars and finds a cat person civilization even more vile than his own. Next, Ni Kuang’s 倪匡 Virus 病毒 (1995) researches the relationship between ideology and biology in search of an uninfected brain. Finally, Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem extrapolates ideological excess to a (not so) future environmental and political dystopia to imaginative our harrowing destiny.
I. Lao She’s Cat Country and the Transposition of Satire in the Solar System
Lao She’s Cat Country 猫城记 (1933) is a satirical allegory about life under political division and social upheaval in the early Republican period. In his sarcastic preface to the novel, Lao She states from the outset that “Cat Country is a nightmare.”7 In response to complaints that the novel being too pessimistic he says that “cat people are cat people, and they’ve got nothing to do with us.”8 The protagonist and first-person narrator of Cat Country travels to Mars and finds a civilization of Cat People (maoren 猫人) whose social, political, and moral culture outstrips that of his native China. The story begins with a crash-landing, after which the narrator proceeds to explore and critique Cat Country culture from the point of view of a “foreigner.”
The narrator is hired by a wealthy landowner named Big Scorpion to protect his forest of drug-leafed trees (the only food Cat People eat). Big Scorpion’s psyche represents Cat Country moral character (and Chinese warlordism) in a microcosm, summed up by his assertion: “Our abilities to kill one another get better day by day, and our methods of killing are almost as marvelous as making poetry.”9 The narrator befriends the landowner’s enlightened son, Young Scorpion, who introduces him to and helps him understand society. Cat Country’s social and political evils parallel those of Chinese society: drug addiction, warlordism, foreign influence and incursion, an irrational education system, generational divide, urban-rural divide, women’s rights, concubinage and child sex slavery, environmental destruction, prostitution, famine, poverty, crime, corruption, sloth, filth, cowardice, disloyalty, and superciliousness.
In the manner of a sociologist conducting field research, the narrator documents the deteriorating cat civilization while exploring the country. He checks off the ills in each segment of society from chapter to chapter. The narrator visits a government office, a school, a library, and a social organization. He talks with the locals, as he develops “a diagnosis of Cat Country’s illness.”10 The narrator describes the chaos of a generationally and politically divided country in which young people and “scholars of the new” (xin xuezhe 新学者) demonstrate their learning with foreign words that nobody understands, adding the nonsensical suffix fusiji 夫司基 to their names and other ideas.11 For example, the belief in revolutionary new ideas is “everybody-fusiji-ism” 大家夫司基主义 which the narrator notes is “an ideology that is really good at killing people.”12 The problems are both societal and individual, and the narrator sticks with allegorical allusions using the highly charged contemporary Chinese code word “patient” (bingfu 病夫) in describing the state of national essence, moral integrity, and revolution. Young Scorpion is too pessimistic, the narrator notes, “but naturally I’m from peaceful, happy China, so I always thought Cat Country had hope; a person who isn’t sick can’t easily understand the reason a sick person (bingfu) is pessimistic.” 13 The narrator speculates existentially:
I don’t know which god created this group of low-lives. They neither have the kind of ability that ants have nor the intelligence of humans. The god that created them is probably intentionally joking with them. They have schools but not education, they have politicians but not political process (government), they have people (ren 人) but not moral character (renge 人格), they have face but not shame. This joke is just played way too extreme.14
The “important people” among the revolutionaries have a simple solution: the equal division of drug leaves that are society’s food, which is referred to as new “ism” called “drug-leaf everybody fusiji-ism” (miye dajia fusij zhuyi 迷叶大家夫司基主义).15 Allusions to China’s bleak internecine warfare continue right up to the end of the novel. Cat Country’s self-annihilation (civil war) is facilitated with the help of foreign “short soldiers” (Japanese invaders) who put the country’s remaining two cat people in a cage and watch as they bite each other to death. The book closes with the narrator luckily escaping Mars and returning to his “great, brilliant, and free China.” 16
The issues and ills of Cat Country and Cat People that Lao She virtually catalogues could have been selected from the titles in New Youth (Xin qingnian 新青年) or New Tide (Xin chao 新潮) magazines in the 1900s and 1920s. Topics include science, literature, women’s issues, education, philosophy, labor, capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, anarchism, and even Einstein’s theory of relativity and Freudian psychology. Through science fiction Lao She put his first-person narrator on Mars to critique the state of Chinese society which concludes, through extrapolation, with the self-annihilation of the Chinese people in his contemporary dystopian nightmare.
