Transcript - Season 1, Episode 1: Silent Spring

Jim: Hello, welcome to Rehydrate. This is a podcast about the book series, and soon-to-be TV series, Remembrance of Our Past. The first book in that series is the famous The Three-Body Problem. And each of our hosts have different levels of experience with it, and we're going to talk about it from our various perspectives. I'm Jim; I've only read The Three-Body Problem book. And I've not read the other two books. I have read a lot of science fiction over the years, although I'm not a super diehard science fiction reader. I like a lot of Philip K. Dick, some Ray Bradbury. You know, I want to say something like Michael Crichton, even though that will destroy my credibility, but I did read a lot of that stuff. Alright, and then on to Dan.

Dan: Hi, I'm Dan. So I've read the entire trilogy multiple times, actually, and I'm not a huge reader. In other aspects. I've read the Game of Thrones series. I read some Stephen King and Michael Crichton in high school, but it's been a while.

Tim: Hey, I'm Tim. I've not read the series. I'm just I'm a newbie to this series. I've only read the first couple chapters, so that's the perspective I'm coming from. As far as my reading history, I mostly grew up reading a lot of fantasy. I've never been really big into hard sci fi other than your usual like, Star Wars or science fantasy stuff. But in recent years, I've read a bit more including the read Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series, I like that a lot. And as well as some kind of like, or cyberpunk or William Gibson type stuff. So yeah, that's about my history with sci fi, and definitely getting more into hard sci fi in my later years.

Amin: Hey, this is Amin, and like Tim, I am reading this series for the first time as we are talking about each set of chapters. I have not read sci fi seriously for over 15 years, probably, so this is kind of a reintroduction to sci fi for me.

Jim: And now we're gonna talk about the first book, and we're gonna talk about the first two chapters. And Dan is going to tell us basically what happened. This is the kind of thing where I guess you will -- you'll get spoilered -- you will get spoiled on the first two chapters . So don't listen if you don't want that, but I think it should be okay if you've never read this and are interested in reading it.

Dan: We should talk about the structure of the show, too. So structure-wise for the show, what we intend is every episode we're going to cover about one to two chapters of the book. So it's kind of easily digestible chunks for people to listen along with. And then by by the end of the series, after how many chapters that is for all three books, hopefully the TV show that just got announced a couple weeks ago will be closer to being on air, and then we'll discuss those as they go along. But the intention is for every show to kind of follow along as if it was a TV show, assuming the TV show is about one to two chapters of content a week.

Dan: In this episode, we're gonna talk about chapters one and two of The Three-Body Problem. In chapter one, we're introduced to Ye Wenjie who who witnesses her father, Ye Zhetai, getting murdered by a mob persecuting him for being a reactionary during the early stages of China's cultural revolution in 1967. They tried to make him say that the theory of relativity was an American capitalist idea but he wouldn't even despite his wife, Shao Lin, also a physics professor, trying to force him to do so in front of a gathered mob.

They considered the big bang theory that Ye Zhetai taught to be reactionary since prior to the big bang, there was nothing and leaves open the idea that there is a god, and Ye would not definitively say that there was no god, just that he didn’t know since there has been no evidence either way “according to science”.

In chapter two, three years later, Ye Wenjie is at the Production and Construction Corps, a labor camp in Inner Mongolia, responsible for cutting trees and dealing with the forest in an area surrounding the mysterious Radar Peak, where people noticed strange phenomena around the appearance of a antenna that seemed to make the ice melt and turned the snow to rain. There are also soldiers that have authorization to shoot anyone who approached the peak.

At the camp, Ye Wenjie meets Bai Mulin, a reporter that introduces her to Silent Spring, an American book that talks about the death of a small town from pesticides. Bai wants to write a letter to the government in Beijing saying that the work they’re doing to the forests of Inner Mongolia are harmful and should be stopped. He eventually asks Ye Wenjie to copy the letter he had written to make it more legible, and Ye agrees.

Later Ye Wenjie is arrested and charged with being a reactionary when Bai Mulin says that she was the one that actually wrote the letter in order to save himself from charges.

Ye Wenjie is given the opportunity of leniency by signing a document, supposed to be written by her sister, saying that she had overheard conversations from her father about a defense project that he was supposed to have been working on. When Ye refuses to sign since she was not aware of the conversations, she is forced to remain in isolation in a cell in the freezing Inner Mongolian winter.

Jim: Unless you are really tuned into what's going on in China -- Dan, maybe more than the rest of us because he knows people who have lived in China and still live in China -- but I thought this is interesting in that this is like a really open acknowledgement that the Cultural Revolution is bad. And for like, a really long time ago, a long time, they weren't allowed to say that.

