The Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region is one of the greatest ongoing atrocities in the world. Over one million ethnic Uyghurs have been imprisoned, relocated, and sent to forced labor camps where they make, among other things, Covid-19 masks. The treatment of Uyghurs is an unironic talking point for many Republican senators under the “China Bad” banner. So desperate are they to point at the liberal entertainment industry (under the unending “Liberals Bad” banner), that now Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem is a Republican talking point.
The conflict centers around comments Liu made in an expansive and outstanding New Yorker interview from 2019 authored by Jiayang Fan. Normally careful to avoid politics, a few beers (mixed with Southern Comfort) were enough to get him to comment when asked about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. Fan reports that
he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” The answer duplicated government propaganda so exactly that I couldn’t help asking Liu if he ever thought he might have been brainwashed. “I know what you are thinking,” he told me with weary clarity. “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” He sighed, as if exhausted by a debate going on in his head. “But that’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of health care, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy.”
This quote was enough to make some Republican senators – specifically Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee), Rick Scott (Florida), Kevin Cramer (North Dakota), Thom Tillis (North Carolina), and Martha McSally (Arizona) – foam at the mouth. Hence an angry letter to Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos was written to demand that the CCO explain how Netflix could possibly produce a series adaptation of the international Hugo award winning bestseller. “Does Netflix agree that the Chinese Communist Party’s interment of 1.8 to 3 million Uyghurs in internment or labor camps based on their ethnicity is unacceptable?” the letter asks. I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Netflix if they think the thousands of children held at the US-Mexico border under appalling conditions by the US Republican Party is unacceptable?
Fortunately, I’m not the CCO of Netflix, who responded by saying “We do not agree with his comments, which are entirely unrelated to his book or this Netflix show.”
The thing is, Liu’s comments aren’t entirely unrelated to his book. It’s hard to understate Liu’s notoriety in China. The New Yorker interview was conducted while Liu was in Washington D.C. to receive the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation’s Award for Imagination in Service to Society, which could not have been more fitting as Liu is very much China’s Arthur C. Clarke. Liu has received countless honors both in China and abroad, and his international reputation is a source of pride for the Chinese government. He is credited with bringing science fiction into the mainstream in China, with his novella The Wondering Earth adapted into China’s first science fiction blockbuster, becoming the third highest grossing Chinese film in history. In the western world, Clarke was one of the writers that brought science fiction into the mainstream. He was a scientist, inventor, and television host. His most well known books include 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Rendezvous with Rama. The latter contains this gem:
Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take. He was quite sure that at least one serious space accident had been caused by acute crew distraction, after the transit of a well-upholstered lady officer through the control cabin.
Now you might dismiss that by saying that it was written in the 1950s. Except it wasn’t written in the 1950s, it was written in 1973 in the middle of Second-wave Feminism, two years after Helen Reddy released “I Am Woman.” I can not, and will not, defend the above quote, but that does not say anything about the quality of the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is a phenomenally trippy ride. Despite what Star Trek fans will tell you, science fiction is not the best source of material to build a moral belief system. Science fiction authors hold a funhouse mirror to their society and show us glory or absurdity. Having a black woman on the bridge of the starship Enterprise was a strong vision of equality in 1966, but it is equally interesting to me that the vision the studio was comfortable with was one where that bridge officer’s sole job was to answer the telephone. Notably, the original Star Trek pilot had a white woman (Gene Roddenberry’s future wife) as first officer, but the studio nixed that idea in part because test audiences found her to be “too bossy.”
