Why surprised?

Scott Sumner (yes – that Scott Sumner) has linked to an interview with Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin.

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.

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14 Responses to Why surprised?

  1. Bruce of Newcastle

    I’m not convinced the galaxy faces a Malthusian trap

    Of course it does. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics says so. But only in a timeframe far far beyond human comprehension. Something like 10^100 years*, give or take a few days.

    Graphical timeline from Big Bang to Heat Death

    * Until then intelligent life could extract energy from supermassive black holes, which gravitationally convert mass to energy. Once all the black holes have evaporated you are rooted.

  2. RobK

    Once all the black holes have evaporated you are rooted.
    Not necessarily. You have sometime to manufacture a workaround.

  3. the advent of interstellar travel and communication.

    There will be no such thing as interstellar travel. Repeat, there will be no such thing as interstellar travel.
    “Warp speed 9 Mr Scott” is a script written for a fictional TV show, not reality.

    Now go back to watching Big Bang Theory and let the adults talk.

  4. Sinclair Davidson

    Of course it does.

    Heh. He does deal with with this too. 🙂

    You should read it.

  5. Sinclair Davidson

    “Warp speed 9 Mr Scott” is a script written for a fictional TV show, not reality.

    This is why it’s called science fiction.

  6. egg_

    the advent of interstellar travel and communication.

    By unmanned probes, perhaps?
    “Earth to Bender…”

  7. Sinclair Davidson


    If Liu’s vision is correct then sending out probes to the universe with directions how to find us would be a very fatal mistake.

  8. C.L.

    Glenn Reynolds has been saying for years that signaling possible aliens is a very dumb thing to do.
    Personally, I don’t believe any exist but his logic is unassailable.

  9. egg_

    China’s already exploring the far side of the moon and eating our lunch in Antarctica.

  10. Sinclair Davidson

    Picing up on Baa Humbugs point – even before we run into problems of interstellar travel there is the issue of lifting humans out of the gravity well and keeping them alive in space.

    In practice this means that most humans will always live and die on Earth.

  11. Bruce of Newcastle

    For egg:

    NASA’s TESS mission finds its smallest planet yet (27 Jun)

    L 98-59b is around 80% Earth’s size and about 10% smaller than the previous record holder discovered by TESS. Its host star, L 98-59, is an M dwarf about one-third the mass of the Sun and lies about 35 light-years away in the southern constellation Volans.

    M dwarfs like L 98-59 account for three-quarters of our Milky Way galaxy’s stellar population. But they are no larger than about half the Sun’s mass and are much cooler, with surface temperatures less than 70% of the Sun’s. Other examples include TRAPPIST-1, which hosts a system of seven Earth-size planets, and Proxima Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor, which has one confirmed planet.

    Amazing how only a couple decades ago the pundits were wondering whether any other stars had planets. The critters are everywhere.

  12. I agree with Sinc’s assessment of Liu Caixin’s likely views taking account of the first chapters of the “Three Body Problem”. I almost gave up reading the book at that point: the story was so drear and unpromising and the premis non-existent. But, on reflection, the chaos and coldness of the beginning — the fragility/unimportance of ‘natural’ relations and the absence of social trust — may have been an accurate representation of China under Mao (and later?) as well as a good prolog to the rest of the novel. The Three Body Problem remains unsettling; it just gets progressively weirder. That’s the greatness of the trilogy: it really is an icon of (fiction of) cosmology and physics right now.

  13. jupes

    Glenn Reynolds has been saying for years that signaling possible aliens is a very dumb thing to do.

    Every single radio wave is a signal to aliens.

    That means aliens with advanced radio receivers within 150 light years of Earth may know of our existence.

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