Refusing to let our enemies define us: the lesson Hong Qigong can teach us in the 21st century

ouyang feng fights hong qigongThere’s a section of Legend of the Condor Heroes / Eagle Shooting Heroes where most of the major characters are travelling across the East China Sea and in the process destroy several boats, lifeboats and rafts.
This section operates largely in broad-stroke morality, juxtaposing the murderous Ouyang Feng and his obsessively rapey nephewson Ouyang Ke against the stolid but dutiful Guo Jing, Huang Rong, who mostly just wants to be left alone to grieve and who wants to not have to avoid Ouyang Ke’s increasingly horrific advances on her, and their highly principled mentor Hong Qigong.

How many ships does it take to cross one sea?

The sequence begins when, following his engagement to Huang Rong, Guo Jing prepares to depart for the mainland from Peach Blossom Island, along with Hong Qigong and Zhou Botong.

Zhou Botong, who likes Guo Jing a lot but who likes causing trouble more, stirs up trouble between Guo Jing and his future father in law, Huang Yaoshi: a polymath who suffers from a host of psychological issues including an inability to handle anger in the slightest, and suicidal ideation.

As a result of this they aren’t sufficiently warned that the boat they’re on is an intricate death trap, designed by Huang Yaoshi as the instrument of his eventual suicide. It gets out to open sea and then begins collapsing.

Ship 1 down.

Ship 2

Ouyang Feng and Ouyang Ke had also come to Peach Blossom Island. Ouyang Ke wanted to take Huang Rong as his wife – this is creepy as all hell since he’s literally twice her age (he’s about 30 while she’s maybe 16) and since he’s previously made several aggressive advances toward her, all of which were quite thoroughly rebuffed. Seriously man, NO MEANS NO.

Anyway, having failed to convince Huang Rong’s father to give him her, the Ouyang family have decided to slink back off to their homes in some snake infested corner of the western hinterland.

However they see Guo Jing, Zhou Botong and Hong Qigong struggling against a sharknado (seriously) on the ruins of their sunken ship, and Zhou Botong and Guo Jing have something Ouyang Feng wants – so he rescues them.

It becomes clear that Zhou Botong won’t give Ouyang Feng what he wants so he manipulates the pranksterish old man into jumping back into the ocean, expecting him to be claimed by the waves. He then concentrates on extorting Guo Jing into giving him what he wants.

Guo Jing resists attempted poisonings, nighttime assaults, and a mass of snakes that would make Indiana Jones very unsettled.

And eventually it seems like Guo Jing is going to relent. So, of course Ouyang Feng immediately plots to murder everybody not named Ouyang basically immediately. And he does so by burning down the ship…

That he’s on…

Deliberately.

This ends up with Hong Qigong fighting him on the burning deck of his ship, while Guo Jing and Huang Rong (who arrives during the chaos and whose own ship becomes unavailable because her crew are shits) manage to secure the lifeboat.

A burning sail drops on Ouyang Feng and Hong Qigong does something inexplicable.

He saves the bastard.

Of course Ouyang Feng immediately stabs him in the back.

One boat, one island shipwreck and one raft later…

Everybody ends up shipwrecked on the same island. Hong Qigong is seriously injured from his fight with Ouyang Feng and Guo Jing and Ouyang Feng are nowhere to be found – believed at the time to be drowned.

Ouyang Ke begins trying to rape Huang Rong immediately. And she does a GOOD job of fighting him off. His first attempt, she stabs him in the leg, giving him a huge gushing gash.

The second time, she manages to use a set of armour that’s like mithril covered in needles to rebuff him.

The third time (you think he’d have got the message by now) she almost drowns him.

The fourth time (seriously, I said this guy was a creep) she drops a ten-ton boulder on his legs, pinning him where the inevitable tide WILL drown him, but only after half a day of excruciating agony.

So of course that’s when his dad turns up.

The long and short of it is that the good guys manage to survive Ouyang Feng’s visit to the island, and Guo Jing and Huang Rong are reunited, but the Ouyangs steal their raft off and disappear into the sea.