If you only accept art from people you agree with morally then you will rapidly find yourself robbed of some great art. Lovecraft was a racist. Asimov was a sexual predator. J.K. Rowling is a transphobe. These facts stand next to their literary careers, but don’t – and shouldn’t – overshadow them. Nor should their accomplishments hide these deplorable opinions. Art that you love was created by imperfect human beings. Since nobody is perfect that should not come as a shock to anyone. Art speaks to us each on an individual level, which the authors have little control over. The magic of fiction is that authors place something before us, but what we take away can be much greater than the material given. Words on a page can turn into self realizations of life changing magnitude. The simple existence of a black lady on a spaceship three hundred years in the future became a sign of hope to African American children living through segregation, inspiring them to pursue careers in science. As a young girl, Whoopi Goldberg famously ran to her mother after seeing an episode of Star Trek and exclaimed “Momma! There's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!” Whoopi has since been a lifelong fan of all things Trek, which led her to request – and receive – a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Liu’s stories are fascinating, and he is undeniably a great writer. I’ve read The Three-Body Problem and one of his short stories titled Taking Care of God. In the latter, white bearded aliens come to Earth, having created all life as a means to establish an old-folks home for themselves. We are told that this is the normal course of societal evolution, and the “God” civilization is in its twilight. I interpreted the story as a metaphor for the difficulty and sacrifice in having to care for elderly family members, something that is a major aspect of Chinese culture. This cultural need is a great financial burden, as discussed in the story, but it also offers a great opportunity for knowledge and growth – if it is not squandered. Like all great science fiction, Liu’s work is full of cultural metaphor and reflection, but any reflection must come through the eyes of the author. Just as we see Clarke’s opinion of women in the above passage, we see Liu’s interpretation of his own society throughout his works. Fan describes a scene from Liu’s writing which is often marked by unconscionable moral choices.
An episode in the trilogy depicts Earth on the verge of destruction. A scientist named Cheng Xin encounters a gaggle of schoolchildren as she and an assistant prepare to flee the planet. The spaceship can accommodate the weight of only three of the children, and Cheng, who is the trilogy’s closest embodiment of Western liberal values, is paralyzed by the choice before her. Her assistant leaps into action, however, and poses three math problems. The three children who are quickest to answer correctly are ushered on board. Cheng stares at her assistant in horror, but the young woman says, “Don’t look at me like that. I gave them a chance. Competition is necessary for survival.”
Is this a criticism or an endorsement of the cold logic of survival? It’s unclear, but it doesn’t have to be clearly one way or another. Put another way, do you read it as a criticism? Maybe you read it as a reflection of the idea that in the face of complete destruction our compassion will evaporate, leaving only cold logic. Liu’s original intention is irrelevant outside of an academic discussion.
Liu has stated that his work is not political. “The whole point is to escape the real world!” he says. Many authors have used that refrain when they face criticism or censorship for their work. I can’t blame Liu for echoing that claim. Maybe he doesn’t think his work is political, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t. His writing has elevated him through a system where elevation is fraught with challenges of being born in the right place and to the right people (not unlike the USA). He is living a good life – a dream life – and he wants to keep it that way. Maybe he believes what he said and maybe he doesn’t, but we don’t have to live in the system he lives in.
In a way, maybe he’s right. Like I mentioned, we have camps in the USA that house people our society identifies as Others. Maybe “ordinary folks” don’t really care about that type of thing. Maybe, in the end, neither do Republican senators.
As I write this the power is out. I’m more prepared for this situation than most. I use a UPS backup battery to supply power to my modem and router, so I can have internet if my power goes out for up to about an hour. The UPS died about three hours ago. A cold front is moving down from Canada, and Denver, Colorado – about six hours drive north of us – experienced 100 degree temperatures just two days ago but is under a winter weather advisory for the rest of the week. This same cold front has brought sixty mile per hour winds to my city, resulting in local power outages caused by isolated line falls, meaning there isn’t just one problem to fix. Of course, any repair has to happen thirty feet up in these winds, so I’m not hopeful it will actually be back on by nightfall, as presently estimated.
Normally, we’d go out to eat somewhere that still has power. Of course it would have to be takeout because of the global pandemic. We’re going to stay in though, because apart from driving in these high winds it’s been kind of hard to breathe outside what with the thousands of wildfires burning from here to California. I’ve found myself wishing that my cloth Covid mask would also filter out the smoke. I guess what I really need is an N95 mask, but those are in short supply and I haven’t seen any around.