Dan: In case the people don't know, the author, Liu Cixin is actually like Chinese and wrote this in China, originally in Chinese and has translated to English. So like Jim is saying, it's not only, like an interesting perspective that you normally wouldn't hear, but it's someone who is come from growing up in China and kind of recognizing the fact that, like, some of the reactions that happen to the Cultural Revolution cause like this great harm.

Tim: Now, I think that's the most interesting part, for me, at least, because since we so know, so little about the actual plot, at this point is just kind of a lot of points being made about the Cultural Revolution. I think what I found kind of interesting in the first chapter was, at first, I was a little confused, because I wasn't sure what these actual rebel groups actually represented in here. I know the basic outline of the Cultural Revolution and all that. But the fact that they were kind of depicting the sort of sub-factions within it. Because at first, I was wondering, "Why are they shooting at this young girl at the top of the ... ?" I guess I didn't quite grasp what was first until I read up on their Red Guard and the factions within, like, what exactly was going on there. Because they kind of all seem to be on the same side, but I really didn't realize that this like student faction was basically, "We're more, we're more Maoist than you even." Like violence erupted between factions, even within the Red Guard.

Jim: Yeah, I think it's like most revolutions, I think, have like this kind of thing that usually that's sort of swept under the rug, where there's a chance for everybody to seize power. And this is no exception here. The weird thing about ... So I read about the Cultural Revolution before, you know, classy, highly literary style by reading a comic book called A Chinese Life where it was about this guy's biography about... At the time he wrote it 10 years ago, he's like a eighty year old man. So he lived through all this, everything was up for grabs. And like, just like in this chapter, there were mobs of 14 year old kids who just rounded up their teachers from school. And then were able to just come up with all sorts of reasons they were anti-revolutionary. And then would just ... In the thing I read, they didn't actually kill them. But I don't doubt that that really happened. Much like here. Yeah, they killed this professor, in case you missed it in this chapter. I'm talking to the listener, I guess.

Amin: I think the other thing that was interesting to me about this contextually is I think the book was published in 2008, which was when I believe is also when the Beijing Olympics happened. So I feel like in the years leading up to that China was very much changing how they are seen globally So to me, it was interesting that such a divergent perspective was being reintroduced in popular media when the Chinese were doing doing the opposite to prepare for the Olympics.

Tim: It seems like this book, or at least this series and this author, has kind of been like the flagship for China opening up I think that's generated a lot of interest in Chinese sci fi and all that and I guess I'm not clear on the timeline as to this book, something that is critical of the Cultural Revolution even be allowed to be exported, even 10 years prior?

Jim: Yeah. How much can they? Do you have to know? What can you ... what are you allowed to say? Are you allowed to say, "Mao was bad?" Obviously you are because you didn't say it outright but he basically said, "Mao was bad," in this first chapter.

Tim: To clarify the the author is Chinese and currently residing in China, is he not?

Dan: He is.

Jim: Yes, and he's a Chinese nationalist. We can talk about that later. But he's not like, "Oh, I'm critical of China and I hate China."

Dan: One of the things I found kind of jarring when I first read the book is I picked up this book because I heard it was hardcore science fiction. And I just went, yeah, I thought it'd be interesting to read something like that. But then I read these first two chapters, and I was like, "What is the science? Where's the science fiction?" Is that your experience as well? Did you expect this kind of opening?

Jim: I did, because ... Well, I mean, I didn't expect obviously this exact opening. But hard science fiction often does have, like some kind of political connection. It's not about your science, or things like Ted Chiang, an American sci fi author, often has political stuff going on, usually making a statement about something weird stuff going on with AI. Philip K. Dick is generally acknowledged as -- even though he doesn't get into super detailed stuff -- is usually thought of as fairly hard sci fi. It's usually the center concept of most of the stories. But he did things like Man in the High Castle, which is about, "What would happen if the Axis won World War Two?" things like that? So, again, it's a legitimate response to be surprised, I think, but I wasn't surprised.

Tim: Well, yeah, I knew that this had some historical background. And the first few chapters remind me a little bit of Neil Stevenson's stuff, like his Baroque Cycle, or Cryptonomicon, which is kind of like sci fi, but it's sort of historical sci fi. So it reminds me a little bit of Cryptonomicon, if you've ever read that book.

Jim: I will say, though, that Liu Cixin knows how to end a book.

Tim: Oh, unlike Neil Stevenson?

Jim: Yeah.

Tim: He's very entertaining along the way, but yeah, it's a little meandering.

Jim: And I think I think Liu Cixin should give himself more credit. There's a New Yorker interview where he talked about, "I don't really care about characters. I'm just kind of interested in the concepts and stuff like that."

Tim: That's very Michael Crichton-like, actually.

Jim: But he did actually establish motivations and stuff. Some of the characters you see in these first two chapters... These events in these first two chapters, sort of drive them. So maybe that's like table stakes, or something for establishing why somebody would do something, but he did it. Some authors would just be like, "Well, they just did this because whatever, I don't care, here's the cool sci fi stuff."