II. Virus (1996) and Ideological Metaphor
While Cat Country critiqued the ideological illness of China’s society and politics in the most obvious of satirical allegories, approximately 60 years later Ni Kuang’s Virus presented a subtler critique of the illness afflicting society. Virus is one of some 150 novels in Ni Kuang’s Wisely Series (Weisili xilie卫斯理系列) that take the name Wisely for the main character. It is number 89 in Ni Kuang’s series of sci-fi novels published by Taiwan Crown Publishing.17 The novel is focused on the hunt for a criminal who steals the heads of corpses and is thus termed Head Robber (rentou da dao 人头大盗). The protagonist Wisely is a first-person narrator and detective who travels broadly, from Hong Kong to Europe to Singapore and elsewhere, as he investigates these mysterious crimes.
In his brief preface, Ni Kuang alludes to the allegorical scope of the novel as well as the ideological component of a virus, almost giving away the plot that is about to unfold over some 200 pages:
[Some people] consider that the view of the main character of the story who believes herself to be ‘humanity’s public enemy’ (renlei gongdi人类公敌) is too extreme. Well, please try to tell those who call themselves “people’s saviors” (renmin jiuxing 人民救星) that they have been inflicted by an extreme virus and are traitors to humanity (renjian 人奸) and don’t know it themselves. What would be the result? Would those afflicted with the virus consider you an enemy or friend?
Or tell those who’ve secretly had contact with criminals that they should face facts and not be harmed by an ‘ignorance virus’ (wuzhi bingdu 无知病毒) or a ‘shamelessness virus’ (buyaolian bingdu 不要脸病毒). Would they consider you an enemy or a friend?
Viruses run rampant. How about the true faces of humans?18
The story starts with Wisely at a biology conference where he is contacted by a Scotland Yard acquaintance who informs him of the disappearance of heads from recently deceased people in funeral homes all over Europe. Upon returning home, presumably in England, Wisely finds a group of women visiting. He knows these women from a magical sect that practices the “falling head technique” (jiangtou shu 降头术), which is of unclear purpose but seems to involve mysticism about separating the consciousness from the body. These sorceresses ask for his help solving the death of their famous grandmaster the Guess King (Cai wang dashi 猜王大师), who also turns up headless after a magical regimen. The allegorical nature of the technique and the mystery here is directly indicated by this nomenclature. Wisely agrees to help find the murderer. The grandmaster is connected to a princess of Asian extraction at an unnamed Royal Palace. The princess is also a scientist doing research on how viruses affect people’s minds and thus their behavior and actions. The plot slowly builds the concept of ideology as virus as Wisely investigates, facilitated by the introduction of one of the princess’ collaborators, a scientist named Tian Huo who has separately been exploring this virus theory without knowledge that the princess is also a sorceress:
There are all kinds of bacterial viruses that harm people in today’s earth. They are all called pests (haichong 害虫), but they aren’t what humanity recognizes as low-level life forms. It’s just that their bodies are small. But they are actually a high-level form of life. What he means is: a high-level life form with thought (sixiang 思想). 19
This explanation is framed as a war between humanity and bacterial viruses, driven by the biologically founded fear that “while both sides suffer huge losses, bacterial viruses adapt no matter what weapons humans attack them with and nobody knows from where they originate.”20 Tian Huo has two possible conclusions: “First, they [viruses] are being directed by some kind of power and acting on the orders of this kind of power.”21 Tian Huo notes another option: “The second possibility is that there isn’t a power leading them, but rather bacterial viruses organize themselves, group together and form a giant army and do battle with humanity.”22 This is an insinuation that viruses might be a non-human alien power in which the virus resembles an alien species, thus subtly justifying the sci-fi designation of what at first glance appears to be a detective novel.
The second sci-fi element of Virus is the “magic” used by the grandmaster sorcerer and his female disciples. Through conversations with Tian Huo, who believes Wisely is a sympathizer, Wisely zeroes in on the princess, eventually meeting her in the palace. It turns out that she is also one of the grandmaster’s disciples, unbeknownst to the others, and has been working with him to hunt for one uninfected brain in all humanity (besides the grandmaster and herself). The goal of their search for a virus-free brain is to establish a baseline against which to measure other brains for degree of infection in their attempt to prove their theory of viruses. Although they steal the heads of famous people and thinkers from funeral parlors throughout Europe, none of them appears uninfected.
