Speaking of Books


Now that we’re in the days of the books fair, and that it’s become a trend to speak about China and the coronavirus, I would like to recommend a science-fiction work which I believe to be among the most valuable that has appeared lately. I refer to The Three-Body Problem, by mainland Chinese writer Liu Cixin. Of course, as the reader might imagine, it’s not only about science-fiction: the work offers a very interesting approach to the contemporary history of China, its role in the world and what it may represent in the future of civilization.

The trilogy of novels that begins with The Three-Body Problem has been a total success, both in China and in the West. It won some of the most relevant awards, such as the Galawry Award and the prestigious Hugo Award. It impressed me because of the brilliant way in which it interweaves fiction with elements of reality, but above all because of the hints it shows about the Chinese cultural worldview. To make this point, I will have to comment on some parts of the novel, so: spoiler alert!

The fictional part, which gives the work its title, tells the story of a civilization in a distant planet with the terrible circumstance of being in a three-sun system. Because of a physical paradox, the trajectory and movement of the three solar bodies is impossible to predict, which makes the climate of the planet completely unpredictable and extreme on occasion. This extraterrestrial civilization, in order to survive, has had to adopt a completely authoritarian and totalitarian organization. Their greatest dream is to discover another planet in the universe which is inhabitable, and which doesn’t have the three-sun problem.

However, one doesn’t know this until the end of the first volume. The story begins in a completely different way to what we’re used to seeing in the genre: in the middle of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The historical novel component in the work is very well-rendered. Liu Cixin tells us about the travels of Ye Wenjie, a young astrophysicist trapped in the hell of political convulsion.

Ye Wenjie, after seeing the worst side of the Chinese political system, ends up in a secret military base thanks to her knowledge and skill. With the Cold War in full swing, the Chinese are worried that the Americans, or worse, the Soviets, may become the first to contact extraterrestrials. That’s why the Red Coast base keeps sending interstellar solidarity messages from the People’s Republic of China. Years later, the base would be closed, considered a delusion by the very people who built it. Nobody knows the truth: that Ye Wenjie contacted the Trisolarians and invited them to colonize Earth to stop the inherent madness of the human civilization.

I found several things striking in this novel. One of them was the representation of the Cultural Revolution. As a researcher into the history of Marxism, socialism and communism, I continue to view Maoism as something unusual. It’s hard, because at the time it was presented as the alternative, and it proposed to bring to practice some ideas I share, such as the cultural struggle against capitalism and the need for the cultural subject to remain mobilized and have active participation. In Mao’s China, there was even an acknowledgement of the existence of contradictions between the people and the bureaucracy. However, all those good ideas can also be corrupted and manipulated.

The novel shows in all its harshness the cruel madness of the Cultural Revolution: the bands of red guards deployed in the cities, armed young people who had the authority to create their own courts, judge and execute ‘the bourgeois’. It displays the spectacle of fratricidal struggles between those militias, once sectarian hatred surpassed the desire to hunt down a non-existent bourgeoisie, all that within a context of incessant references to the Great Helmsman. I was surprised by the fact that Liu Cixin was able to publish his book in China, given the totalitarian image of that country that we’re sold.

Something else you find striking when you read The Three-Body Problem: the Chinese historical conscience. All of a sudden, you find yourself in the certainty that that people has a history larger than your own, with many layers. For us, history has a path, the primitive community, Classic Antiquity, the Middle Ages, Modernity and Contemporaneity. China has lived through many more stages. They have different ones. Putting myself in their shoes, I felt as if they lived in a planet and civilization different from mine.

I gained a better understanding of why the Chinese perceive they are the center of the world. That’s why they called themselves the Middle Kingdom. For them, the period of colonial dependency on the West is the Century of Humiliation, a bitter period happily overcome thanks to Mao, which would be followed by a straight path to greatness.

Something invaluable for me was gaining access to a Chinese story about Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. We are much more familiar with Perestroika, but know little about the Chinese reforms. The Three-Body Problem shows some snapshots, all the more interesting because they portray how things were like inside that process from the point of view of everyday life.

In the book, it is shown how the arrival of Deng’s time felt like a return to normality. A Faustian time, filled with unprecedented plans and mobilizations, seasoned with political violence and totalitarianism, was followed by a time when the usual commercial flow returned, as well as family life and the tedium of the struggle for economic progress. It was relatively easy, almost like watching the sun rise.

China was a huge peasant country. Despite the incipient industrialization of the Maoist period, which Mao himself partly undermined, that nation gathered all the conditions to reestablish the farmers’ market. They didn’t undergo the phenomenon that, for different reasons, took place in the USSR and Cuba: an oversized urban population, a weak countryside, the need for a price-controlling state. In China, the state kept on controlling, but in a different manner; the commercial life was relatively easy to reconstruct. Additionally, it’s a country with millennia of cultural sedimentation. With a simple snap of the fingers, Chinese society and culture were rebalanced.

It was also interesting to see the treatment Liu Cixin gives to what we might call the dark side of the reform. The events of the Great Leap Forward and later the Cultural Revolution were so traumatic that, once the sense of normality was restored in Deng’s time, Chinese society tried to forget as much as it could. In the book, some characters ask themselves whether some things really happened, and they must answer themselves that they did, because there are traces left: a missing arm, the photo of a dead relative or a friend nobody ever heard of again.

The scene in which Ye Wenjie, now in Deng’s time, meets three former red guards is heartbreaking. There was nothing left of the time in which they were three merciless and fanatical teenagers. They were living ghosts. The reform in China was ruthless, it meant a terrible purge on all levels of the State and the Party, which entailed that former red guards, valuable during the Cultural Revolution, be taken to reeducation camps and forgotten in the middle of nowhere. When she sees them, Ye Wenjie is reasserted in her hatred for the human race.

Here I would like to give a small wink to those who defend swift reforms in Cuba. One of the reasons why the paradigm shift in the island moves so slowly is because it’s been attempted with the same people. In China they didn’t make that mistake. But have we thought of the human cost of doing here what the Chinese did? How many people who have devoted a lifetime of work to the Revolution would be left in total anomie?

The Three-Body Problem offers interesting points of view and insights about China. Above all it shows something we should have realized by now: that nation has civilizing project with its eye on the future, supported by its age-old history. Now that we’re amazed that China built a fully-equipped hospital to fight the coronavirus in ten days, or that they may maintain a 35-million-people quarantine, it would be good to have a look at the message of the book.

The Chinese Communist Party has a plan, not meant for tomorrow, but for one-hundred years or more: to turn China into a center for the accumulation of capital, to reinforce the shifting of global value chains towards the East, preferably towards themselves, to build an international financial architecture to match that of the West, and ultimately to supplant the West as the center of capitalism. All that to reinforce the central role of the Chinese civilization. They haven’t stated as much, but it’s what one can gather from their plans and actions.

That’s a challenge for everyone. Until now, China has been a source of balance in the world, in opposition to the excesses of American imperialism. But it’s worth asking what shapes a Chinese imperialism could assume. On the other hand, for Cuba the Chinese reform is a point of reference which proves the possibility of reconciling the plan and the market, although it’s an example that’s impossible to fully imitate, given the immense initial differences. Also, on a more pragmatic note, Cuba can make good use of the opportunities offered by having good relations with that power.

Well, I believe I ended up talking more about China than about Liu Cixin’s book. But I’m not going to tell you the whole story, right? I recommend finding the eBook. After all, digital reading is the new motto of our Book Fair.

(Translated from the original)