<Arrrg, matey, spoilers ahead! Ye have been warned!>
A young astrophysicist, Ye Wenjie, is working at a secret SETI base in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. Her professor father was disgraced, beaten, and killed by Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, and Wenjie had been working at a nearby logging camp before being pulled into work more suited to her talents. One day she stumbles upon a method of using the Sun as an amplifier for the radio greeting they are sending out into the cosmos. She thinks it is a failure. But several years later, a return message comes. It’s actually a dire warning – “do not answer!!!” An advanced, militarized race detected the first transmission and any others will give them a firm fix on Earth. But, Wenjie is still pretty ticked off about her father and the whole Cultural Revolution in general (who wouldn’t be?) … and replies: “Come here! Our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems.”
And thus a mega force of “Trisolarian” invaders is on the way, ETA around 400 years (they travel pretty fast, but still much slower than radio transmissions). Also, they have “folded” (?) protons into super-AI Sophons which are already at the Earth, messing up physicists’ particle accelerator experiments. The Trisolarians were worried that human technology, while currently inferior to their own, was progressing just too exponentially to leave alone for 400 years.
The Trisolarians are named such because they live on a planet revolving around three stars (Alpha Centauri) which experiences an unstable mix of super hot and super cold periods depending on relative distance to each star. Civilization is routinely (yet randomly!) destroyed in either fire or ice. After millenia of trying to figure out what was going on with their world, then trying unsuccessfully to solve the three-body problem, they ultimately determine to find some better planet and move. Wenjie’s description of Earth sounds nice…
Wenjie finds plenty of sympathizers on Earth who agree that humanity needs help, or even that it deserves to be eradicated. I thought this was going a bit too far – are there really that many eco-terrorist types out there who would root for the aliens over humanity, including their own self and family? Especially the character of Michael Evans in the book was really hokey. Billionaire tree-hugger who wants all humans to die and leave the birds and bugs alone.
Some of the group more-or-less worship the unseen Trisolarians (some interesting commentary in the book on how even a solitary confirmation that ET exists, and nothing more, would still fundamentally alter civilization) and put together an odd MMORPG, 3body, to tell about the Trisolarian world and history. It’s through this game that the protagonist (and we the reader) first learn about what’s going on. Little bit of reveal at a time.
There is a REALLY funny incident in the game, where a 30 million man medieval Chinese army becomes a von Neumann architecture computer: squads of soldiers with black and white flags become logic gates, scribes become memory, and cavalry becomes the bus. Pretty ridiculous but funny.
Nien Cheng worked for Shell Oil and so was branded a pro-foreign “capitalist roader” during the chaotic Cultural Revolution. In 1967 her house and possessions were trashed and she was soon thrown into prison, accused of being a spy. She was in more-or-less solitary confinement for six and a half years. Poor nutrition caused her to lose all her teeth. At one point her hands were immobilized behind her back in handcuffs for several days, causing permanent nerve damage. Her daughter was also persecuted and murdered. Throughout all of this, the authorities tried to get Cheng to confess her crimes. She steadfastly and courageously protested her innocence. In the end, however, it was not a matter of justice that freed her but rather a shifting in the political winds. What was once good was now bad, and what was bad was now good….
More than anything, this book helped me feel the frustration and appalling madness of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s communism. Mao’s China, land of official lies and neighborhood spies. It seems like China has gotten a bit better since that time … but you never know. Rampant censorship and imprisonment of many pro-democracy activists (including the recent Nobel Peace Prize recipient) make me wonder. What would Nien Cheng think of today’s China?
p. 30 – “The Communist officials always rewarded a person for his usefulness to them, not for his virtue, though they talked a lot about his virtue.”
p. 55 – “When the penalty for speaking one’s mind is so great, nobody knows what anybody else thinks.”
p. 90 – About the communist overthrow of the upper class – “…such a society was only a dream because those who seized power would invariably become the new ruling class.”
p. 407 – “You were locked up because you don’t understand China.” Back door system, going along with the Party line
Speeches – always a virtual repetition of what higher-ups have said. “To speak at the study group was an art. Obviously one could not afford to be original, and there were only a limited number of ways of saying the same thing over and over again. We generally chose to be boring rather than different.”
p. 489 – “I realized I would be granted rehabilitation simply because the policy of the Party had changed. It had nothing to do with redressing justice.”
EDIT: I found a speech Nien Cheng gave in 1998.
On the Red Guards: “(Mao) turned to the high school kids, because those high school kids grew up since 1949 or they were very little when the Communists took over. They were brought up under Mao. They were brainwashed because they all had to go to Government schools. There was no other school to go to, and they were brainwashed. They were taught that Mao Zedong was their God, and they were taught songs like, “My mother is dear. My father is dear, but General Mao is the dearest of all.” Think of it. Little kids. And when they were given a cookie in the day-care center or kindergarten, they had to hold it up and say “Thanks to General Mao” in front of his photograph. They were brought up that way. So he thought these kids would be reliable to carry-out what he wanted to be done. And also, you must remember China was isolated. China’s door was closed. These children had no knowledge of the outside world except what was told them.”
On the future of China: “So at least the Chinese is 50 percent free, economically, they can now have a dream and work towards their dream. But politically, they’re still enslaved by the Communist Government….I will not be around, but one day, China will become a democracy. You young people will remember that Nien Cheng said so.”
The author spent time as a university exchange student in Nanjing in the late 1970’s, shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution. He became a journalist covering China for Western news media until being ousted following coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen events. He was able to return to covering China about 10 years later, and got reaquainted from some of his Nanjing classmates, as well as marry a Chinese wife. As such, he is in a unique position to report on the changes and situation in China to the Western world.
China has indeed made great progress in the last few decades, but at great cost and with plenty of room for concern about its future. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards actively destroyed links to established Chinese traditions through public humiliation and torture of the educated or the well-off. Families were torn apart when children were forced to denounce their parents. The Cultural Revolution in particular, and the Communist Party takeover in general (and probably the decades of instability prior to that) resulted in a distinct lack of a moral compass for China today. Corruption in government is rampant and actually seen as acceptable, so long as the perpetrator is not found out. Once in the book, Pomfret states that the driving force behind social stability in the West is guilt (not doing bad things because you will feel bad if you do), but in China it is shame (not doing bad things because people will find out – with the implication that if you can hide your actions, all is well).
China has whole-heartedly accepted capitalism and is communist in name only. (Pomfret says that the main goal of the Communist Party is no longer to push a particular ideology, but rather to remain in power for as long as possible.) “Man-eat-man” capitalism reigns, destroying the environment and exploiting the workers with all the gusto of the pre-Progressive industrial West.
Two other recent books on China that I liked (both by Peter Hessler):