Recent science fiction has picked up on the fact that the Anthropocene confronts us with the question of agency. Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, for example, materializes the kind of agency so desperately needed in the form of an imagined “Ministry for the Future.” Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock puts its trust in individual members of the elite to fight climate change through geoengineering. Against such examples that directly deal with climate change, it might seem perplexing to turn to a work whose reception has been far removed from issues of the Anthropocene, a space opera whose critics have mostly focused on its Chinese origins. But in Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem trilogy — originally published between 2006 and 2010 — humanity finds itself both participating in and constrained by a larger structure, echoing our Anthropocene moment. Not that this is immediately obvious: The Three-Body Problem seems to brush off environmental concerns for the more outlandish eventuality of first contact with aliens. Reading Liu’s trilogy for embedded trace elements of the Anthropocene follows the lead of critic Mark Bould, who in his recent The Anthropocene Unconscious argues that a work doesn’t have to feature extreme weather to speak to the reality of climate change.
Those familiar with Liu’s trilogy might object to this framing, pointing out that the aliens in question, the Trisolarans, are given a history punctuated by environmental disasters. These disasters are not of their own making, however, but caused by the unpredictable play of gravity between the three stars that toss their planet around, leading to the intermittent collapse of civilization in either ice age or boiling heat. Rather than a mirror of the Anthropocene, the Trisolarans present us with a classic case of environmental determinism. After learning the location of Earth, a planet in a stable orbit around a single star, they launch their invasion fleet for such a paradise.
Liu’s depiction of the Trisolarans’ human allies on Earth, meanwhile, will elicit eye rolls from readers who consider themselves environmentalists. Ye Wenjie, the Chinese astrophysicist who reveals Earth’s position to the Trisolarans, was scarred by the Cultural Revolution, but also by the environmental damage she witnessed; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring serves as a major influence on her worldview. Concern about the destruction of nature and the trauma of revolution are grafted onto each other to explain her betrayal of the human species. The estranged son of an American oil billionaire who Ye teams up with is trying to save the habitat of a threatened swallow in northwest China, while reading Peter Singer on animal liberation and toying with the idea of pan-species communism. The fifth columnist Earth-Trisolaris Organization (ETO) they establish looks like an evil stereotype of environmentalism. Made up of scientists and intellectuals inspired by a revulsion of humanity, the ETO manipulates environmental concerns to sabotage scientific progress.
The pleasure of reading The Three-Body Problem does not derive from this kind of stereotypical coding, though, but from the science-fictional imagining of a future history that plays out the consequences of first contact. To achieve this, Liu relies on real historical themes, starting as we saw in the first volume with the disappointment of modern revolution that explains Ye’s betrayal. The second volume expands the temporal scope as humanity prepares itself for an invasion that is centuries away, but the volume ends in a well-known historical situation: a mutually assured destruction standoff. Whereas the storytelling of these earlier volumes invokes familiar historical themes, that changes in Death’s End. This final part of Liu’s trilogy paraphrases what is new to our historical moment, acting out in a metaphorical way the shock of the Anthropocene.
To understand the metaphor, we need to recount the fictional science developed in The Three-Body Problem: the “dark forest theory,” presented to readers as a cosmic sociology. One of the trilogy’s mundane heroes, Luo Ji, discovers the universe teems with intelligent life, but any species that reveals itself is swiftly destroyed by others as a potential danger. This tenet is given a law-like formulation, based for instance on the principle that sudden scientific spurts can turn a harmless species into a danger. The cleansing of species happens casually — anonymously and economically — by weaponizing the laws of physics, for example with a small projectile at near light speed that destroys a star on impact. The dark forest theory makes it possible for humanity to deter the Trisolarans by threatening to broadcast their position, even though doing so would also reveal Earth.
While the threat of a Trisolaran invasion continues to hover over the third volume, it finally gives way to the even larger question of survival in this dark forest universe. This setting parallels the damaged environment of the Anthropocene. A major theme becomes gradually clear in Death’s End: the universe we believed was natural is in fact shaped by violent acts of alien intelligences. Exploding stars observed by astronomers do not necessarily represent natural phenomena but perhaps dark forest strikes. The phenomenon of dark matter turns out to be caused by alien civilizations, forced into lower dimensions by their enemies. The most advanced aliens, whom we don’t learn much about, are even able to turn entire zones of space into areas where the speed of light is much lower, functioning like cosmic great walls that cannot be traversed by fleets. As one character observes, the universe humanity discovers is already a deteriorated ruin.
It appears that Liu projects onto the cosmos Bill McKibben’s argument in The End of Nature that all nature on Earth is now shaped by humans. In The Three-Body Problem, the natural universe is in fact shaped by competing aliens. McKibben’s work, which is already 30 years old (a Chinese translation came out in 2000), was a landmark treatise on the interconnectedness of humans and their environment, and one of the first popular warnings about climate change. Liu might have been unaware of the parallel. Even so, the way he maps this idea into his space opera captures a truth about the real end of nature in the Anthropocene: that it is created by forces — for instance corporations — which are alien to most people.
If the analogy between a universe deformed by aliens and our own environmental degradation seems far-fetched, one simply has to turn to characters in Death’s End who glimpse humanity’s position in space through just such a comparison. The scientist Bai Aisi, on the eve of one of the most dramatic events in the book, remembers how his teacher Ding Yi had pointed out the limits of physics to describe the universe, standing in a desert just outside Beijing:
[Ding Yi] pointed at the desert lit by the westering sun. “[…] Suppose an extraterrestrial scientist were given all data about the Earth several billion years ago. Do you think it could predict the existence of this desert solely through calculation?” Bai Aisi pondered this: “No. This desert wasn’t the result of the Earth’s natural evolution, but the result of man-made forces. The behavior of civilizations can’t be grasped through the laws of physics.”
