In the midst of an interstellar war, Yun Tianming found himself on the front lines. Riddled with cancer, he chose to end his life, only to find himself flash frozen and launched into space where the Trisolaran First Fleet awaited. Captured and tortured beyond endurance for decades, Yun eventually succumbed to helping the aliens subjugate humanity in order to save Earth from complete destruction.
Granted a healthy clone body by the Trisolarans, Yun has spent his very long life in exile as a traitor to the human race. Nearing the end of his existence at last, he suddenly receives another reprieve—and another regeneration. A consciousness calling itself The Spirit has recruited him to wage battle against an entity that threatens the existence of the entire universe. But Yun refuses to be a pawn again and makes his own plans to save humanity’s future…
Set in the universe of the Three-Body Problem trilogy, The Redemption of Time continues Cixin Liu’s multi-award-winning science fiction saga. This original story by Baoshu—published with Liu’s support—envisions the aftermath of the conflict between humanity and the extraterrestrial Trisolarans. Translated for the first time into English by Ken Liu, The Redemption of Time is available July 16th from Tor Books.
THE REDEMPTION OF TIME
If one were to pick a single individual to bear the responsibility for the destruction of humanity’s cradle, the most appropriate choice would not be Cheng Xin, Yun Tianming, or anyone else whose decisions swayed the lives of billions. It would have to be Thomas Wade, who had dedicated himself to the task of saving the human race through a program of violent struggle. More than six hundred years ago, he had uttered the fateful words that determined the ultimate fate of two species.
“We’ll send only a brain.”
This stroke of genius propelled the Staircase Program out of its darkest moments and handed the Trisolarans a precious human brain specimen. Although the sophons were capable of observing the human brain in minute detail, such passive observation was insufficient to gain an in-depth understanding of the mechanisms of human cognition. Moreover, after Wallfacer Bill Hines’s efforts at mental sabotage, humanity’s leaders grew increasingly concerned with the dangers of neuroscience research. Researchers were forbidden to delve into the specifics of how bioelectric signals between neurons gave rise to thought, lest such research give the Trisolarans the capability to read human thoughts through detailed neuroelectric monitoring.
Two centuries after initial contact, human cognition still presented an impenetrable black box to the Trisolarans. The aliens desperately wanted to experiment on a live human. Their enthusiasm wasn’t driven entirely by scientific curiosity; rather, it was out of a desperate, practical need for strategic deception.
Throughout the Crisis Era, the Trisolarans saw no need for practicing strategic deception against humans—just as humans needed only pesticides, not lies, to take care of troublesome bugs. However, that didn’t mean the Trisolarans were unaware of the value of such deception against other targets. Ever since they had discovered the dark forest state of the cosmos, the Trisolarans had lived in a state of perpetual terror of the rest of the universe. They knew that countless hunters were concealed in the galaxy, and the previous communications between Trisolaris and Earth were likely to be discovered and posed a threat for their own survival. Strategic deception was an important defensive weapon they had to consider, but to wield it, the Trisolarans first had to understand the only species known to possess such a capability— humans.
A branch of advanced knowledge known as “deceptionology” arose among the Trisolaran elite soon after Evans revealed this unique feature of human cognition. The Trisolarans at first hoped to learn this human skill quickly, but that hope was soon dashed. Theoretically, understanding the principles of deception posed little difficulty; one simply had to purposefully make a false statement, which would achieve the desired goal when the target of deception believed it. Unfortunately, the Trisolaran scientists soon realized that their species lacked the biological instinct for lying, and they could not put this simple principle into operation. It wasn’t very different from how human scientists could describe the mathematical underpinnings for four-dimensional space in detail, but could not construct even very simple four-dimensional figures in their minds.
Like all sentient beings, the Trisolarans occasionally made mistakes, but as their language consisted of the electrical patterns of thought being emitted directly, there was no way for them to speak of a known falsehood while pretending it was true. If a Trisolaran believed that a statement was false, the cognitive markers were immediately exhibited externally. Although in certain special situations, such as technology-enabled long-distance communication, it was possible to manufacture the signals of false brain activity, the deep biological instinct of the Trisolarans, inherited from their long evolutionary march up from primitive life-forms, prevented them from taking such a step.
The Trisolarans had hoped that they could gain the ability to practice the art of deception by studying human history, including advanced works in politics, military strategy, commerce, and game theory. But they soon discovered that they could not understand human history, nor could they decipher theoretical tomes on these subjects by human authors. (To be sure, few humans understood those works either.)
