“We cannot save ourselves”

Interviewing Cixin Liu for The Telegraph, 29 February 2024

Chinese writer Cixin Liu steeps his science fiction in disaster and misfortune, even as he insists he’s just playing around with ideas. His seven novels and a clutch of short stories and articles (soon to be collected in a new English translation, A View from the Stars) have made him world-famous. His most well-known novel The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo, the nearest thing science fiction has to a heavy-hitting prize, in 2015. Closer to home, he’s won the Galaxy Award, China’s most prestigious literary science-fiction award, nine times. A 2019 film adaptation of his novella “The Wandering Earth” (in which we have to propel the planet clear of a swelling sun) earned nearly half a billion dollars in the first 10 days of its release. Meanwhile The Three-Body Problem and its two sequels have sold more than eight million copies worldwide. Now they’re being adapted for the screen, and not for the first time: the first two adaptations were domestic Chinese efforts. A 2015 film was suspended during production (“No-one here had experience of productions of this scale,” says Liu, speaking over a video link from a room piled with books.) The more recent TV effort is, from what I’ve seen of it, jolly good, though it only scratches the surface of the first book.

Now streaming service Netflix is bringing Liu’s whole trilogy to a global audience. Clean behind your sofa, because you’re going to need somewhere to hide from an alien visitation quite unlike any other.

For some of us, that invasion will come almost as a relief. So many English-speaking sf writers these days spend their time bending over backwards, offering “design solutions” to real-life planetary crises, and especially to climate change. They would have you believe that science fiction is good for you.

Liu, a bona fide computer engineer in his mid-fifties, is immune to such virtue signalling. “From a technical perspective, sf cannot really help the world,” he says. “Science fiction is ephemeral, because we build it on ideas in science and technology that are always changing and improving. I suppose we might inspire people a little.”

Western media outlets tend to cast Liu — a domestic celebrity with a global reputation and a fantastic US sales record — as a put-upon and presumably reluctant spokesperson for the Chinese Communist Party. The Liu I’m speaking to is garrulous, well-read, iconoclastic, and eager. (It’s his idea that we end up speaking for nearly an hour more than scheduled.) He’s hard-headed about human frailty and global Realpolitik, and he likes shocking his audience. He believes in progress, in technology, and, yes — get ready to clutch your pearls — he believes in his country. But we’ll get to that.

We promised you disaster and misfortune. In The Three-Body Problem, the great Trisolaran Fleet has already set sail from its impossibly inhospitable homeworld orbiting three suns. (What does not kill you makes you stronger, and their madly unpredictable environment has made the Trisolarans very strong indeed.) They’ll arrive in 450 years or so — more than enough time, you would think, for us to develop technology advanced enough to repel them. That is why the Trisolarans have sent two super-intelligent proton-sized super-computers at near-light speed to Earth, to mess with our minds, muddle our reality, and drive us into self-hatred and despair. Only science can save us. Maybe.
The forthcoming Netflix adaptation is produced by Game of Thrones’s David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and True Blood’s Alexander Woo. In covering all three books, it will need to wrap itself around a conflict that lasts millennia, and realistically its characters won’t be able to live long enough to witness more than fragments of the action. The parallel with the downright deathy Game of Thrones is clear: “I watched Game of Thrones before agreeing to the adaptation,” says Liu. “I found it overwhelming — quite shocking, but in a positive way.”

By the end of its run, Game of Thrones had become as solemn as an owl, and that approach won’t work for The Three-Body Problem, which leavens its cosmic pessimism (a universe full of silent, hostile aliens, stalking their prey among the stars) with long, delightful episodes of sheer goofiness — including one about a miles-wide Trisolaran computer chip made up entirely of people in uniform, marching about, galloping up and down, frantically waving flags…

A computer chip the size of a town! A nine-dimensional supercomputer the size of a proton! How on Earth does Liu build engaging stories from such baubles? Well, says Liu, you need a particular kind of audience — one for whom anything seems possible.
“China’s developing really fast, and people are confronting opportunities and challenges that make them think about the future in a wildly imaginative and speculative way,” he explains. “When China’s pace of development slows, its science fiction will change. It’ll become more about people and their everyday experiences. It’ll become more about economics and politics, less about physics and astronomy. The same has already happened to western sf.”