Of course not before Huang Rong sabotages the raft so that it’ll collapse the same way as ship #1.

They build a second raft and leave the island, heading back toward the mainland, when they hear the sounds of people screaming for help. It’s the Ouyangs, of course.

Huang Rong wants to leave the two villains to drown. Hong Qigong says no. They have to rescue the Ouyangs. Even though they’re both psychotics. Even though they almost certainly (and in fact do) try to murder everybody as soon as they’re on the new raft. And although I disagree with him on the action he chose, I think Huang Rong  was totally right here, I actually feel there’s something very important in the reasoning he uses as to why.

Because, of course, Huang Rong challenges him.

And he says it’s not about the quality of the Ouyangs. The Beggar’s Sect (the organization that Hong Qigong and Huang Rong are members of, the organization, in fact that he’s grooming her to become the new leader of) doesn’t leave people to drown or die.

Of course, Ouyang Feng immediately attacks (Huang Rong has efectively eliminated the threat that Ouyang Ke poses to anybody pretty much ever again, he’s just along for the ride at this point) and, just as with every other boat-oriented fight up to this point he ends up destroying the raft and dropping everybody back into the sea.

Now for all its absurdity (and it’s an incredibly absurd piece of fantasy, which will eventually end with Zhou Botong riding a shark like a horse) there are two things I love about this. And those things are in conflict.

First, I love that Huang Rong neutralizes Ouyang Ke all on her own. It’s a handling of rape that a lot of western books haven’t managed, even though this novel is over half a century old.

Ouyang Ke is a monster. And he gets his comeuppance repeatedly. Everytime he tries to abuse Huang Rong, he fails. And every time he fails he’s punished, by her, worse than the time before. By the time she’s done with him, he’s literally half the man he once was, his legs pulverized by ten tonnes of rock.

But I also love Hong Qigong’s unwillingness to let his enemies define him. He knows, by the time he rescues Ouyang Feng a second time, that his enemy won’t relent, won’t behave humanely. But for all of Ouyang’s monstrosity, he’s a person drowning on a ruined boat. And Hong Qigong follows a set of cultural norms that say “you don’t let people drown on ruined boats. Ever.” And he sticks to that.

Justice sometimes means being true to your ideals even when it might be a bad idea

But I said that there was a lesson here for the 21st century. And it’s not Huang Rong’s lesson – that it’s good to allow your fictional heroines to rescue themselves – though that’s a darn good lesson that a lot of authors should take to heart.

In fact it’s not a lesson for writers at all.

It’s a lesson for leaders and politicians.

In the early days of the 21st century we entered into a war in Afghanistan. The people our armies attacked there certainly acted inhumanely. They bullied civilians. They treated women as property to be used as they saw fit. They attacked indiscriminately at times, even when doing so might be as harmful to them as it was to their targets. The Taliban are, and were then, bad people.

But that doesn’t justify what we did.

Canadian culture in the second half of the 21st century is predicated on certain ideals: that war is cruel and that when our soldiers go abroad it should be as peacekeepers, not war makers; that torture is wrong; that child soldiers are victims; that people deserve due process under the law, that they are innocent until proven guilty.

In the first two decades of this century we’ve violated every one of those principles. Canadians have waged aggressive war. Canadians have sent child soldiers, knowingly to be tortured. Several people have been detained without due process. Declared guilty on a name and a skin colour.

Maher Arar – an innocent man, denied due process, detained and tortured.
Omar Khadr – a child soldier, a victim of the very same people who we called “enemy,” denied due process, detained and tortured.

And many others. They have been wronged. And we have wronged ourselves by allowing it. In the aftermath of something horrible, we decided we cared more about our loyalty to our neighbors to the south, to their anger and grief, than we did to the principles that define us.

In so doing we acted against a pretty awful group of people. But those actions caused us to betray our principles. We violated many of the better ideals that define us. And in so doing we acted with the same casual cruelty that we claimed to be fighting, harming victims and innocent people in our haste for imagined justice.

