The Roots of Progress

The theme of the Three-Body Problem trilogy

Science fiction is one of the ways we communicate ideas and attitudes about progress. This theme, including the difference between contemporary American and Chinese sci-fi, came up in my interview with Mark Lutter (see the section “Optimism and culture”).

Recently the Chinese sci-fi trilogy The Three-Body Problem (the series is officially titled Remembrance of Earth’s Past) has been in the news, since a TV series based on it was just announced.

The Three-Body Problem trilogy was very well-written, and I’m glad I read it. But I hate the message it conveys, which is roughly: “Humanity is a fragile leaf floating on the wind, helpless in the face of vast cosmic forces that we cannot even comprehend, let alone control.”

Not everyone got this message from the trilogy, so let me explain why I think this is the meaning of the story. (Note: you don’t really get this from the first book. You need to finish the whole trilogy for it to fully hit home.)










To summarize the plot: Humanity struggles for independence against an advanced alien race. Ultimately, both worlds are wiped out by an even more advanced species. The few remaining individuals of both races live a lonely but peaceful existence, until finally even this must be given up for the sake of the long-term evolution of the universe.

What do we take away from this?

First, it is a story of failure. Success, if any, is temporary. Humanity tries to hold off the Trisolarans, but ultimately fails. They try to save themselves from destruction, but fail, and most of humanity is destroyed. Cheng and Yun almost meet up—but fail.

Second, much of the failure comes from ignorance. The most tragic is the failure of humanity to discover the secret that could have saved them from the aliens who wanted to destroy them—the twin secret of lightspeed travel and creating black holes.

They could have resolved their political infighting, letting some people remain safe in the black hole, while letting others escape at light speed—but they found that out too late, and so everybody died and the entire human civilization was destroyed. Oops!

Reinforcing the theme of ignorance: We never actually meet the Trisolarans. We never learn what they look like. We never see their home world, their architecture, or even their ships. They are a major focus of the story, but they’re a mystery the entire time. The even more powerful aliens, the ones who destroy both the Earthlings and the Trisolarans, are even more shrouded in mystery. They’re basically anonymous. Literally all we know about them is that they watch for alien civilizations and exterminate them using advanced technology.

Note: the failure mostly doesn’t come from carelessness or negligence. It comes a bit from partisan infighting. But for the most part, humanity is thinking, working, planning, and building. But they get it wrong, because the vast forces out there are beyond their comprehension.

After seeing the Trisolarans destroyed when a big hole is punched through their star, they have a plan: they build the “bunker” world, hiding in the shadow of Jupiter. But learning from experience is useless. Their enemies send a different weapon; all their plans are for nought.

There are only two unforced errors humanity made. One was electing Cheng as Swordholder instead of Wade. The other was prohibiting research into lightspeed technology. (They should have just let Wade—the world’s most ruthless asshole—have his way. What is the meaning of that?)

Other than that, humanity’s errors seem unavoidable. They just didn’t have the knowledge to save themselves. They were too ignorant and primitive. They tried, but they were like toddlers trying to outwit and overpower a team of Navy SEALs. There was no way to win.

There are a few lone heroes who manage to accomplish things: Luo and his deterrence strategy, the crew of Blue Space that manages to disable a Trisolaran “droplet” using the 4th dimension. But none of it matters in the end. These tiny wins are all wiped out.

Then after all that, with a tiny number of humans remaining—well at least finally Cheng and Yun will get to see each other! One tiny, bittersweet, romantic condolence, right? We’ve been waiting so long…. NOPE. After all that cosmic distance they just barely miss each other. And by “just barely” I mean that Cheng gets relativistically hung up, and when she can land on the planet where Yun was, it’s been millions of years.

OK, so that subplot is tragic too, but wait. At least Cheng and Guan can live in the parallel microuniverse while they wait for the main universe to collapse and be reborn, right? As a fresh new universe with all the dimensions that were destroyed by galactic warfare. Good plan! But remember, plans are useless; they don’t work out. And this plan doesn’t work out either, as the humans basically have to sacrifice themselves by returning to the main universe to give it enough gravity for the collapse/rebirth. Oh well. So close.

Failure after failure after failure. Suffering and death. The best laid plans going awry time after time. And mostly not because of human wrongdoing, but from unavoidable ignorance.

The “dark forest” idea is a reflection of this worldview: Enormous, terrible powers are out there that you do not understand and have no hope of fighting. All you can do is hold your breath, hunker down, and huddle in absolute silence—or be swiftly and ruthlessly exterminated.

Thus: “Humanity is a fragile leaf floating on the wind, helpless in the face of vast cosmic forces that we cannot even comprehend, let alone control.” A creative, entertaining, and beautifully told story—with a detestable theme.

Comment on Reddit or debate me on Letter.

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