Dan: Obviously, it takes a while for it to come around to really understand why things are -- why they showed this at the beginning, or why he talked about this beginning. It wasn't quite clear to me when I first read it, like, you know, why do I care? I want I just want a science fiction, right? Why do I need like all this background about cultural revolution, all this stuff?

Jim: I find that stuff interesting in and of itself.

Dan: It's interesting, but it's not what I was -- but not what I signed up for. That's not ... I didn't sign up for like a book about the history of the Cultural Revolution. But I will say that it all makes -- it does all come together, like Jim is saying, at the end.

And I think there is a common refrain of Liu Cixin being not great at defining characters, giving characters depth. There's hits and misses along the series. But Ye Wenjie gets a lot of the depth behind her.

Tim: That's common amongst hard sci fi, Michael Crichton excepted.

Jim: I would actually say that he's ... Yeah, there's that and he's sort of a systems writer. He creates a system and it just kind of works it. I would say that his characters are not that much less deep than George RR Martin's characters. That's another dude that just says, "I've created this world. I've created this system. I sort of have these mental rules. And then I just like," ... he just kind of lets everything go.

Dan: I'm not sure I agree with that. I don't think anyone in this series comes up to the level of Tyrion or Cersei or even Jamie Lannister. I don't think anyone's as fully... Some of the characters in that series, like the Starks, are kind of boring, but they're supposed to be, right? But I think there's a lot more character depth in the Game of Thrones series.

Jim: I don't know. Okay, I mean, there is more. So this is where it's going to be hard to argue because you can't quantify this. But I'm sort of saying there's a little bit more depth in characters in a story like that or like how imagine like something like Robert Jordan or something like that. But not not that much or so maybe maybe a better comparison... Because, yeah, I guess George RR Martin has created some characters that people are really attached to and excited about. Not me though.

Tim: It's a what it's a way longer series and you just spend a lot more time in those characters heads.

Jim: So that's true. Yeah. But like Tolkien is sort of like this, right? I mean, sure his characters are beloved. But are they really that deep, like, something like Frodo is the guy? So I've been reading Lord of the Rings with my my son for a year. But Frodo is just the guy that just kind of hangs on and just tries to keep on going, even though the ring is tempting him to do stuff. There's not really that much to him. What's interesting about Lord of the Rings to me is these are all characters in like a larger system; they have a part to play in a larger world. And I think that kind of writing is valid, I think. But if you compare the characters in The Three-Body Problem to Lord of the Rings -- yeah, okay, there's maybe a little bit more depth to it. Maybe something like Bilbo or something like that, that has some personality. But something like Aragorn -- he's just a brave dude who's brave all the time. Does some ranging and he could fight with two swords and all that stuff. And he's noble. And he doesn't do things wrong.

I think Liu Cixin was actually saying in that New Yorker article .. Oh I think was the author of the New Yorker article, it was saying, "Well, scientists do this. And doctors do this, and cops do this. And then he just has them kind of do them." And that's not really worlds apart from writing we think of as not sci fi -- that we don't lambast having shallow characters. There's a tiny difference.

Tim: I think what we're talking about is just common with fantasy and sci fi. They're usually not character studies. They're usually more concerned with world building and plot. Or in fantasy's case, its world and its mythologies; sci fi with its ideas and all that. So it's not... I mean, you could call it a weakness of the genre, if that's what you're into. But yeah, that's common. Character studies... Deep character studies are usually set in real world settings or real world historical settings, because you're more concerned with realism than you are.

Jim: Yeah, and you don't want to set up the world and all that stuff.

Tim: I've read definitely read fantasy that is a character study and all that.

Dan: There's been some controversy that we kind of alluded to earlier about... After the TV show was announced, People had an interview with Liu Cixin about his opinions of how China is treating the Uighur minority in China. Which basically, it's not confirmed, but it's pretty much known that the China's set up concentration camps and reeducation camps for the Muslim minority there. And Liu Cixin says, "Yeah, they cause crime, and China needs to crack down on them." So there was a big reaction back towards Netflix, who started the show, or who picked up the show, to maybe cancel it because it doesn't jibe with reality that it's okay to set up concentration camps. But Netflix pretty much just said, "Yeah, we don't agree with it, but we still like the story."

Jim: What did he did he actually say something like, "They cause crime?" Or did he say ...

Dan: Yeah. He did.

Jim: Really? Oh, god, that's worse than I thought. Because I also reread that when you talked about it. I got the impression he said something like, he has this idea ... And I know he has this idea that, "In China, you have to have total order, and they are causing chaos," or something like that. But to cause crime?