Wisely’s meeting with the princess provides the final narration of the motivations and events that created this mysterious case. The princess seeks to save humanity but laments being labeled as “humanity’s public enemy.” Moreover, the princess and grandmaster are faced with failure to prove that humanity’s afflictions are caused by viruses, which are not recognized by science itself. People are zombies (xingshi zourou 行尸走肉) and diseases such as cancer and even a person’s longevity, as well as all kinds of abnormalities in their thinking – greed, cruelty, cowardice, and slavishness – are caused by viruses.23 Their theory views viruses as creating thought (sixiang 思想) and the virus manifests thought as abnormal (bingtai 病态), although this is unrecognizable to its human carriers.24 The princess concludes: “If you want to cure this illness you must first know you’re sick. And virtually all of humanity is sick, controlled by viruses.”25 The worst virus is termed “slave/slavishness virus” (nuxing bingdu 奴性病毒) that manifests in the afflicted slave who will “kneel down and lick the toes of the powerful (qiangquanzhe 强权者).”26 Those powerful leaders have what the princess calls a “traitor to humanity virus” (renjian bingdu 人奸病毒) and act in common “to help the virus harm humanity.”27
Unable to find an uninfected brain, the grandmaster and princess conclude that besides the princess herself, the only healthy brain to be found is that of the grandmaster sorcerer himself, who thereupon donates his own head to “science.”
Readers learn that “invisible” viruses are so infinitely small they are undetectable by any measuring instruments but produce infected thought – a metaphor for ideology. There is a collaboration between viruses and political leadership wherein the powerful use viruses as a weapon to wield power against humanity. Enlightenment in the form of recognizing this theory and the act of proving the theory by locating uninfected brains is apparently possible, but a steep uphill battle especially as leadership is culpable in the “crimes.” Ni Kuang’s critique of ideology and power through the virus metaphor indicates that the infection afflicts all of humanity (quan renlei 全人类). Power virus-infected political leadership are traitors to humanity and operate to cause immeasurable destruction that is simultaneously invisible to humans and science – a dystopia in which we all live. It is a small leap to see this idea replicated in 21st century conspiracy theories. Is there even an infinitesimal hope of humanity’s survival? The dystopian pessimism of Virus continues in extremis in Liu Cixin’s three-volume epic, The Three Body Problem.
III. The Three Body Problem (2006) and the Fatal Ideological Nature of Humanity
Cat Country author Lao She died by his own hand during the Cultural Revolution, a fact noted by Liu Cixin in The Three Body Problem when he lists the prominent intellectuals who chose to commit suicide rather than suffer the ignominy of public political persecution in mass struggle sessions during China’s “continued revolution.” Liu uses detailed description of struggle sessions that pit children against their parents, wives against husbands, and students against teachers to depict the atrocity of the Cultural Revolution to set up the psychological rationale to justify his main character Ye Wenjie’s appeal to an alien civilization for help: “Come here, I’ll help you obtain this world. Our civilization is already powerless to solve its own problems and needs your power to intervene.”28
Technology changes from the 1930s to the 1990s to the 2020s, but human ideological issues appear to stay the same. Cat Country’s Mars traveling narrator, who chronicles the final stage of dissolution of Cat People civilization, is replaced by the international detective in Ni Kuang’s Virus who searches out head hunters trying to free humanity from ideology infection. The homicide continues in Liu Cixin’s epic depiction of a global catastrophe facing humanity in The Three Body Problem. Ni Kuang’s theoretical narrative metaphor of ideology is replaced by ideological practice depicted throughout the broad sweep of metanarrative in The Three Body Problem and its sequels. Socio-political critique in The Three Body Problem is even bleaker than Virus and transcends even the malevolence of stealing brains from corpses for “scientific” research. Politics and political movements inspire tragic action that begets greater tragedy as humanity is depicted as an infinitesimally small species in a universe inherently eviler than any biological agent participating in a meta-Darwinian struggle for survival.
The Three Body Problem depicts the wholesale reorientation of the world due to the breakdown of social norms over the last thousands of years of so-called “civilization.” The basis of this threat is narrated partly through the genius of the astrophysicist Ye Wenjie 叶文洁 who knowingly initiates the global crisis in to take revenge on Chinese society for the devastation visited upon her family and society in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (circa 1966-1976). As a university student she witnessed the brutal murder of her famous scientist/professor father at the hands of the Red Guards in a struggle session. She herself is almost killed a couple years later as the political machinations of the Cultural Revolution leadership reach into her remote work camp in the northeastern Greater Khingan Range (Da xingan ling 大兴安岭) and a political faction attempts to gather crucial incriminating material to leverage against its powerful enemies (her father was peripherally related to the development of China’s atomic and hydrogen bombs). Science is always subservient to ideology as proven in Liu Cixin’s depiction of persecution of many scientists and their families for their adherence to so-called “reactionary” scientific theories, standards, rules of protocol, evidence, logic, and reason in their research.
