In the Chinese version of Star Trek, Liu awakes from prolonged cryogenic sleep and discovers a note: “Welcome, Law! [Cantonese version of Liu]. In the next five years you’ll be in charge of the spaceship alone, and the long dark nights will be lonely. Hopefully the delicacies will console your soul. Go check the fridge! —Captain Li Da Mao.” Law opens the fridge only to find endless arrays of dumplings; the Cantonese food he had packed is long gone. Law: a lonely Cantonese dude in the Universe.
—Daguguguji (a popular Weibo user who generates incisively absurdist, trolling, yet provocatively relevant memes), November 11, 2015
We meet again for the first time at Tahrir Square, we meet again for the first time at Zuccotti Park, we meet again for the first time at Taksim Square.
—overheard and perhaps incorrectly transcribed from Raqs Media Collective’s performance The Last International, 2013
In February 1989, the year the World Wide Web was born, Liu Cixin—author of the widely celebrated space opera Three Body Trilogy (2006–10)—published his debut sci-fi novel, China 2185. The story fast-forwards to a future Chinese society burdened by an aging population largely kept alive mechanically. A new president—a twenty-nine-year-old woman who was recently divorced and lost custody of her child—has just been inaugurated and is immediately challenged by a curious series of events that quickly snowball into a national crisis: Mao and five other deceased Chinese citizens are accidentally “revived” as digital immortals, and soon begin to haunt and compromise the nation’s cyberspace—one of the territories most crucial to its sovereignty.
In the story, the “revival” is presented as an inevitable outcome of achieving a technological singularity, made possible by combining advanced 3-D scanning in molecular holography with supercomputer programming competent enough to simulate human intelligence. While most daily affairs and responsibilities of citizenship are exercised primarily in cyberspace, humans have nevertheless retained their analog attributes. The revived, on the other hand, possess both full consciousness and autonomous human agency despite their complete virtual existence; their superhuman capacities for processing mass information instantaneously become crucial in enabling them to intervene and manipulate the digitally calibrated public sphere. Disembodied, they have become truly immortal—an ontologically different kind of human.
In a remarkably sophisticated yet eerily prescient manner, Liu Cixin explores how this posthuman moment rapidly engulfs social and political life. By 2185, China has become a fully democratic society thanks to, among other things, the sophistication of its virtual infrastructure, which allows the entire population to chime in on important domestic and international affairs. Liu meticulously details the technological parameters of this infrastructure, which is similar—especially in the mechanisms for processing and prioritizing inputs—to what we now understand as the semantic web. He imagines that color-coded visualizations of individual attitudes will provide instantaneous indications of consensus, not unlike the angry face emojis flying over the Facebook live-stream of a Sean Spicer press conference. At the emergency meeting called to address the revival, Chinese citizens engage in a heated debate about the “human” rights of the revived, who were initially contained in isolated digital storage. They vote to grant them full access to Chinese cyberspace, where they soon wreak major havoc. As it turns out, the troublemaker is not Mao, but one of the more obscure men among the revived. During his lifetime he was deeply resentful of the progressive ways of younger generations. Having woken up with newfound superpowers, he retaliates by generating enough autonomous derivatives—a kind of human called a “pulsate”—to form a conservative republic within Chinese cyberspace, ready to overthrow the “outside” government.
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