Dan: I'll have to read the exact quote. But that's a common sentiment in China as well: that the Uyghurs come into ... the Muslim minorities come into cities in China and cause crime. And it's really just racist, right?

Jim: Yeah, pretty racist.

Dan: Americans do the same thing with with other minorities. So China's no different in that regard. And Liu Cixin is a Chinese nationalist, and kind of agrees with that sentiment.

I also don't agree with it, obviously. But I don't think the show should be canceled, because it's sort of outside the realm of the show. But we're in a weird moment, right?

Jim: That's very tricky. It'd be interesting -- not necessarily just to to judge what's right or wrong on on this issue, which is like really hard to figure out -- but how much money does go to him?

Dan: I have no idea.

Jim: Basically the only person in China -- and again, I don't know of many famous people in China -- the only one who speaks out against this stuff is Ai Weiwei the the artist? Everybody else always seems to be, "Well, you know, there's like a billion of us and there's just going to be total chaos if everyone just does whatever they want." So that's why I think in that New Yorker interview, Liu Cixin told that, that reporter, "If you were to become the president of China tomorrow, you would do exactly the same thing." And I could definitely poke holes in that, but that seems to be a bigger mystery of that point of view in general, in China. How do you get that to jibe with his interest in science, his interested in evidence-based decision making?

Tim: Yeah, it reminds me a little bit ... Obviously you know from the first chapter of this, obviously, his sympathies lie with Ye Zhetai. And it seemed like he's obviously on the side of ... It seems like he's anti-authoritarian, at least from his... And obviously interested in -- doesn't think that things like certain scientific books or anything like that should be labeled reactionary. So you get the impression that he's kind of anti-authoritarian in that sense. But, I guess it doesn't preclude him not having prejudices. It reminds me a little bit of, say, like Christopher Hitchens, for example. He was a obviously very anti-dogmatic and a lot of his ... and anti-religious and it was at least his early writings were kind of anti-authoritarian and anti-dogmatism and all that. And that ended up kind of coalescing into a pretty strong prejudice against Muslims. So I kind of suspect it might be the same thing here.

Jim: You could only go so far; you can't completely reconcile every contradiction in your head. And at some point, you're just like, "Oh, let's just just do... let's just do what, you know, she says, you know?"

Tim: Well, yeah, yeah.

Jim: All right.

Dan: Any final thoughts from anybody?

Jim: There's something interesting about other small things that are interesting about differences between American culture and Chinese culture, like the monsters and demons. Do you remember that part? Where they had, I looked this up on Wikipedia, there are special lists of bad guys to memorize during during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. So you got credit, basically, for memorizing this list of guys who are bad. And that's it, and it seems it seems very, very --, or just general, generally, East Asian. Here, we kind of eschew memorization, especially in the last 30 years or so. It's just like, "Oh, just look things up and spend your time on critical thinking." But I mean, there's something to memorizing things. Sometimes that actually is good for some things, but I thought that was interesting.

Tim: After the first two chapter I'm definitely intrigued. I read the dust cover. I know, it's about aliens at some point. So I'm just kind of curious how it gets from this kind of somewhat depressing, historical setting into aliens.

Amin: I didn't know that aliens were involved. So no.

Jim: Oh, man.

Tim: Well, I mean, I don't think it's a spoiler because if you read the dust cover for it, it's gonna say, "aliens."

Amin: I'm reading it digitally, so there is no dust cover. I don't care.

Jim: Yeah, I guess it's okay. It would be interesting to read this as... You know how some people lately are into watching movies without knowing what they're about? Like, they'll just say, "I'm just gonna go," I mean, pre-pandemic. "I'm just gonna go into this movie theater. And watch this movie based on the title." And it's supposed to be like when it actually connects supposed to be like a pretty big, pretty amazing experience.

Oh, the other thing I was wondering is, I don't know if anyone has any insight on this, but you know the part where Ye Zhetai says -- when they're like piling it on him -- and he says something like, "Let the cross I bear be even heavier." Is that a Chinese expression? "Bearing crosses"? It can't be, right?

Dan: It might have been from the English translation, maybe.

Jim: It's a Ken Liu thing, maybe? Okay. Cuz that took me out of it.

Amin: I'm pretty sure they do know what Christianity is though.

Jim: Yeah. But enough to know that?

Jim: Yeah. So the next chapter, right?

Dan: For the next time we'll read the next two chapters, which get into ... I won't even get into that. But it expands the story and introduces some new characters after that.

Jim: Oh, is that one cop in it, finally? That guy's the best.

Dan: I don't know when he comes in. No spoilers, Jim.

Jim: There's cops.

Dan: There's a cop, and he's awesome.

Jim: Yeah, we'll talk about him later. Like I feel I shouldn't think he's awesome, but he's nice to read when he comes in.

All right, well, that has been Rehydrate.