The pivotal Chapter 7, titled “A Crazy Era” (fengkuang niandai 疯狂年代), has special significance for the author since “the Cultural Revolution had torn Liu Cixin’s family apart,”29 along with the families of many other Chinese at the time. Liu originally wanted to start the Chinese version of the novel with the Cultural Revolution but reportedly buried it in flashbacks instead of giving it up-front prominence. The English translator, Ken Liu, suggested moving the Cultural Revolution to the beginning of the story from its seventh chapter location in order to clarify why Ye Wenjie welcomed an alien invasion for English readers.30
Political persecution against academic intellectuals through struggle sessions was particularly intense during the early part of the Cultural Revolution, as expressly described by the narrator of The Three Body Problem:
Compared with other evildoers, reactionary academic authority figures have a special characteristic: when they were first attacked, they were always arrogant and stubborn. This is also the phase when their death rate was highest. In the capital, over forty days more than 1,700 objects of struggle that were beaten to death. Even more people chose an even faster channel to escape the craziness. Lao She, Wu Han, Ge Bozan, Fu Lei, Zhao Jiuzhang, Yi Qun, Wen Jie, Hai Mo and others, all ended their own seriously respectable lives.31
Ye Wenjie’s father was one of the survivors of this “first stage” of struggle against the “reactionary academic authority figures:”
Ye Zhetai lived from the start of the Cultural Revolution until now, and furthermore was always stuck in phase one. He didn’t confess, didn’t commit suicide, and wasn’t numbed either. When this physics professor walked onto the criticism stage, his spiritual air clearly said: let me bear an even heavier cross!
Professor Ye’s uncompromising righteousness made his brutal public murder even more cruel. Ye Wenjie’s personal experience of such cruelty imbued her with deep pessimism about ideology and human nature. Liu Cixin describes his interest in using sci-fi to explore the extremes of good and evil in terms of near addiction that led to his use of the Cultural Revolution as a plot device:
A true turning point [in my development of sci-fi] originated in a discovery. I saw a peculiar function of science fiction literature: In the real world a parallel for kind of evil can be found in the world design of science fiction and can be normalized and justified. The opposite is also the same, in the orthodox and unorthodox, the good and evil of science fiction, there is only meaning in the corresponding world. This discovery fascinated me and I sunk into it unable to extract myself, having derived a kind of evil pleasure in it.32
Liu explores the limits of that evil in the first book of the trilogy primarily through Ye Wenjie. A few years after her father’s death, Ye Wenjie is saved from near death at her work camp by a researcher at the nearby top-secret space research center, Radar Peak, who was one of her father’s former students. The secret purpose of the so-called radar facility, however, is to make contact with alien life in the cosmos and thereby garner glory for the revolution and nation through a shocking “first” in human history, an implied follow-up to the glory attributed to China’s 1964 nuclear development successes. It turns out that Ye Wenjie is the only one brilliant enough to accomplish this tremendous feat.
Ye Wenjie has her own motivations – to find a far grander solution to the reality of human depravity. She is driven by extreme disillusion with the morality of her fellow humans. She figures out how to use the sun to amplify the signal of Radar Peak’s cosmic antenna and penetrate the depths of the universe, resulting in a response from a Trisolaran listening post. There are “good” aliens it seems, as a particular listening post worker warns her not to ever respond again because doing so would result in his own people coming to colonize Earth and exterminate all its people. Unfortunately, Ye is traumatized and welcomes wholesale human genocide because it is better than the unending catastrophes brought down upon humans by fellow humans over the course of thousands of years of “civilization.” Here we find echoes of modern Chinese literature’s leading voice, Lu Xun 鲁迅 [1881-1936], whose critique of the Chinese civilization and culture as “cannibalism” 吃人 through the moon-gazing figure of the madman from his 1918 masterpiece short story “Diary of a Madman” 狂人日记. “A Crazy Era” directly indicts the inhumanity of her compatriots and also nods toward allegorical association with Lu Xun’s moon-gazing “madman.”