Of course, it’s a moot point whether anything at all will be written by then. Liu reckons that within a generation or two, artificial intelligence will take care of all our entertainment needs. “The writers in Hollywood didn’t strike over nothing,” he observes. “All machine-made entertainment requires, alongside a few likely breakthroughs, is ever more data about what people write and consume and enjoy.” Liu, who claims to have retired and to have no skin in this game any more, points to a recent Chinese effort, the AI-authored novel Land of Memories, which won second prize in a regional sf competition. “I think I’m the final generation of writers who will create novels based purely on their own thinking, without the aid of artificial intelligence,” he says. “The next generation will use AI as an always-on assistant. The generation after that won’t write.”

Perhaps he’s being mischievous (a strong and ever-present possibility). He may just be spinning some grand-sounding principle out of his own charmingly modest self-estimate. “I’m glad people like my work,” he says, “but I doubt I’ll be remembered even ten years from now. I’ve not written very much. And the imagination I’ve been able to bring to bear on my work is not exceptional.” His list of influences is long. His father bought him Wells and Verne in translation. Much else, including Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, required translating word for word with a dictionary. “As an sf writer, I’m optimistic about our future,” Liu says. “The resources in our solar system alone can feed about 100,000 planet Earths. Our future is potentially limitless — even within our current neighbourhood.”

Wrapping our heads around the scales involved is tricky, though. “The efforts countries are taking now to get off-world are definitely meaningful,” he says, “but they’re not very realistic. We have big ideas, and Elon Musk has some exciting propulsion technology, but the economic base for space exploration just isn’t there. And this matters, because visiting neighbouring planets is a huge endeavour, one that makes the Apollo missions of the Sixties and Seventies look like a fast train ride.”

Underneath such measured optimism lurks a pessimistic view of our future on Earth. “More and more people are getting to the point where they’re happy with what they’ve got,” he complains. “They’re comfortable. They don’t want to make any more progress. They don’t want to push any harder. And yet the Earth is pretty messed up. If we don’t get into space, soon we’re not going to have anywhere to live at all.”

The trouble with writing science fiction is that everyone expects you have an instant answer to everything. Back in June 2019, a New Yorker interviewer asked him what he thought of the Uighurs (he replied: a bunch of terrorists) and their treatment at the hands of the Chinese government (he replied: firm but fair). The following year some Republican senators in the US tried to shame Netflix into cancelling The Three-Body Problem. Netflix pointed out (with some force) that the show was Benioff and Weiss and Woo’s baby, not Liu’s. A more precious writer might have taken offence, but Liu thinks Netflix’s response was spot-on. ““Neither Netflix nor I wanted to think about these issues together,” he says.

And it doesn’t do much good to spin his expression of mainstream public opinion in China (however much we deplore it) into some specious “parroting [of] dangerous CCP propaganda”. The Chinese state is monolithic, but it’s not that monolithic — witness the popular success of Liu’s own The Three Body Problem, in which a girl sees her father beaten to death by a fourteen-year-old Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, grows embittered during what she expects will be a lifetime’s state imprisonment, and goes on to betray the entire human race, telling the alien invaders, “We cannot save ourselves.”

Meanwhile, Liu has learned to be ameliatory. In a nod to Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, he points out that while wars continue around the globe, the bloodshed generated by warfare has been declining for decades. He imagines a world of ever-growing moderation — even the eventual melting away of the nation state.

When needled, he goes so far as to be realistic: “No system suits all. Governments are shaped by history, culture, the economy — it’s pointless to argue that one system is better than another. The best you can hope for is that they each moderate whatever excesses they throw up. People are not and never have been free to do anything they want, and people’s idea of what constitutes freedom changes, depending on what emergency they’re having to handle.”

