I know it’s unfair to lump two great series together for one review, but after reading both series back to back for the Hugo Awards, I was struck by how utterly different they were to each other. These two series are total polar opposites, and I thought it would fun to compare the different views of the universe and alien life they have.
A word of warning. If you want to read both of these series back to back, start with Remembrance of Earth’s Past. Death’s End went to some really dark places, and I feel that reading The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet straight after was the best possible pick-me-up.
Okay, let’s talk a bit about the two series. You may remember Remembrance of Earth’s Past from when I reviewed the first book in the series, The Three-Body Problem, earlier this year. I tried not to go into too much detail about the plot on that review, since I think it’s a more fun read the less you know beforehand. I’ll try not to be too spoilery here, but I’ll have to reveal some information about the plot in order to discuss the whole series.
This series, (which I’m going to just refer to as 三体 from here on to save typing. The title is the Chinese title of The Three-Body Problem, and is often used to refer to the whole series) is hard science fiction. As in, no faster-than-light travel and detailed explanations for all the futuristic technologies we encounter. It is a story set in space and featuring aliens, but it is definitely not space opera.
The characters are scientists and military personal who over the course of many centuries try to defend Earth against alien invaders. I never really connected with any of the characters, but viewing the story as a long reaching future history nullified a lot of the characterisation problems. Of course, there were characterisation problems. Hard SF in general isn’t known for producing the most realistic, depth-filled characters, and this series in particular struggled at times.
Whilst I wasn’t that interested in any individual Humans in the story, I found myself deeply engaged and interested in the behaviour of humanity as a whole. Since there is no FTL travel in this universe, the human race has about 400 years of knowing that an alien invasion is on its way, and that we will never have the technology to defend ourselves. The reactions the general population has to each different development, and the out-of-the-box plans humanity has to come up with to try to protect itself, made for a fascinating, hard-to-put-down read.
The two books of the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers were also hard to put down, but for different reasons. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit are space opera. Space opera with it’s easy FTL travel, journeys to different worlds, and numerous alien races. The technologies are not explained in great detail and at times the alien races feel a bit too human, but the characterisation more than makes up for it. In Angry Planet, we follow the crew of a hyperspace tunnelling ship.
They don’t get involved in any grand adventures, they don’t have to save the galaxy, nothing so exciting. They just have to go to this remote part of space and punch a hole in the fabric of space and time. On the way, they make stops to resupply and take shore-leave, and that’s about it. Occasionally something more serious does happen, but for the most part, they’re safe. Despite the lack of action, there is tons of character growth. Watching the crew grow, and watching how their relationships change as they learn more about each other was perfect.
A Closed and Common Orbit features a smaller cast of characters, and most of the action takes place on one planet, but it was still amazing. We watch Sidra the A.I. who is illegally downloaded into a synthetic body try to adjust to her new life, while also learning about Pepper, who was created to be a slave in a scrap heap on a restricted planet of enhanced humans, but escaped with the help of a friendly A.I. A beautiful character study, with what seemed to me a realistic depiction of an A.I’s struggles.
There are a lot of differences between these two series, but the one I’m most interested in is the two different views on alien life. In Wayfarers, humans are part of a galactic community. The Wayfarer itself is a multispecies crew, and Sidra goes out dancing with aliens. It’s not a perfect galaxy; there are wars, and prejudice, and not everyone likes humans, but it is a relatively safe and peaceful interstellar civilisation we get to enjoy. In 三体,this is not a possibility. Even if FTL travel was a thing, the universe is just too hostile and scary to support a multispecies civilisation. I can’t really go into details about why this is without giving out big spoilers, but Liu gives a very compelling reason for why we can’t all get along and go out clubbing together.
In 2010, Stephen Hawking warned that first contact with aliens could be a disaster for humanity. He compared Earth meeting aliens to Columbus landing in the New World, but with the destruction the Native Americans faced being repeated across the planet.
He does have a point. If aliens can reach Earth, then they probably have the technological superiority needed to destroy us. A counter-argument though would be that they would have no reason to do so. Any resources they could extract from the planet could be more easily obtained in space, and if they wanted a new home, then surely there would be plenty of uninhabited worlds out there for them to take. After all, Earth has been human-free but habitable for most of its life, so statistically, shouldn’t most habitable worlds be uninhabited? Slaves? If you can build a fleet of space ships, you can build a robot workforce. Ideology? Maybe, but if they’re the type to keep stirring up wars, they might not have the time or resources needed to explore the universe.
All things considered, if we make contact with aliens, we’d all be friendly, right? Technological restraints might prevent us from having the type of space opera universe we see in Wayfarers, but it’s not hard to picture some sort of community where we have peaceful relations with alien civilisations. Yet in 三体, Liu not only justifies why the trisolarian aliens are out to get us, but also paints a realistic picture of a universe where every alien race is hostile. I can’t say why, because that would spoil The Dark Forest, but if you really want to know without reading the books, google ‘dark forest theory’; the logic behind the 三体 universe should be easy enough to find from there.
三体 is a cynical and logical response to the optimism found in space operas like Star Wars, Star Trek, and other works like Wayfarers. Not only that, but the focus on technology and the realism the series employs make this hostile view of the universe seem not just possible, but highly likely.
It was a bit depressing seeing the usual tropes of an interstellar civilisation so drastically reversed. And yet it was also fascinating and thought-provoking. 三体 did dent my excitement at the prospect of meeting aliens and made the universe seem like a darker place, but I still enjoyed the series. Having your view of the universe changed is a big thing, and the 三体 books did it in a very enjoyable way. But I feel like I really needed a more optimistic space opera afterwards, and the two Wayfarers books were perfect for that. I loved both series, and both Death’s End and A Closed and Common Orbit deserve their places as finalists for the Hugo Award.