I’m all for villains getting their just desserts. When Huang Rong crushed Ouyang Ke under that boulder I cheered.

But I also see Hong Qigong’s point, not even so much in the particular, but in the abstract. If we want to be good people, if we want to be upright, it is important that we adhere to what is right.

And doing the right thing, being just, sometimes means the bad guys get away. And sometimes it means more trouble for us down the road when those same bad guys come around again and stir up more trouble.

That can happen. And that sucks.

But when the alternative is becoming the villains of our own story?

You know what? I can’t even really make a pretense of tying this back to the story from here on out. The torture report in the US is being back-paged by bullshit about Sony playing marketing games with a turkey of a movie because the opportunity to do so was handed to them by North Korea.

It’s cyinicism on all sides. The media reporting on the hacks: cynically driving clicks. Sony: cynically playing up patriotism and fear of the other to sell tickets. North Korea: cynically playing up the role of the crazy person to keep their enemies cautious and to feed their own propaganda machine. And the power brokers who own the media over here, cynically back-paging the relevant story, the one about the bad stuff happening in the States, bad stuff that we Canadans were fully complicit in, because they don’t necessarily hold the ideals of justice or uprightness in high regard. Not when there’s profit to be made.

Fuck Sony.

Fuck North Korea.

Here’s the torture report. Spread the word.

CIA Torture Report: "Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogat…

https://www.scribd.com/embeds/249656256/content?start_page=1&view_mode=scroll&show_recommendations=true

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Review: The Three Body Problem

The-Three-Body-Problem-Liu-CixinIf you read one Science Fiction book this year, make it the Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu. It is the first book in the Three Body trilogy, and an exceptional starting point for people interested in reading Chinese genre translations.

I really want to get into a thorough exploration of the work, but that’s going to tread into some spoilery territory, so what I’ll do is start with a brief review up top and then include the longer spoiler review at the bottom. I’ll provide ample warning, so if you haven’t read the Three Body Problem and want to be surprised you’ll get plenty of warning.

The non-spoiler review

The Three Body Problem starts with a gut-punch and never lets up from there. And that’s part of what makes this book so exceptional. Chinese fiction, especially, has a different pace and structure from western fiction. As a result, translations of Chinese novels often have issues with pace.

This is not the case here. Ken Liu has tread a very masterful line between preserving the cadence of speech and the structure of the story on one hand, while providing a book that flows correctly in English. If you’re familiar with works translated from Chinese it will still feel like a translation – but it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, easily on a par with the Shapiro translation of Outlaw of the Marsh, which has long been my gold standard. In fact, Liu’s translation likely exceeds even that one.

The impeccably paced story starts in the throes of one of the most tumultuous periods of the Cultural Revolution, before jumping to the near future. It introduces us to a world populated by scientists an soldiers, plutocrats and police. One scientist, Wang Miao, is recruited to investigate an unusual rash of suicides among theoretical physicists. The extra-governmental cabal that recruits him hints darkly that these deaths are part of an ongoing secret war.

As Wang digs deeper into the mystery his whole world begins to fall apart. And then there is that tantalizing video game…

Themes

Exploring topics including cycles of history, chaos and order, the lasting impact of violence on the psyche of survivors, string theory and first contact, it would be an understatement to say that the Three Body Problem is an ambitious book. However it is not a book in which ambition outstrips ability, and Liu Cixin manages to keep several thematic balls in the air with apparent ease, deftly tying the suggestion  that, “other than Stable Eras, all times are Chaotic Eras,” both to mathematical problems in chaotic systems and to politics.

Madeline Ashby recently discussed how she would like to do away with the idea that there is a binary division between hard and soft SF. I think The Three Body Problem provides a valuable example for why she’s right. This story is a scientifically rigorous story about scientists. And that’s effectively the operating definition for the hardest of the hard SF. And yet this is also a story which is entirely driven by the internal lives of its protagonists (and antagonists), and one which is much more interested in the impact of a cultural movement on the world than the direct impact on technology. These are both hallmarks of soft SF. And being constrained by neither of these binary positions it’s a better novel.

