Top positive review
Cat Country, but with Kids!
Reviewed in the United States on October 23, 2019
The title of this review is meant to be enigmatic, for the Western reader would not be familiar with Lao She's _Cat Country_. That's a shame, but it's also a shame that many readers have been quite challenged in obtaining an insightful reading of _Supernova Era_. Starting with _Cat Country_, we can begin to understand what Liu Cixin is trying to say with _Supernova Era_ and how it is not merely just a large-scale version of Golding's _Lord of the Flies_.
Back in 1933, Lao She published _Cat Country_ as a science fiction satire and allegory of what was then contemporary China. Lao She was a cat owner, but if he was a cat lover, he was the kind of cat lover that understood his cats' flaws. He depicted a spaceman's journey to Mars, inhabited by cat people who were used to satirize the Chinese of the time. The choice of cat, evidently, was to emphasize the inability of his compatriots to cooperate and coordinate; the expression "herding cats" come to mind. He depicted a decadent society that was predicated on the ruthless exploitation of other cats and could not come together to fend off external threats. Liu Cixin's _Supernova Era_, similarly, draws upon the same technique, postulating a world populated only by children.
A big mistake of many readers, however, is their failure to understand the child metaphor. In Jiayang Fan's _New Yorker_ piece, Liu Cixin relates that his inspiration for _Supernova Era_ came after the failure of the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989. Jiayang Fan herself didn't understand how it worked, and that contributes to her characterization of Liu Cixin as an authoritarian propagandist of the Chinese regime. But by understanding _Supernova Era_'s child metaphor, we get a more nuanced picture.
What is a child, beyond an immature form of an adult? A human child is someone who is lacking in knowledge, wisdom, and judgment. What else is lacking in knowledge, wisdom, and judgment? It may pain democratic liberals to hear this, but the answer is the citizen-subject of an authoritarian/totalitarian regime. An award-winning Harvard student essay (which I can't find) discusses the imposition of childishness in Orwell's _1984_. The dictatorial regimes, by stripping political rights and responsibilities from their citizen-subjects, impose a state of childishness on their population. The dictatorship or oligarchy takes on the role of the parent, making decisions for their children and stripping from them the valuable experience of choosing and being responsible for their choices. They tell their subjects that they lack the expertise to make such choices on their own, like choose leaders, vote on laws, and so on. And due to enforced childishness, the regime is not entirely wrong. For instance, in Taiwan, the former President Chen Shui-bian was arrested for embezzlement after he left office, the President having been a human rights lawyer during the period of KMT dictatorship. But this is a feedback loop dictatorships cherish; the more infantilized their population, the less potent their opposition.
With this metaphor in sight, we can see what Liu Cixin is doing in _Supernova Era_. Liu postulates a China where the Tiananmen Square demonstrators had gotten their way and managed to depose the Chinese Communist Regime. What would have resulted would have been new democratic leaders with no experience and an electorate with no democratic habits. Likewise, the children's society in _Supernova Era_ is, at least initially, dysfunctional. Now that they no longer have adults / the Communist Party telling them what to do, the children of the _Supernova Era_ discover strange values, they choose to emphasize play and create a society oriented on play. Nationalism, as in the section discussing an international children's society, comes to the fore and creates uncouth situations with hundreds of thousands of lives being lost because the children think "war is fun". But Liu Cixin, contrary to Jiayang Fan's portrayal, is not simply an authoritarian propagandist. Like Burgess or Orwell, he ends on a positive note, with the now adult narrator recounting his history of the _Supernova Era_ on Mars. So Liu's views of democracy are more conditional, with the essential line being that an electorate cannot be like children.
More of interest, however, to the Western reader is the discussion of Western children. In _Supernova Era_, the sudden transition to a children's society is global, not merely one limited to China. But if Chinese children are reflections of the Chinese people at that time, how can electorate infantilization occur in the West? And why would that matter?
The important source to draw on is developmental economics, a key question of which, is why do democratic developing countries remain developing countries? Their answer is that democracy by itself is not key, but requires also institutions, including soft ones such as the mindset and education level of its electorate, the presence of a middle class, and a free press. These institutions can be eroded and can be demonstrably eroded in the West, as seen with the rise of populist leaders preying on the prejudices of electorates. And capitalism by itself is also an infantilizing force, reducing the citizen to merely a consumer, whose only politically important actions are what to buy and how to get the money to buy it.
That brings us to one of the most entertaining parts of _Supernova Era_. Toward the end of the work, Liu takes us to America as well as a show of Sino-American relations and international politics in a world of children. The American president is depicted as a pretty boy of somewhat above average intelligence controlled by a Kissinger / Cheney figure, and the implementation of the "play" society in America is an NRA fantasy come true. The United States devolves into a country where children are given guns to shoot each other for fun, a 105mm cannon is used to destroy the UN building in New York for fun, and New York exceeds dystopian visions such as the film _Escape From New York_. The implicit message here is that while Western electorates may be more "politically mature" than the Chinese people, it is not that hard, knowing what's happening in the West, for Western voters to degenerate into children as well.
When I had first touched _Supernova Era_, I found the text to be humdrum and somewhat embarrassing. But after having considered the key metaphor for a while, the novel came upon to me and I find it to be an entrancing addition to Western political discourse. It's much like Liu Cixin himself; he's a writer in an authoritarian / totalitarian state and must be subtle with his themes and ideas. I'm shocked that Supernova Era, with its ultimate approval of democracy (under circumstances), didn't get banned by Chinese censors. But it didn't get banned, and it survived into translation, and in an era where Western institutions are under attack, it deserves a close and discerning reading.