Sunday, May 10, 2015

Reviews: From the Inside Out

Counter-revolutionary. Bourgeois. Capitalist.

These synonyms for, among other things, "intellectual", were the real weapons behind the Cultural Revolution and rise of the Red Guards in mid-sixties China under Chairman Mao.
The Guards, young students inflamed with the fire of the People's Struggle, employed the full range of physical and psychological tortures to bring "reform" to what they viewed as a haughty old guard personified by those like their teachers, particularly those brightest training the higher school levels in humanities and sciences. Mao's thesis was that class struggle against both intellectuals and captains of industry was essential to making China "red from the inside out" - eliminating any trace of elitism within, and transmitting the resulting successes outside China to other countries. And that required "struggling", one by one, all of the intellectuals and other elites by transferring them to rural areas to do hard labor, and subjecting them to constant interrogation and browbeating sessions which frequently ended in death as factionalized and overzealous youth let their resentments boil over.

The Hugo nominee The Three Body Problem, by the popular Chinese author Liu Cixin and translated by Ken Liu, begins with a struggling session suffered by a physicist, Ye Zhetai, which takes his life as his daughter looks on. And his daughter Ye Wenjie is also a target for "rehabilitation", having already produced research on radio telescope technology and thus being branded "intellectual". She is saved, however, by a pressing need at a secret hilltop facility called Red Coast, which may or may not be engaged on microwave weaponry research, but which definitely has both high-powered radio transmitters and receivers. If she is willing to spend the remainder of her life doing what they ask her to do at Red Coast, she won't have to be "struggled".

In the course of spinning out their story the Lius make impressive inroads fleshing out their characters and circumstances, establishing philosophical ground between them early as in the case of this much-bookmarked (on Amazon) observation by Ye Wenjie:

It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.

It would be easy to imagine someone having suffered the depredations of the Cultural Revolution coming to a conclusion like this, particularly given the scale of its tragic results. The seeming inevitability of the factionalization which was really no different than high school cliques - but armed with frightening political power - coupled with the brutal purge of tens of thousands of Red Guards by state police after the Guards careened out of control, the wasting of a generation's leadership by tasking them with denuding the country's forests and digging their latrines, the second round of mass starvation which was an echo of the Great Leap Forward which decimated the generation before... just the bare possibility that these events and trends represented the inevitable way of the world would be enough for many of those who were young in 1966 to adopt a very cynical view.

As to the "force outside the human race" - this is all tied up in spoilers that don't belong here, but on the way to the last page is a weaponized proton, for instance, as one plot device. The description of the creation of the proton gets the book a little bogged down in detail that would serve as credentials to the sci-geek set, but may well look like trying too hard to other readers. There is, however, an envisioning of a massive human computer in the von Neumann era which is a nice piece of fictional creativity, sort of a less whimsical variant on the cannonade of babies Stanislaw Lem used in his Cyberiad. And reminiscent of Ready Player One, there's a central network game - but one which may or not be a game - involving a Neal Stephenson-esque  virtual convocation of great scientists.

In balance, this is a nicely constructed plot, using useful and not too well-worn devices - even a hard-boiled cop! - to wind things up in a fairly satisfying way. And to mitigate the bleakness of the "moral awakening" quote above, the author offers his optimism in an afterword for American readers:

Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it... [sci-fi can] turn what in our reality is evil and dark into what is righteous...let's turn the kindness we show toward the stars to members of the human race...

And, as readers will see as well in the story, Liu turns the 1966 inside-out to an outside-in proposition.

- Spencer Kimball

Don't miss another review of this book by William Fuller.

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