I think that covers pestilence, ecological devastation, climate upset, collapse of modern infrastructure, and scarcity of resources. I guess I should be really angry, but I can’t muster it. We’re basically living in a classic science fiction dystopia, and I don’t mean that in the “I like science fiction so this is neat!” sort of way, but in the “This is horrible, but we knew it was coming” way.
Mostly, I’m just tired. For decades now scientists have been saying that this kind of shit would start happening. More frequent wildfires, global pandemics (most recently this comically timed report from September 2019), climate upset, and a level of human suffering that we’ve not seen in modern times. Of course, we didn’t do anything about it. I guess we brought reusable bags to the grocery store. Maybe that helped?
Don’t get me wrong, my present off-the-grid state is not worthy of a claim of “human suffering.” My power will come back on, probably by dawn. The wildfires will burn themselves out or be put out (so far that second one has not been very successful). One day this pandemic disease will be contained (but I’m not optimistic about how soon that will be). The problem is that although these present difficulties will pass, there is no honest expectation that the overall trend will get any better. The present state of our planet is already worse than the “worst case” climate models, and many climate scientists are saying that we’ve crossed the point of stopping some level of substantial climate shift. It wasn’t a question of not listening. I think we listened, we just decided that we didn’t really care.
As I think about what the future will look like, I find myself picturing a trip to the grocery store while wearing a respirator to keep out the pollutants and viruses. I walk past white supremacists screaming that everything would be fine if we just didn’t let women be in charge of anything. It’s a future that I’m familiar with given a lifetime of reading science fiction. Lots of people misunderstand what speculative science fiction is about. People fixate on how science fiction never predicted the rise of computers, or the power of feminism. Science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, it’s about holding a fun house mirror to the society of today in order to call attention to some aspect of ourselves. Science fiction futures are about an extrapolation of today to the world of tomorrow. In that respect, decades ago when science fiction writers looked at pollution and uncontrolled population growth they knew what was up (see Make Room! Make Room! and Caves of Steel). They tried to warn us, and we definitely listened since those books have sold millions of copies, but we took the wrong message from the writing. Too many people took the entertainment and not the warning. Too many people read those books and thought “Wow, what a wacky future!” and not “Oh damn, that’s the path we’re on.”
The wind outside is blowing large detritus around. My son just said he’s scared. His mom told him that “You don’t have to be scared, you just have to be alert to what might happen.” She’s a smart lady, my wife. At this point I guess all we can do is be alert.
I suppose it was only natural, but we have witnessed the morphing of fame into celebrity, and the result is alarming. If you’ve never thought about the difference between the two then it might not be obvious what I mean. Fame pertains to a general recognition for outstanding achievement. There is nothing wrong with fame in and of itself. One can be famous within their profession, or more broadly famous as is the case with popular actors and comedians. Celebrity is the state of being celebrated, acclaimed, or widely known due to specific accomplishments. Not so long ago, well liked politicians were famous, now far too many are celebrities. Exactly how this came to be is beyond me, so I’m not going to address that here. What I want to talk about is an even more insidious practice than elevating people to the level of celebrity: when those people embrace that celebrity.
Don’t think that’s a problem? Consider that an appalling number of reporters and political pundits have been elevated to celebrity status in recent years. In our vapid shock-and-awe obsessed news landscape only those reporters that bow before the altar of celebrity can really get ahead. Jake Tapper is a prime example. Wikipedia lists him as a journalist, novelist, and cartoonist. He’s a cartoonist now. I mean, great. I’m sure his art skills were such that he could have succeeded without his already big name. Then again, maybe not.
I recently came across Cameo, a website/company that allows celebrities to offer short personalized video messages to fans for a fee. At first glance it seems innocuous enough. Upon closer inspection it’s horrible. You can watch videos that people have paid for as examples of what you get from each celebrity, and there is something remarkably skeezy about them. I think it’s the fact that the videos pose as sincere off-the-cuff greetings while we know exactly how much people paid for them. I guess what you’re really buying is the knowledge that you got a celebrity to acknowledge your existence, and the idea that that has literal value in and of itself is unfathomable to me. But my general problems with Cameo are moot compared to the following question. What happens when a political pundit embraces their celebrity and puts themselves on Cameo to make a few extra bucks?
