Truth and storytelling is fundamental. Either the revelation of truth, or the corruption of it, will create compelling stories that make people stop and think. They may even drive people to act, for is this not the true purpose of story to begin with? Today I’d like to examine a story that hinges on truth, that indeed would fall apart without this truth. Before you read any further, consider this my usual warning that spoilers abound.
Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem is the most popular work of science fiction to come out of China in recent history. The first in a series of three, it won the Hugo award for best novel, was nominated for the Nebula award as well as the Locus and John W. Campbell memorial award. This is not, however, a fast-paced or exciting read. In fact the entirety of the first book only hints at the truth of the story. It’s told from the point of view of a culture that does not put a lot of value in the individual, but rather relies on the collective. This is the first truth that this story plays with-the group is more important than the individual. It is clearly a subjective truth-the entire body of Western produced science fiction is decidedly different, following the formula of a protagonist and antagonist locked in an epic struggle. In The Three Body Problem, the author follows individuals throughout, but arguably no single one of them is the protagonist of the story. Instead, humanity is. The truth is this-the value of society lies in the group, not in the individual. it’s even apparent in some of the subplots within the series, as evidence by two lovers, later on separated by hundreds if not thousands of light years, never do manage to find each other. Because if they did, it might spell certain doom for humanity.
But the truth of societal value is just one of many in this story. The fundamental truth, the thing that makes this story truly compelling is framed in Liu’s “dark forest” analogy. He applies a logical framework to the question of extraterrestrial species. And he does this in a purely rational format-instead of relying on empirical data or looking for evidence, he investigates the axioms and the fundamental nature of the universe to figure out what intelligent life should do. And from there he comes up with two possible outcomes. One is that civilizations will hide effectively, leaving to trace to their existence. The other, and this is the more chilling one, is that interstellar genocide is not only likely, it is the only option. His argument is relatively simple, and it’s actually chillingly close to the situation we find ourselves here on Earth this very day. It is simply that given a finite system, conflict is inevitable.
In his story this takes the form of the dark forest analogy. It’s a beautiful metaphor; with each species walking carefully and silently throughout the universe knowing that as soon as they are noticed they will become a target. And given that there will always be older species out there, far more advanced in both technology and experience, those young races are all the more vulnerable to the scary monsters in the night.
If you haven’t read these books yet, don’t worry because this does not ruin the story or even, in my opinion at least, reduce the entertainment value of the books. There is a lot more to unpack and the story takes us all the way to quite literally the end of the universe.
But this dark forest analogy has implications in the current day as well. What if we were to take this argument at face value here on Earth? Earth is undoubtedly a finite system, and once we have filled up every bit of it, in order for one organization to expand and grow, won’t others have to fall and wither? If one nation continues to grow, won’t others have to make way? We have seen this in the past pretty regularly, but now the geopolitical map is somewhat stable. Have we managed to find some sort of equilibrium, where armies no longer invade and it is no longer a zero-sum game? Perhaps not.
I would like to offer one possible way to solve this problem, and that way is someone antithetical to the current bent in international politics. The body of humanity must reject glorification of national identity, the need to belong to a specific label for its own sake, this move towards hyper nationalism. In fact the only way to a stable geopolitical system in a finite Earth, is to consolidate all national identity into one. By identifying, rationally not empirically, the best way to live and to be and to treat each other, we might find a way to stability. Now, I’m not advocating denial of history or saying it is wrong to feel proud of where we came from. But if we can feel a sense of global citizenship first and foremost, a sense of citizenship that overrides a divisive national interest, that might be one way to help the Earth keep from developing into a dark forest all its own.