"Contact as Symbol": The Three-Body Problem, Go Set a Watchman, and Genre-Bending

I’ve ended up reading a lot of science fiction lately, and I’m finding it’s adding a very interesting layer to the way I read “literary” fiction. (I find that these kinds of genre distinctions are sort of offensive, or at least unhelpful, in both/all directions—especially now that I’m spending so much time thinking about how different literary traditions play off of and inform each other. So, caveat that I find genre categories useful in a limited way, mostly as they’re bent, crossed, and broken.)

By coincidence, the first two books I read in 2016 were The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. (I was late to both parties—the English edition of Liu’s book was released in late 2014, Lee’s in mid-2015, both to flurries of critical and public conversation that I sat out entirely.) Within their perhaps artificially separate spheres, both titles were treated as not only books but “literary events”—The Three-Body Problem as a milestone in the publication of science fiction in translation; Go Set a Watchman as the To Kill a Mockingbird follow-up we’d never dared to hope for—and possibly published as a result of elder abuse.

The two books are of course very different, in ways that I’d argue have much less to do with any absolute characteristics of genre than with their individual histories, circumstances of publication, and readers’ expectations. Without ambitions toward profundity, just as a simple example of how “literary” and “genre” works can easily converse in a reader’s mind, I’d like to point out that both Liu’s staggeringly complex novel of first contact with intelligent extra-terrestrial life and Lee’s uneven—sometimes poetic, sometimes didactic—return to the intricately bigoted world of Macomb County are novels of xenophobia and self-loathing. Liu’s characters struggle to map a speculative future against the legacy of the Cultural Revolution; Lee’s grapple similarly with the never-ending radiation of the American Civil War. In Go Set a Watchman, discussing both the Civil War and the front action’s focus on the NAACP and desegregation, Jean Louise’s uncle alleges that race is “incidental to the issue in this war […] to your own private war.” In The Three-Body Problem, Liu posits and then dramatizes what he calls the “contact as symbol” theory, the idea that “contact with an alien civilization is only a symbol or a switch. Regardless of the content of the encounter, the results would be the same.” Although the two books play out on vastly different scales and leave very different tastes in the reader’s mouth, they examine the same basic question: how humans react to an Other, and how much more that reaction often says about the person reacting than the person encountered.

With this accidental experience as a primer, I’m going to try in 2016 to simply to read widely and consider everything I consume in a single conversation, without unnecessary subdivisions of genre. (It’s fun and useful as well to consider individual, narrower traditions—I just don’t want to stop there.)

A final note, tangentially related: most of the controversy I’d been hearing about Go Set a Watchman—the book itself, rather than the circumstances of its publication—had to do with the revelation of Atticus Finch as an inveterate racist. Personally I found this element of the novel well-written, convincing, and profound, partly as an accident of the timing of its publication—the reader’s revelation mirrors Scout’s, and we all learn together not to build individuals—fiction or real—into icons of morality, absolute and infallible heroes. I’m surprised, after reading, that I haven’t heard as much about the novel’s racism as I have about its characters’. Here’s a panel review from The Guardian that dives into that conversation excellently.