Characters

A few characters stand out: Wang Miao is an interesting protagonist – at times sharp witted and incisive, at other times retreating and confused. We’re invited to empathize with his sense of awe with the circumstances he’s thrust into, his vulnerability in the face of something much bigger than himself, while still being able to understand why he is the central figure for much of the story.

Ye Wenjie is another example of a beautifully complex character. Sometimes a kindly grandmother, other times a stubborn intellectual, always somebody struggling with the remnants of post-traumatic stress that was never allowed to heal, she is the thread that connects the disparate times and themes of the book most closely and is wonderfully rendered.

Shi (Da Shi) Qiang would have been the hero of a lesser work. This morally suspect disgraced soldier and failing cop is a man whose main failing seems to be a total inability to keep his mouth shut. And yet his bluff charm, easy humour and impish ingenuity make him lovable, even when it becomes clear he’s pretty much a total psychopath. Positioning him as a foil to the cerebral Wang Miao helps to establish this story as happening in the world – and gives the story enough dirt under its nails to remove it from what might otherwise seem an ivory tower parlour mystery.

This is about all I can say without venturing into spoiler territory.

So be forewarned.

If you haven’t read the book and want to avoid spoilers turn back now.

The spoiler review

Chaotic systems and cyclical systems

Compare the Trisolarian statement that, “other than Stable Eras, all times are Chaotic Eras” with the thesis of the first Chinese novel, “a kingdom long united must divide, a kingdom long divided must unite,” and we can see a through-line in the idea of history as a cyclical process.

And yet, where Luo Guanzhong saw destiny and inevitability, Liu Cixin instead invites chaos and unpredictability. While it is true that history cycles between periods of relative stability and harmony, and periods of conflict, he proposes, we cannot know when such a period will end, or even the form the conflict will take.

The factional divides within the ETO mirror the previous factional divides in the Red Guard so closely. Both are born of idealism. Both invite the disaffected. Both fall first into fanaticism and then into nihilism and both are ultimately most vulnerable to internal divisions brought about by their own fanaticism.

What lends an air of cyclicality to this is the way in which Ye Wenjie is so effectively demonstrated as a victim of the Cultural Revolution. She watches her father be murdered for refusing to compromise his principles. She watches her mother morph into something she can barely recognize in order to survive. This is a relationship she is never able (or even particularly motivated) to recover. She learns second-hand of her sister’s death but we, as the audience, are given the opportunity to witness this otherwise disconnected event in almost lurid detail: the passion of the believer and the ultimate futility of her death presented in language more poetic than the rest of the book.

She suffers betrayal at the hands of a would-be friend because he is in a position to avoid punishment for daring to have a differing opinion by casting the blame on her. Her refuge is effective a prison overseen by the military – and by the time she arrives there, almost dead, she is more than willing to sign away any vestige of freedom in exchange for nothing more than security.

And so her decision that humanity is incapable of governing itself, and the extreme action she takes to ensure that the Trisolarians are able to discover the location of the earth are understandable as a person in the depths of powerful post-traumatic stress. The world stabilizes around her, but she doesn’t even notice because she’s so wrapped in her own pain.

And yet, the organization that grows out of her actions, the one she becomes the titular commander of (even if not so much in actual function) rapidly falls into the same factional in-fighting and extremism that informed the cultural revolution.

Out of her desire to save humanity from the destruction of its own Chaotic Eras, she sows the seeds for the collapse of the next Stable Era.

Wang Miao, on the other hand, is very much a product of stable times. When we first meet him, he tells a gang of police and generals to get lost, secure that his position of relative wealth and prestige is sufficient to protect him. And it works – they have to plead with him to come to a meeting with them. They can’t just compel cooperation from Wang like previous government forces did from Ye. Furthermore, though he might have been old enough to remember at least the end of the Cultural Revolution, we never learn much at all about what he was doing at that time. It’s the Deng era of opening up and stability that define his experience.