Fox News commentator and Trump supporting millennial Tomi Lahren recently got a lesson in what happens when you let people tell you what to say. Comedian Ali Asghar-Abedi spent $85 on Cameo to get Lahren to thank all the Indian fans of Donald Trump and to say that “President Trump is wise like an ullu.” First off, why would Tomi Lahren have fans in India? I openly acknowledge that she has fans in America, but what would Indians care about what she has to say? More importantly, ullu is Hindi for “owl” but what matters here is the cultural context. In English, being associated with an owl is a sign of wisdom. In Hindi, being associated with an owl means that you’re a fool. So a comedian got Tomi Lahren to call Donald Trump a fool in Hindi. Childish? Yes. Funny? Kind of. But here’s the thing: in interviews Ali Asghar-Abedi said that he was trying to make a point, and I think he succeeded brilliantly. Lahren could have easily Googled ullu and discovered its associations with foolishness. Such due diligence is the least you would expect from someone whose entire career is built upon their voiced opinions of things. But no, she was happy to take $85 to voice an opinion exactly opposite to her own. Ali Asghar-Abedi is quick to point out that we shouldn’t jump on Lahren for this, as he firmly believes that many pundits wouldn’t check the meaning of what they are saying. He’s probably right.
If a pundit will take $85 to record a one minute video with little to no interest in understanding what they are saying, then how much integrity do you think that person will have when they accept tens of thousands of dollars to show up on random talk shows to offer their opinion? Why would anyone listen to such a person?
Well, because they’re a celebrity.
Ever since I moved into my first apartment I’ve always had a place at home to work. Sometimes it was a desk, but more often it was just a comfortable chair where I could use a laptop for hours on end, usually to write. My present employer had a liberal telework policy even before Covid-19, so I requested the opportunity to have a scheduled work-from-home day once every two weeks. I’ve been doing that level of teleworking for the last four years, and when I would mention it to coworkers they would remark that they couldn’t work from home. “There are just too many distractions,” they would tell me. As you might expect, those same coworkers have not been faring too well these last three months. Other coworkers had told me that they didn’t have a place to work at home. Though several of them have since made spaces, some have just committed to working at the kitchen table. Some haven’t had a choice, as the work-from-home pandemic has resulted in a shortage in office furniture as demand has skyrocketed, but also as raw materials (i.e. plastic) are diverted to PPE production.
The pandemic is nowhere near ending, so the white collar masses are unlikely to return to business spaces anytime soon. Some are arguing that maybe we shouldn’t – or won’t want to – return to the office in pre-pandemic numbers. Now that mass telework has been forced on employers, some are seeing benefit and opportunity, especially the massive social media companies that other corporations tend to watch. Facebook announced in July that within the next ten years they expect half of their employees to be on permanent telework. In May, Twitter said that many employees could work from home “forever.” Back in late July, one month after New York City officials gave the green light for employees to return to work, more than 90% of Manhattan office workers were choosing to continue to work from home.
I have a number of friends with jobs that saw them predominantly, or entirely, teleworking in the years leading up to the pandemic. That percentage of the work force had been growing steadily, but post-pandemic many are expecting that we will have jumped years ahead in the trend. This change has the potential to be transformative. I have a few coworkers that had never worked from home and quickly came to love it. My wife professes to enjoy seeing me more, and having complete control of my environment has helped lessen the frequency of my migraines.
If we don’t have to go to the office, how many of us will choose to? If, say, 20% of the white collar workers in rent-bloated cities choose full-time telework, why wouldn’t they move out of the city to get more space for less elsewhere? Since the majority of Democratic voters are concentrated in cities, what would a mass office exodus do to political demographics? Many of our housing decisions are based on where we work. If work will allow us to live hundreds of miles away, then how will we choose where to live? Some would undoubtedly still choose cities, but there is a difference between living in a city of half a million inhabitants and living in a metropolis with eight million other people.