Lu Xun’s caustic critique analyzes the maliciousness of traditional Chinees culture which doctrinarily enables persecution and humiliation of its members. The direct allegory of “Diary of a Madman” is bracketed by the madman’s mental illness when he recorded his diary and satirical “recovery” from it thereafter. The irony in “Diary of a Madman” and Lu Xun’s critique of national character through the 1926 novella “The True Story of Ah Q” 阿 Q 正传 are given new voice by Liu Cixin through flashbacks to the events of the Cultural Revolution as well as jumps into the future of Earth when the Trisolaran aliens prepare to invade. Liu Cixin’s trilogy delineates 450 years of Earth future events through the use of time travel enabled by cryogenics. Liu’s sci-fi plot explores the “Dark Forest” paradigm (also the title of volume 2 of the trilogy Hei’an senlin 黑暗森林 ) that elucidates the dangers of making one’s own civilization accessible to aliens.
An outline of the entire trilogy and its multitude of intriguing characters is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that Liu Cixin draws upon his own abundant sci-fi imagination informed by the likes of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (1951), who is cited by name in the text, to depict the factors that cause his nation’s people to turn on one another during the Cultural Revolution. Liu further explores the consequences of such ideological fanaticism and political struggle as it informs the thinking (eventual fascism) of the international community as the tragedy is extended to a global scale in response to imminent Trisolaran invasion. Various other sci-fi story elements include spaceship battles and the scientific pursuit of travel near or at light speed which the author employs in his endeavor to imagine the implications of an intergalactic struggle for survival. When all humans are rounded up and packed into concentrations camps in Australia prior to being sent to colonies on Mars, the reader is certain that Liu has accomplished his purpose of imagining the extreme consequences of evil. But this measure of extremity lasts only briefly. By the end of the trilogy the annihilation of civilization is surpassed through the process of intergalactic Darwinian struggle into dimensions unrecognizable to humans and aliens, resulting in eventual obliteration of the universe. Dystopia in extremis.
VI. Contemporary Virus Politics
The U.S. experience with the coronavirus pandemic that emerged under the Trump administration mirrors the undermining of reality that ideology brought to the sci-fi novels analyzed above. The alternate ideological positions and interpretation of reality of competing political parties that manifested during the Trump years and continue today have produced a cloud of disorientation. The politics of anti-science and anti-reason during the Cultural Revolution are analogous to the socially irresponsible rejection of science in public health reflected by persecution of doctors for warning about the coronavirus danger, or an administration whose leadership contended that face masks and social distancing were not necessary and that the virus would “magically disappear” and cases would go down to zero.
Extreme ideological spin in socio-political discourse served a national leadership deeply insecure about its own legitimacy. Campaign chants of “Fire Fauci” two days before the 2020 election amount to an ironic public eulogy for the hundreds of thousands dead at the hand of anti-science fanatics as if ideology has the fire power to defeat the virus. Politics over science actually amounted to unilateral disarmament in the battle against the virus. It appears that Ni Kuang’s ironic critique that viruses are ideological organisms that cause moral character abnormalities is prescient. This unilateral disarmament in the war against the coronavirus is true to form for the former U.S. administration, which had already chalked up an impressive list of retreat from strategic initiatives designed to hold the battle lines against Chinese, Russian, Iranian, and other international competitors, as demonstrated by withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, the World Health Organization, the Iran Nuclear Treaty, and starting a trade war with China that could be “won” only by accepting defeat measured in the loss of more jobs than it created,33 and renegotiation of the NAFTA treaty that was “won” by simple tweaking of the terms which do nothing to bring back manufacturing to rust belt states such as Michigan.
The Cultural Revolution chapters set the story up for this metanarrative through depiction of ideological weaponry exposed in practice by Red Guard factions and their use of dialectical materialism (weiwu zhuyi 唯物主义) to battle reactionary idealism (weixin zhuyi 唯心主义) in persecution (struggle) sessions. While the 10-year Cultural Revolution turns out to be a “blip” of history in comparison to the 450 years it took for the Trisolaran invasion to arrive, the ideological battle of how society is organized and governed is consequential, especially considering that 450 years seems “insignificant” in comparison to 100 million years later when the entire cosmos is vaporized at the end of volume three, Death’s End (2010), for which a literal translation of the title may be more appropriate: “the god of death lives forever” (Sishen yongsheng 死神永生).
Here we are today in a coronavirus-infected world where deaths are in the millions globally, and where the first reaction of supposedly competent governments is to protect their own images and lie to their people in order to protect them from panic, even to the extent of persecuting those who would bring the truth out, be they physicians in Wuhan or leaders of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda. This is an international, intercultural phenomenon that engulfs the world, from Brazil to Iran, whose science denial and news suppression subsequently made them competitive in the race to top infection rates. Think of a White House that tried desperately to keep the stock market from tanking by fighting the virus with a rosy public relations campaign and lies that became clear as authorized recordings of the president acknowledging the seriousness of the situation surfaced more than half a year later in Bob Woodward’s book Rage (Simon & Schuster, 2020).
