In the interview Liu got asked about some political issues relating to China. The answers Liu gave were not to Sumner’s satisfaction.
These books are of very high quality, and rely heavily on ideas from the social sciences, particularly game theory. So you’d think that if any artist would be good at politics, it would be Liu Cixin.
I was surprised by the weakness of his arguments.
Artists are good at illustrating moral dilemmas. Sci-fi artists are especially good at identifying new dilemmas that will be created by technological innovations. But when artists try to make specific political points on public policy issues, the art collapses. Asking an artist to write about politics is like asking a plumber to play a violin concerto.
Sumner is being unfair here. To both Liu and possible violin playing plumbers.
Spoiler alerts below.
Liu has written about “new dilemmas that will be created by technological innovations“. In his Three-body problem trilogy (highly recommended) Liu takes on the Fermi paradox and the advent of interstellar travel and communication. He does not take on contemporary Chinese politics and the related social challenges faced by a country attempting to transition from a command and control economy to a market economy without experiencing political revolution.
The issue that Liu addresses over the three books is what happens on Earth when we discover the existence of a technologically superior alien species (that exists in a very fragile environment) and the universe itself is stuck in a Malthusian trap. What happens when that technologically superior alien species discovers us?
The books are very, very clever and I got much enjoyment from reading them. His ‘solution’ to Fermi’s paradox is intriguing. But I’m not convinced the galaxy faces a Malthusian trap – mind you, even if it didn’t, as long as various species that inhabit the galaxy thought that we all face a Malthusian trap then the conditions Liu imagines could still hold.
That then brings me to a defence of Liu’s views about contemporary China. The first book in the series begins during China’s cultural revolution. I can only speculate but I got the impression that Liu is horrified and appalled by those events. Looking at his comments in that context suggests to me that he has a strong aversion to a break down in order. He is trading off disorder costs against dictatorship costs – as we all do – but at different margins than what we would prefer. I don’t know what his experience or memories are of having lived through the cultural revolution but it is unfair to judge him without at least considering that point.