And our biggest emergency right now? Liu picks the rise of artificial intelligence, not because our prospects are so obviously dismal (though killer robots are a worry), but because mismanaging AI would be humanity’s biggest own goal ever: destroyed by the very technology that could have taken us to the stars!

Ungoverned AI could quite easily drive a generation to rebel against technology itself. “AI has been taking over lots of peoples’ jobs, and these aren’t simple jobs, these are what highly educated people expected to spend lifetimes getting good at. The employment rate in China isn’t so good right now. Couple that with badly managed roll-outs of AI, and you’ve got frustration and chaos and people wanting to destroy the machines, just as they did at the beginning of the industrial revolution.”

Once again we find ourselves in a dark place. But then, what did you expect from a science fiction writer? They sparkle best in the dark. And for those who don’t yet know his work, Liu is pleased, so far, with Netflix’s version of his signature tale of interstellar terror, even if its westernisation does baffle him at times.

“All these characters of mine that were scientists and engineers,” he sighs. “They’re all politicians now. What’s that about?”

The old heave-ho

The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind by Jan Lucassen, reviewed for the Telegraph 14 August 2021

“How,” asks Dutch social historian Jan Lucassen, “could people accept that the work of one person was rewarded less than that of another, that one might even be able to force the other to do certain work?”

The Story of Work is just that: a history of work (paid or otherwise, ritual or for a wage, in the home or out of it) from peasant farming in the first agrarian societies to gig-work in the post-Covid ruins of the high street, and spanning the historical experiences of working people on all five inhabited continents. The writing is, on the whole, much better than the sentence you just read, but no less exhausting. At worst, it put me in mind of the work of English social historian David Kynaston; super-precise prose stitched together to create an unreadably compacted narrative.

For all its abstractions, contractions and signposting, however, The Story of Work is full of colour, surprise and human warmth. What other social history do you know writes off the Industrial Revolution as a net loss to music? “Just think of the noise from rattling machines that made it impossible to talk,” Lucassen writes, “in contrast to small workplaces or among larger troupes of workers who mollified work in the open air by singing shanties and other work songs.”

For 98 per cent of our species’ history we lived lives of reciprocal altruism in hunting-and-gathering clan groups. With the advent of farming and the formation of the first towns came surpluses and, for the first time, the feasibility of distributing resources unequally.

At first, conspicuous generosity ameliorated the unfairnesses. As the sixteenth-century French judge Étienne de la Boétie wrote: “theatres, games, plays, spectacles, marvellous beasts, medals, tableaux, and other such drugs were for the people of antiquity the allurements of serfdom, the price of their freedom, the tools of tyranny.” (The Story of Work is full of riches of this sort: strip off the narrative, and there’s a cracking miscellany still to enjoy.)

Lucassen diverges from the popular narrative (in which the invention of agriculture is the fount of all our ills) on several points. First, agricultural societies do not inevitably become marketplaces. Bantu-speaking agriculturalists spread across central, eastern and southern Africa between 3500 BCE and 500 CE, while maintaining perfect equality. “Agriculture and egalitarianism are compatible,“ says Lucassen.

It’s not the crops, but the livestock, that are to blame for our expulsion from hunter-gatherer Eden. If notions of private property had to arise anywhere, they surely arose, Lucassen argues, among those innocent-looking shepherds and shepherdesses, whose waterholes may have been held in common but whose livestock most certainly were not. Animals were owned by individuals or households, whose success depended on them knowing every single individual in their herd.

Having dispatched the idea that agriculture made markets, Lucassen then demolishes the idea that markets made inequality. Inequality came first. It does not take much specialism to arise within a group before some acquire more resources than others. Managing this inequality doesn’t need anything so complex as a market. All it needs is an agreement. Lucassen turns to India, and the social ideologies that gave rise, from about 600 BC, to the Upanishads and the later commentaries on the Vedas: the evolving caste system, he says, is a textbook example of how human suffering can be explained to an entire culture’s satisfaction ”without victims or perpetrators being able to or needing to change anything about the situation”.

