The Cultural Revolution (and Aliens)

This year sees the 50th anniversary of the commencement of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Image result for the three body problemBy coincidence, this year also saw the publication of the English translation of the last novel in the science-fiction trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past by Cixin Liu. Relatively few novels become successful in English translation, but his The Three-Body Problem (2008) won the 2015 Hugo Award for best novel in its English translation (2014). The Three-Body Problem opens with a section that some readers may have found disorienting. It went back in time, rather than forward, and the alienness was the psychology of the Cultural Revolution rather than that of a culture from another galaxy. Its central character is an astrophysicist who witnesses the death of her beloved father, a professor who is killed while he is being ritually humiliated for his views of physics. The action of the novel does eventually encompass an extra-terrestrial civilisation and it traces its chronological way from 1960s China through to the present and into the future. Alongside its narrative is an account of changing politicised views of science in a milieu where the speculations of contemporary physics are actively scrutinised for their compatibility with party policy. It brought home to me that in an academic system that is strictly controlled by the government, mathematics and the physical sciences can be as ideologically charged as humanities subjects such as history, philosophy and literature.

See my related article on China and censorship in UK on November 1st (English Edition)

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