In the U.S. the virus has split the population into madmen engaging in “cultural wars” with a political divide between science and ideology. Those afflicted with Ni Kuang’s “traitor to humanity virus” and “slavishness virus” spend time “licking the toes” of the power leadership, perhaps exemplified by the racism of an administration that leveraged linguistic tropes to assign blame for the virus and deflect its own bungling of a response and attempted to spin 400,000 virus deaths into a “success” [think “Operation Warp Speed”]. Would Liu Cixin be surprised that such political dystopianism has divided the country and even families into political extremes, even as members of those same fragmented families are dying? Virus politics creates a severe challenge to the political system and undermines beliefs in democracy by pitting mysticism against scientific practice and reasoning, a state of affairs that would surprise neither Lao She or Ni Kuang. It seems we’re back to idealism versus materialism. In the context of the U.S. presidential election of 2020, the writer Roxane Gay takes a similarly bleak view of humanity:
I expect to hear a lot of frenzied political discourse over the next several months. I imagine pundits will try to understand how the 2020 election panned out and why. Too many white liberals will obsess over early exit polls indicating that 20 percent of Black men and a significant number of the overly broad categories of Latinos and Asians voted for Mr. Trump. They’ll do this instead of reckoning with how more white women voted for the president this time around and how white men remain the most significant demographic of his base. They will say that once more, Black women saved America from itself, which of course, we did, even though some things don’t deserve salvation.34
“Some things don’t deserve salvation” recalls Professor Ye Wenjie’s decision to invite the Trisolarans to invade Earth, as cited above: “Come here. I will help you obtain this world. Our civilization is powerless to solve its own problems and needs your power to intervene.”35 These lines point to the idea that Liu Cixin and Roxane Gay are trying to make the audience think about the values we propagate.
Dr. Anthony Fauci was sidelined by the previous administration, and here in Atlanta many epidemiologists warned that the threat wasn’t going away soon. The high-level political appointee from the Department of Health and Human Services, perhaps an ironic designation of the time, ranting on Facebook about the threat of medical scientists (and their calculators?) to the president’s reelection is a good example of cult power transcending science. Those who don’t view the virus as a “hoax,” however, needed to help prepare their social circles, and their students, to cope with a deadly health crisis until vaccines were delivered.
Taking a lesson from Ni Kuang’s Virus, we are not only fighting a deadly pathogen but also fighting the invisible effects of ideology, something the U.S. shares with Brazilian, Chinese, and Iranian victims of politics and radicalism over the eons. Ni Kuang and Liu Cixin have rightly, albeit obliquely, analyzed the political reality, and although Western sci-fi filmmakers typically find “heroes” among the milieu who appear to save the world, Liu Cixin’s dystopian ending should be a reality check to such imagined Hollywood happy endings. Science says that even vaccines are not going to help the U.S. out of coronavirus dystopia until the poorer countries of the world are also vaccinated. Can a happy ending be achieved at the current rate of virus mutation?
A happy ending lie is not requisite in every culture’s literary enterprise. Depressingly, Liu Cixin’s sci-fi world manifests unimaginable human suffering, concentration camps in Australia holding the world’s population as they wait to ferry to Mars colony, and allied international starships turning on one another even as the Trisolarans wipe out the human race. Projecting this logic, the lies of our illustrious leaders will come back to haunt us despite the eventual defeat of the virus. “Who could have known” how bad the virus would hit us and that it could be transmitted asymptomatically? Probably Liu Cixin and Anthony Fauci, but certainly not political leaders who sold their stock and invested after insider briefings on the forecast extent of the coronavirus at the same time they and the president were downplaying it. The next few months and years of political strife in the U.S. and worldwide may prove The Three Body Problem an apt allegory for these times, especially as Netflix prepares for a television adaptation produced by the producers of The Game of Thrones.36 Fiction is less strange than true life, again, an example of the invisible “virus of ideology.” Consider the calls by Georgia Republican senators for the Republican Georgia Secretary of State to resign after the election, asserting “mismanagement and lack of transparency” and “embarrassment.”