Markets, by this light, become a way of subverting the iniquitous rhetorics cooked up by rulers and their priests. Why, then, have markets not ushered in a post-political Utopia? The problem is not to do with power. It’s to do with knowledge. Jobs used to be *hard*. They used to be intellectually demanding. Never mind the seven-year apprenticeships of Medieval Europe, what about the jobs a few are still alive to remember? Everything, from chipping slate out of a Welsh quarry to unloading a cargo boat while maintaining its trim, took what seem now to be unfeasible amounts of concentration, experience and skill.

Now, though — and even as they are getting fed rather more, and rather more fairly, than at any other time in world history — the global proletariat are being starved, by automation, of the meaning of their labour. The bloodlessness of this future is not a subject Lucassen spends a great many words on, but it informs his central and abiding worry, which is that slavery — a depressing constant in his deep history of labour — remains a constant threat and a strong future possibility. The logics of a slave economy run frighteningly close to the skin in many cultures: witness the wrinkle in the 13th Amendment of the US constitution that legalises the indentured servitude of (largely black) convicts, or the profits generated for the global garment industry by interned Uighurs in China. Automation, and its ugly sister machine surveillance, seem only to encourage such experiments in carceral capitalism.

But if workers of the world are to unite, around what banner should they gather? Lucassen identifies only two forms of social agreement that have ever reconciled us to the unfair distribution of reward. One is redistributive theocracy. “Think of classical Egypt and the pre-Columbian civilizations,” he writes, “but also of an ‘ideal state’ like the Soviet Union.”

The other is the welfare state. But while theocracies have been sustained for centuries or even millennia, the welfare state, thus far, has a shelf life of only a few decades, and is easily threatened.

Exhausted yet enlightened, any reader reaching the end of Lucassen’s marathon will understand that the problem of work runs far deeper than politics, and that the grail of a fair society will only come nearer if we pay attention to real experiences, and resist the lure of utopias.

A Faustian bargain, freely made

Reading The Rare Metals War by Guillaume Pitron for New Scientist, 27 January 2021

We reap seven times as much energy from the wind, and 44 times as much energy from the sun, as we did just a decade ago. Is this is good news? Guillaume Pitron, a journalist and documentary-maker for French television, is not sure.

He’s neither a climate sceptic, nor a fan of inaction. But as the world begins to adopt a common target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Pitron worries that we’re becoming selectively blind to the costs that effort will incur. His figures are stark. Changing our energy model means doubling rare metal production approximately every fifteen years, mostly to satisfy our demand for non-ferrous magnets and lithium-ion batteries. “At this rate,” says Pitron, “over the next thirty years we will need to mine more mineral ores than humans have extracted over the last 70,000 years.”

Before the Renaissance, humans had found a use for just seven metals. Over the course of the industrial revolution, this number increased to just a dozen. Today, we’ve found uses for all 86 of them, and some of them are very rare indeed. For instance, neodymium and gallium are found in iron ore, but there’s 1,200 times less neodymium and up to 2,650 times less gallium than there is iron.

Zipping from an abandoned Mountain Pass mine in the Mojave Desert to the toxic lakes and cancer villages of Baotou in China, Pitron weights the terrible price paid for refining such materials, ably blending his investigative journalism with insights from science, politics and business.

There are two sides to Pitron’s story, woven seamlessly together. First there’s the economic story, of how the Chinese government elected to dominate the global energy and digital transition, so that it now controls 95 per cent of the rare metals market, manufacturing between 80 to 90 per cent of the batteries for electric vehicles, and over half the magnets used in wind turbines and electric motors.

Then there’s the ecological story in which, to ensure success, China took on the West’s own ecological burden. Now 10 per cent of its arable land is contaminated by heavy metals, 80 per cent of its ground water is unfit for consumption and 1.6 million people die every year due to air pollution alone (a recent paper in The Lancet reckons only 1.24 million people die each year — but let’s not quibble.

China’s was a Faustian bargain, freely entered into, but it would not have been possible had Europe and the rest of the Western world not outsourced their own industrial activities, creating a world divided, as Pitron memorably describes it, “between the dirty and those who pretend to be clean”.