The truth of this statement becomes fully clear to Bai Aisi when he is one of the first to fall victim to a dark forest strike that scrambles the laws of physics. In order to understand the universe, it turns out by the end of Liu’s trilogy, you need cosmic sociology (or an interstellar relations theory) more than astrophysics. The supposed natural constants of science, like the speed of light, are actually the by-product of alien actions.
This reordering of knowledge in Death’s End, breaching the boundary between nature and the social, is typical for the Anthropocene. It is a paradigm change that overturns long-standing habits of thought. In intellectual history, the separation between the study of nature and society can be traced back to the 18th-century Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico. Obscure in his own days, Vico developed a hermeneutic way of understanding past societies — reading myths, poetry, and laws as windows on earlier stages of development — that became an important influence on the humanities. Vico’s intellectual breakthrough was accompanied, though, by the exclusion of nature. He developed his approach in opposition to the early Scientific Revolution, declaring famously as principle that we can only “understand” what we have made ourselves. Past societies, made by humans, could be understood through the texts they had left, while the understanding of nature had to be left to its creator: God. Translated in a secular key by his followers, this bifurcation became the norm in the organization of knowledge. That is until now, when the Anthropocene tells us nature and society cannot be disentangled.
The scientists in Death’s End are invariably dismayed when it becomes clear that instead of natural laws they are observing conscious alien agency. That is until the very end, when the book’s central character, Cheng Xin, encounters in the figure of Guan Yifan a human who seems to have come to terms with it. Guan was one of the few who escaped the solar system much earlier by starship. He points out to Cheng Xin that in a “universe where the laws of nature are the product of incessant struggles,” they had been “called on to think about matters that belong to the province of God.” We are catapulted back as it were to the moment in intellectual history when Vico excluded nature as the realm of God, realizing the impossible new role the end of nature now pushes us into.
Liu might not have been aware of Vico, but curiously the name of Homer appears at this stage of the story. A key part of Vico’s magnum opus concerns the “discovery of the True Homer.” Here, the Homer of the Iliad and Odyssey is interpreted, not as a timeless classical figure, but as a barbarian artist whose work revealed the outlines of a lost poetic age that is bound to recur in the cycles of history. In Death’s End, Cheng Xin and Guan Yifan run into the activities of the “Zero-Homers,” a group of intelligences who want to reset the universe and return it to its original Garden of Eden–like state by accelerating the dimensional collapses to trigger a new Big Bang. In the end though — and this is perhaps a warning one can wring out of Liu’s work — only a history written by Cheng Xin to memorialize humanity will make it into the new universe.
At this point we are far removed from the beginning of The Three-Body Problem, where humanity was betrayed by an environmentally conscious woman influenced by Rachel Carson. The universe now stands revealed as a manufactured, but at the same time alien, landscape. The trajectory of Liu’s trilogy seems to confirm Mark Bould’s claim that the Anthropocene (or in this case alienocene) has become the unconscious of our art and literature.
Bould’s case for the omnipresence of the Anthropocene in the arts was conceived in response to Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, which kicked off the question of climate change in literature by noting its surprising absence. We have followed Bould’s advice to read metaphorically for the Anthropocene. The opposite takes by Ghosh and Bould can also be explained by the different boundaries they place on the artistic field. In The Great Derangement, Ghosh admits in passing that genre literature with its interest in the nonhuman has been more able to incorporate nature, but his focus is on “serious literature,” which had abandoned this capacity. Bould’s revisionism relies on a much wider critical lens, giving us a panning shot of storytelling in our world: from Sharknado to arthouse documentaries, as well as literary authors. Even so, the difference between Ghosh and Bould might go deeper than the difference between serious and popular art, or between literal and metaphorical ways of reading. We need to see how both deal with the “alien” agency reshaping our environment, since these critics also approach capitalism in different ways.
The Great Derangement did not flinch from calling capitalism the root of climate change, but capitalism takes a backseat in Ghosh’s analysis, understood as something that is bound to emerge in historical development. This conception allows for Ghosh’s most thought-provoking argument: that Western imperialism postponed the climate crisis by preventing the “normal” development of India and China. Out of this emerged a Western modernity so polluting that it cannot be universalized, de facto reliant on the continued absence of Asian economic growth. Bould, on the other hand, casts capitalism not as a “normal” developmental process but as aberration. His treatment of capitalism is entirely focused on its violent externalities, the way it leaves damage and destruction in its wake. It is these externalities, from pollution to the uprooting of people, that appear as the Anthropocene unconscious in fiction.
Rather than alternative approaches, this difference might be exemplary of an ongoing shift in how capitalism is understood — from an abstract process into a violent force. The older, abstract understanding, still present in The Great Derangement, is epitomized by Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Even classical Marxism regarded capitalism (at least in its mature phase) as the first mode of production in which surplus was expropriated without violence. Whereas slavery or serfdom required continued coercion, the capitalist proletariat, having lost the means of subsistence, has no choice but to offer its labor for sale. Nowadays, though, capitalism increasingly appears a violent power as we are being hammered by its externalities, which threaten the biosphere we depend on. An indication we are dealing with an ongoing shift in understanding can be found in Ghosh’s latest work, which relies on the concept of “extractivism” to capture this violence. If we are witnessing such a conceptual shift, in which our social system is no longer abstract and invisible but revealed as violent and environmentally destructive, then our position is not unlike Liu’s scientists in Death’s End who become aware that the abstract laws of nature have been superseded by alien agency.
Kurt Guldentops is interested in science fiction and SF criticism. He lives and writes near Atlanta.
Sungshin Kim is professor of history at the University of North Georgia, where she teaches the history of modern China and Korea, and serves as director of East Asian Studies.