It’s unsurprising he’s reluctant to involve himself in a shadowy conflict when he’s got such a pleasant bourgeois life.

This makes his shock when the world starts twisting into something far weirder all the more intense and poignant.

While Ye, unable to recognize the arrival of peace, and unwilling to accept that the world has stabilized makes a terrible and portentous decision because she can’t accept peace, it is ultimately the idea that the world is descending into chaos that Wang struggles with most.

By the time he’s willingly stringing his monofilament lines across the Panama Canal, watching unflinchingly as it slices a sailor into several pieces, we realize how tenuous our sense of comfort is – how any time the world might descend into chaos.

Shi Qiang presents one final view of how people relate to chaos and stability. He’s not broken by chaos like Ye, nor must he learn to adapt like Wang. Rather he thrives off chaos.

This “demon” laughs, teases and boozes his way through situations that leave the people around him reeling. It’s Shi who sees something fishy in the “miracles” sent to confound Wang, Shi who suggests using Wang’s monofilament to take the Adventist base and  he expresses no remorse either at the deaths of all the Adventists, or of the limited civilian casualties the plan will cause. He even suggests attacking during the day to minimize the risk that sleeping Adventists might survive.

When the Trisolarians send their final message to Earth, declaring everyone there insects, Ye goes to watch the sun set on Humanity in the place where she doomed it. Wang descends into depression. And Qiang leads his allies to a town afflicted by locusts.

He points out that the locusts might be as beneath humans as the humans appear to be beneath Trisolarians. But the locusts still thrive, despite everything humanity does. Even though humans never had to deal with the madness of living on a planet in a trinary star system, adapting is something we’re adept at. Shi Qiang invites chaos. It’s his constant ally.

Science in the Three Body Problem

There are a few interesting branches of science discussed or extrapolated from in the Three Body Problem. Since it is science fiction I figured I should at least touch on them.

 The Three Body Problem

The titular problem is a classical physics dilemma. While two bodies act on each other in a predictable fashion, they move toward each other unless acted upon by an outside force, introducing a third body causes the system to become chaotic.

The near impossibility of the task occupies much of the Three Body game segments of the story – as Wang learns the history of the Trisolarian attempt to chart the behavior of their solar system sufficiently to be able to survive its Chaotic Eras and maximize its Stable Eras.

There’s also multiple instances of factions divided into threes within the book: Battle Command, the ETO and the Trisolarians for example, or within the ETO, the Adventists, Redemptionists and Survivalists. These allow this classical problem to both serve as a metaphor for the conflicts of disparate groups, and to be reflected by the chaotic actions of the various factions.

A solar antenna

I’m not certain how fantastical this is. But Liu’s description of Ye Wenjie using the sun as a supermassive antenna for trans-solar transmission is really cool. It made me want to learn more.

String theory

I’m still not entirely sold on string theory. It remains resistant to experimental verification and isn’t parsimonious. That said, the Trisolarian plot depends on unfolding protons from 11 dimensional string theoretical complexity into 2 dimensions in order to create proton-sized artificial intelligences. This leads to one of the most beautifully abstract areas of the text, which I loved every moment.

Nanotube Monofilament

These things are starting to exist in the real world. How long before we get Wang Miao’s weaponized version?

Wrap-up

The Three Body Problem is a tour de force of speculative fiction. It fluctuates frequently between wonder, humour and despair. Ultimately this is a story about how people break, and it breaks its protagonists beautifully. And yet, for all their brokenness it ends on a bitter note of hope.

This, when you consider the scope of Chinese fiction over the last 500 years, positions the story beautifully in the context of its antecedents.

If you regularly read translated SF you’ve probably already put the Three Body Problem on your to-read list.

If you don’t, this book is a perfect place to start, beautifully written and beautifully translated.