Wouldn’t you know it, those senators had to head to a runoff in January 2021 because they didn’t win 50% +1 vote on election day, and thus doubled down on their propaganda games, which meant licking toes (thanks to Ni Kuang for the metaphor). But the Secretary of State fired back: “The facts are the facts, regardless of outcomes,” he said, adding, “In this state, this time, this election on Election Day was an amazing success.”37
Although we’ve been “safe” in our isolated studies, facing students in the classroom through masks and plexiglass, our hybrid world of physical and virtual classrooms are two new types of “spaceships” designed for hygiene and carrying us toward a new normalcy. Dystopia is as dystopia does and creates meaningful metaphors in the process. If the “real” world suddenly resembles science fiction dystopia, can this literary genre act as a roadmap to help us navigate our reality? The struggle between truth and fiction highlights a reality that not only resembles but potentially surpasses science fiction. Or perhaps better put by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle, “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”38
Brancaccio, David, Nova Safo, and Alex Schroeder. “Has Trump kept his promises to U.S. manufacturing and Carrier?” Marketplace Morning Report, November 2, 2020. https://www.marketplace.org/2020/11/02/trump-carrier-manufacturing-jobs-indiana-china-tariffs-factories-steelworkers/, accessed March 14, 2021.
Friedlander, Peter. “International best-seller ‘The Three Body Problem’ to be adapted as a Netflix original series.” September 1, 2020. https://about.netflix.com/en/news/the-three-body-problem-netflix-original-series, accessed October 1, 2020.
Liu Cixin 刘慈欣. Santi《三体》[The Three Body problem]. Chongqing: Chongqing chu ban she 重庆: 重庆出版社, 2008.
Liu Cixin 刘慈欣. “Chongfan Yidian yuan – kehuan chuangzuo shinian huigu” 重返伊甸园——科幻创作十年回顾[Returning to the Garden of Eden – a look back on ten years of science fiction works]. Nanfang wentan 南方文坛[Southern cultural forum], Issue 6 (November 15, 2010). Reprint in Xianggang shangbao wang 香港商报网(August 24, 2015). https://www.hkcd.com/content/2015-08/24/content_953575.html, accessed March 14, 2021.
Ni Kuang 倪匡. Bingdu: Ni Kuang kehuan xiaoshuo 89 病毒：倪匡科幻空间 89 [Virus: Ni Kuang science fiction 89]. 1995. Taibei: Huangguan wenxue chubanshe, 1996.
Rojas, Rick and Richard Fausset. “Georgia Senators Ask Election Official to Resign in G.O.P. Squabble.” New York Times. November 10, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/09/us/kelly-loeffler-david-perdue-raffensperger.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage, accessed November 10, 2020.
“Santi (Liu Cixin zhu kehuan xiaoshuo)” 三体 (刘慈欣著科幻小说). https://baike.baidu.com/item/三体/5739303, accessed May 13, 2021.
Wang Jiashui 王加水. “ Wo guo jindai xuezhe dui kexue xiaoshuo de tansuo” 我国近代学者对科学小说的探索 (Our modern scholars’ investigations into science fiction), Science Times 科学时报 (August 2008), http://news.sciencenet.cn/sbhtmlnews/2007815234459373187063.html?id=187063, accessed March 10, 2021
Wu Yan, Yao Jianbin & Andrea Lingenfelter (Translator). “A Very Brief History of Chinese Science Fiction,” Chinese Literature Today, 7:1 (June 29, 2018), 44-53.
“Zhongguo kehuan xiaoshuo tuijian top20 中国科幻小说推荐top20 [Top 20 recommended works of Chinese science fiction], https://www.douban.com/doulist/1595565/, accessed February 6, 2020.