The West’s economic comeuppance is now at hand, as its manufacturers, starved of the rare metals they need, are coerced into taking their technologies to China. And we in the West really should have seen this coming: how our reliance on Chinese raw materials would quickly morph into a reliance on China for the very technologies of the energy and digital transition. (Piron tells us that without magnets produced by China’s ChengDu Magnetic Material Science & Technology Company, the United States’ F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighter cannot fly.)

By 2040, in our pursuit of ever-greater connectivity and a cleaner atmosphere, we will need to mine three times more rare earths, five times more tellurium, twelve times more cobalt, and sixteen times more lithium than we do today. China’s ecological ruination and its global technological dominance advance in lockstep, unstoppably — unless we start mining for rare metals ourselves — in the United States, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and in the “dormant mining giant” of Pitron’s native France.

Better, says Pitron, that we attain some small shred of supply security, and start mining our own land. At least if mining takes place in the backyards of vocal First World consumers, they can agitate for (and pay for) cleaner processes. And nothing will change “so long as we do not experience, in our own backyards, the full cost of attaining our standard of happiness.”

Art that brings meaning to medicine

Visiting Zhang Yanzi’s A Quest for Healing at Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Edinburgh, for New Scientist, 31 May 2018.

Scar is mounted on the wall of a small, brand-new gallery space in Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Museums. Because of the way the room is laid out, this is probably the last piece you will come to. And that’s good, as Scar offers the perfect coda to Zhang Yanzi’s solo show A Quest for Healing.

Scar is modelled on a surgical bed Zhang spotted at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences. (The building itself was where treatments were developed for the bubonic plague, which raged in Hong Kong even into the 20th century.) It’s a violent and terrible cruciform structure, wrapped in bloody bandages – or at least, that’s my first impression. I step closer: the “blood” is ink made of cinnabar, a vermilion-red pigment traditionally used in Chinese painting. Zhang, one of China’s foremost contemporary artists, is no stranger to traditional techniques; much of her work has its roots in the artistic and poetic depictions of landscape known as Shan shui

And those “bloody” smears and stains turn out to be exquisitely detailed miniature scenes of flowing water, framed by “hillsides” of calligraphy, combining poetry with Zhang’s private thoughts. What at a distance seemed to be a work about violent medical intervention, becomes, closer in, to be something deeply personal, calming – even kind.

The stereotypical view of contemporary art is that it’s too clever for its own good and heartless with it, constantly tripping the unwary viewer into moments of horrified realisation (ever looked closely at a Grayson Perry pot?) Zhang’s work pushes in the opposite direction. In the centre of the gallery, an outsize felt-covered “broken heart”  is pierced with thousands of acupuncture needles. This is shocking enough, but only until the eye adjusts and you realise that those pins – so fine, and so many – are more likely cushioning the heart from further assault.

A Quest for Healing is not a sentimental show. Several pieces convey a powerful sense of human fragility. The most colourful piece here is also the most daunting: a wall-mounted pyramid of medical blister packs, their pills removed and replaced by strips of paper on which schoolchildren – thousands of them – have inscribed their prayers and wishes for the future. The weight of expectation borne by Wishing Capsules (pictured above) feels positively oppressive.

Then there are the linked drawings of Limitless, filling one wall with exquisitely drawn ants – half living things, half calligraphy, massing like clouds of stars. You can’t separate these tiny figures from each other, but then again,  you can’t write the whole lot off as a mere texture, either.

There’s a clever perspectival game being played in this show: our cosmic insignificance is a given, but our complexity demands that we press ourselves against each other, in an effort to understand.

Artists who dabble in medicine are a dime a dozen. Zhang is different. She’s steeped in this imagery, growing up in Jiangsu Province in the 1970s, playing with her doctor father’s stethoscope. While by no means rejecting Western medicine, Zhang makes us aware how much more effectively the Chinese tradition gets us to think about mortality, and time, and the nature of being a material body: yearning, growing, dying. And the work that results from all this? A Quest for Healing is, simply, the most humane art about medicine I have seen in years.