Science fiction writer and editor Frederik Pohl is attributed with saying, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” The earliest written appearance of this concept seems to be a 1953 essay by Isaac Asimov where he said “It is easy to predict an automobile in 1880; it is very hard to predict a traffic problem. The former is really only an extrapolation of the railroad. The latter is something completely novel and unexpected.” (Yes, I can connect almost anything to Asimov. He wrote so much, and about so many things, that it’s not that hard.) Science fiction predicted the rise of computers, but famously underestimated their impact. Interestingly, Clifford Simak, my favorite science fiction writer, did predict the death of the city, not through telework but through another dystopian motivation. In the short story “City,” which constitutes the opening chapter of his likewise titled novel, the protagonist argues with the few remaining residents of his city:
"The city failed," he said, "and it is well it failed. Instead of sitting here in mourning above its broken body you should rise to your feet and shout your thanks it failed.
American cities may become deserted. Not because they are easy targets for nuclear weapons, but because they are easy targets for viruses. Some countries can’t afford to disperse; they need cities to house their populations. The United States has two and a half times the population of Japan, but twenty-four times the surface area. We could space out, lessen the spread of infectious diseases that are only going to get more prevalent, and fundamentally change the way we live and work as a society.
Then again, if Simak had one flaw it was his unwavering belief that the best life – maybe the only life worth living – was the country life. I don’t roll that way. I lived that life for a few years and didn’t care for it. Cities won’t die as Simak hoped, but they could definitely stand to be less densely packed. If you can choose to live in a megalopolis or a moderate sized city, why choose the megalopolis when rent is three and a half times as much, especially if you can make the same money?
Every few years the old “I don’t want my musicians to be political” rant crops up, almost always from conservatives. Songs are essentially poetry set to music, and like any form of writing, many of the best and most endearing songs have something to say. Of course, only in our modern polarized political climate would art with a social message be “political.” If the present Covid-19 crisis has taught Americans anything, it’s that “wearing a mask during a pandemic” is somehow political.
Songs with social messages go back at least as long as audio recordings opened the possibility of a message reaching a mass audience. Just like there wasn’t much use in writing essays critiquing social structure before the printing press allowed you to reach people outside your immediate social bubble, mass distribution of music made it possible for original art to spread to a broad audience. The 1960s and 1970s saw the creation of some of the most timeless songs of women’s empowerment, from Aretha Franklin’s Respect to Helen Reddy’s I am Woman. Songs of acceptance and love took many forms, from the simple beauty of Harry Belafonte’s Turn the World Around, to the more subversive Lola by The Kinks which got many in the 1970s to sing along to transgender acceptance. I personally can’t think of protest music without Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth popping into my head, and those lyrics have come to me a lot these days.
Unsurprisingly, the blues genre has a long history of speaking about black oppression in America. Billie Holiday’s song Strange Fruit, based on a poem by a Jewish civil rights activist, brought a lot of heat down from white audiences in the 1940s, and even from the US Federal Government. Holiday’s clean tones and passionate singing evoke a strong poetic image.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
There is presently an explosion of social messaging across all music genres, which is undoubtedly a reflection of our times. Childish Gambino’s This is America, and the music video that goes along with it, is a masterpiece. Janelle Monáe’s albums contain a wealth of social messaging (one of the many reasons I love her work), and one of my favorites is Americans with this amazing stanza
I like my woman in the kitchen
I teach my children superstitions
I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand
A pretty young thang, she can wash my clothes
But she'll never ever wear my pants
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite modern artists who was taken from us at the height of his career by stomach cancer. Charles Bradley was heavily inspired by funk, in particular James Brown. In The World (Is Going Up in Flames) he desperately asks the listener who is to blame for all the world’s troubles. “Is it you? Or you?” before turning to himself and asking “Me?” then cries at the implication that it is his fault, representing the blame that a black man carries in America.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.