by Cixin Liu
Do you suppose that at the time of Columbus, as native American cultures were under threat by the invasion of Europeans, that there might have been citizens of those cultures who found their world so corrupt that they might have actually welcomed the apocalypse that the invaders would bring? Could some native people have considered that this might end human sacrifice, for example? This kind of question comes to mind upon reading this imaginative and inventive tale of First Contact. More and more, as we plaintively search for signs of intelligent life in the universe, we become more uncomfortable with the implications of such a discovery. What disaster do we bring upon ourselves if we respond to a message from an extraterrestrial culture? Until now, we've assumed any culture sufficiently advanced would be benign toward our own civilization, as we lurch uncertainly into the future. But, lately, voices of concern have been gaining credence. After all, our own history demonstrates that cultures almost universally collapse when encountering a culture more technically advanced. Columbus, for example, landing in America. On the other hand, we look upon the transformation of this planet by greed and unending growth. Our resources and natural environment are being rapidly depleted. Violence and ignorance don't seem to be any less prevalent today than a millennium ago. Maybe the coming alien invasion, benevolent or otherwise (especially otherwise) would bring a welcome comeuppance to humankind's mismanagement of our planet.
The book has a somewhat non-linear storytelling style, looking back upon great events and jumping forward to view the outcome and strange implications of these events. Most surprisingly and intriguingly, we open upon a series of dark scenes from the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In a time of deep political upheaval, in which family members turned on each other in an environment of suspicion, violence and famine, there is, yet, on a remote mountaintop, a secret project attempting communication with extraterrestrials. The political notion is that the culture that first makes the contact with aliens can dictate the nature of the subsequent interaction and control the technology transfer that would likely result. What the group of scientists involved cannot forsee is that the Cultural Revolution would instill in one of its members resentment against all of humanity, a resentment that is only confirmed and borne out by subsequent events. One of several protagonists here has chosen to betray humanity, to bring on the invasion whether it will turn out benign or disastrous.
Meanwhile, a police detective and a group of military officers investigates a series of suicides among top scientists. There is an ominous countdown written in the very fabric of the universe. What does it mean? What happens when the clock runs out? One scientist, a man researching the applications of nanomaterials, is told he must stop his work or face bizarre consequences. The adventure that ensues, from the Panama Canal to the depths of a strange virtual reality computer simulation, will ultimately reveal the fate of humanity. There are numerous strange and uneasy inventions that come along the way, and visits to a planet trapped in a cycle of creation and destruction. The astute reader will soon discern the reason this book has this title. The structure of the novel (famously mentioned by President Obama as part of his personal reading list) somehow evokes Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities as well as the obscure novel Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. There is a surreal quality, with unique literary structure and political context. Indeed, this reader found the references to the Cultural Revolution (through which the author lived, as a child) most fascinating and wondered how Cixin Liu not only got it published in China, but how the book also became a bestseller there. But there are also thin points in the story. Some of its plot elements fade out, and key ominous foreshadowings don't seem to pay off. Much is explained by its grim conclusion, though, and it doesn't look good for humanity. Fortunately, there are two sequels that take the story the necessary hundreds of years further into the future, though it drifts, too, away from some of the more interesting historical grounding that gives an emotional heft to this book.
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See Also: [Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon]
[Other Science Fiction and Fantasy books]