- The first of the three works is referred to generally as The Three Body Problem. Individual books in the series are titled: The Three Body Problem (Santi 三体), The Three Body Problem II: The Dark Forest (Santi II: Hei’an senlin 三体II: 黑暗森林), and The Three Body Problem III: Death’s End (Santi III: Si shen yongsheng 三体III: 死神永生). Note that the third here would more literally be translated as “The god of death lives forever.” See “Santi (Liu Cixin zhu kehuan xiaoshuo)” 三体 (刘慈欣著科幻小说), https://baike.baidu.com/item/三体/5739303, accessed May 13, 2021. ↩
- The New York Times, “Coronavirus World Map: Tracking the Global Outbreak,” March 9, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/world/coronavirus-maps.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage#countries, accessed March 9, 2021. ↩
- Wu Yan, Yao Jianbin & Andrea Lingenfelter (Translator) note: “The birth of science fiction in China had to wait until the second half of the nineteenth century with the introduction of Western learning. It was the influx of Western scientific culture that brought about the flourishing of science fiction literature in China” (46). “A Very Brief History of Chinese Science Fiction,” Chinese Literature Today, 7:1 (June 29, 2018), 44-53. https://doi.org/10.1080/21514399.2018.1458378, accessed March 10, 2021. ↩
- “A Very Brief History of Chinese Science Fiction,” 46. ↩
- Published in Japan by Evolution Society Publishing日本东京进化社出版 in October of 1903. See Wang Jiashui 王加水 “ Wo guo jindai xuezhe dui kexue xiaoshuo de tansuo” 我国近代学者对科学小说的探索 (Our modern scholars’ investigations into science fiction), Science Times 科学时报 (August 2008), http://news.sciencenet.cn/sbhtmlnews/2007815234459373187063.html?id=187063, accessed March 10, 2021. ↩
- For example, “homegrown science fiction is the 1904 work Tales of the Lunar Colony (Yueqiu zhimindi xiaoshuo 月球殖民地小说) written by the Old Fisherman of Desolate River (Huangjiang Yesou 荒江钓叟).” “A Very Brief History of Chinese Science Fiction,” 46. ↩
- Lao She 老舍, Mao cheng ji 猫城记 (Cat country). 1933. Reprint. (Hong Kong: Changjiang chubanshe, No date): 1. ↩
- Lao She, Cat Country, 2. ↩
- Cat Country, 32. ↩
- Cat Country, 84. ↩
- Cat Country, 146. ↩
- Cat Country, 152. ↩
- Cat Country, 161. ↩
- Cat Country, 165. ↩
- Cat Country, 165. ↩
- Cat Country, 217. ↩
- My 1996 second printing of the 1995 Taiwan Crown Publishing edition of this book enumerates Virus as number 89 in the series of “Ni Kuang Science Fiction” (Ni Kuang kehuan xiaoshuo 89 倪匡科幻小说 89) on the cover and binding, with a slight change from “fiction” (xiaoshuo 小说) to “space” (kongjian 空间) on the publishing plate. ↩
- Ni Kuang 倪匡, Bingdu 病毒 (Virus) (Taibei: Huangkuan wenxue chubanshe, 1995): np. ↩
- Virus, 105 ↩
- Virus, 106. ↩
- Virus, 107. ↩
- Virus, 107. ↩
- Virus, 194. ↩
- Virus, 193. ↩
- Virus, 195. ↩
- Virus, 197. ↩
- Virus, 198. ↩
- Liu Cixin 刘慈欣, Santi《三体》(The Three Body problem), Ch 24, “Hongan zhi liu” 红岸之六 (Red coast VI), (Chongqing: Chongqing chu ban she 重庆: 重庆出版社, 2008). ↩
- Alexandra Alter, “How Chinese Sci-Fi Conquered America,” December 3, 2019, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/03/magazine/ken-liu-three-body-problem-chinese-science-fiction.html, accessed October 1, 2020. ↩
- Alexandra Alter, Ibid. ↩
- Liu Cixin, Three Body Problem, Chapter 7, “Fengkuan shidai” 疯狂时代 (A crazy era). ↩
- Liu Cixin 刘慈欣, “Chongfan Yidian yuan – kehuan chuangzuo shinian huigu” 重返伊甸园——科幻创作十年回顾 (Returning to the Garden of Eden – a look back on ten years of science fiction works). Nanfang wentan 南方文坛 (Southern cultural forum), Issue 6 (November 15, 2010). Reprint in Xianggang shangbao wang 香港商报网 (August 24, 2015). https://www.hkcd.com/content/2015-08/24/content_953575.html, accessed March 14, 2021. ↩
- David Brancaccio, Nova Safo, and Alex Schroeder, “Has Trump kept his promises to U.S. manufacturing and Carrier?” Marketplace Morning Report, November 2, 2020. https://www.marketplace.org/2020/11/02/trump-carrier-manufacturing-jobs-indiana-china-tariffs-factories-steelworkers/, accessed March 14, 2021. ↩
- Roxane Gay, “I Am Shattered but Ready to Fight: The support for President Trump is a disgrace, but the future is not hopeless,” New York Times, November 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/05/opinion/trump-supporters-election-2020.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage, accessed November 7, 2020. ↩
- Liu Cixin, The Three Body Problem, Ch 24. ↩
- Peter Friedlander, “International best-seller ‘The Three Body Problem’ to be adapted as a Netflix original series,” September 1, 2020, https://about.netflix.com/en/news/the-three-body-problem-netflix-original-series, accessed October 1, 2020. ↩
- Rojas, Ibid. ↩
- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat’s Cradle (New York: Dell Publishing Co, 1963): 14. ↩