They turned to works of fiction, which seemed easier to understand. For some time, various popular tales of deception were required reading for Trisolaran scientists and politicians. Books like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms became bestsellers. But the aliens didn’t have the capacity to appreciate these books, either. Novels that humans consumed for entertainment and leisure appeared to the Trisolarans as abstruse, incomprehensible treatises. Even after years of study, the most intelligent Trisolaran strategists could understand only the simple deceptions presented in fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood.” Such techniques were, of course, useless for devising grand strategies applicable to interstellar warfare.
After decades of fruitless effort, the Trisolarans had to give up the ambitious plan to fundamentally change their own nature; they redirected their efforts to devising computer simulations to generate potential strategic deception scenarios. However, computers were capable of nothing more than reproducing and extending the abilities of their creators. In order to endow computers with special skills, it was necessary to write the requisite software; and to write such software, it was necessary to understand the relevant principles in depth. If human beings were not capable of coming up with a proof for Goldbach’s conjecture, they could hardly expect computers produced by humans to calculate such a proof. Similarly, since the Trisolarans did not understand deception, neither did their computers.
Finally, after years of concentrated development and repeated trials by generations of the best Trisolaran minds—aided by access to data equivalent to the storage capacity of all human libraries—the most advanced Trisolaran computers attained the ability to practice deception at the level of the average twelve-year-old human, although such performance was only possible in environments familiar to humans (since all scenarios used to train the computers were derived from such environments). Such skills were of limited applicability to potential conflicts between the Trisolaran civilization and other undiscovered alien civilizations. In many cases, computers running deception software could not even carry out a sensible conversation, failing the basic Turing test.
After having wasted so many years on a wild-goose chase, Trisolaran scientists concluded that in order to acquire the capacity for strategic deception it was vital to study an actual human specimen. Before the Trisolaran Fleet reached the Earth and conquered it, the only available human specimen was Yun Tianming’s brain, which had already left the Solar System. At the end of the Crisis Era, the Trisolaran Fleet diverted a ship for the sole purpose of intercepting the probe carrying the brain of Yun Tianming.
Humanity then mistakenly interpreted the departure of this ship as an attempt by the Trisolarans to seek peace in the face of overwhelming human strength, and this misinterpretation then indirectly led to the destruction of the human fleet at the Doomsday Battle. In that sense, this act of unintended “strategic deception” by the Trisolarans was rather successful.
The Trisolaran Fleet succeeded in capturing the probe with Yun Tianming’s brain only after Luo Ji had established strategic deterrence. By then, Earth and Trisolaris were locked in a delicate balance of power. After years of being blocked by the sophons, Earth’s technological development took off by leaps and bounds; Trisolaris, on the other hand, saw its advantage slip day by day. The primary target for Trisolaran strategic deception was no longer some unknown alien species in the future, but humanity. Although there were still some spiritual successors of the ETO on Earth willing to plot and scheme for the aliens, the Trisolarans were unwilling to engage in any trickery right under the eyes of humans and risk triggering a universal broadcast. Probing and understanding Yun Tianming thus took on an unprecedented importance.
It took the Trisolarans about ten Earth years to figure out the basic structure of Yun Tianming’s brain. Taking into account Trisolaran efficiency—which far exceeded that of humans—their progress was equivalent to a century’s worth of work by humans. They constructed a simulated body for the captured brain so that it could experience sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and then they studied it to understand how sensory signals were generated and transmitted.
Next, the aliens tried to interpret the information contained in Tianming’s memories. To accomplish this feat, the Trisolarans stimulated the language center of Tianming’s brain at the appropriate times so that he would tell them what he was seeing, what he was hearing, what he was thinking, and so on. Although they still couldn’t read his thoughts directly, by means of trial and error with different stimuli, they learned to inject any information they wished into his brain, and then observed his responses through his narration.
At first, the Trisolarans were very careful with their test subject, and the experiments were gentle and mild. Indeed, they fed Tianming many beautiful sights and comforting scenes. These experiments left illusory memories in Tianming’s mind of dreaming during his long flight through the darkness of space. But as the Trisolarans mastered the details of Tianming’s brain, their experiments grew crueler and more violent. Many times, they pushed Tianming to the precipice of mental breakdown, but they knew enough to stop just at the edge and to calm him with tranquilizing chemicals, giving Tianming a chance to recover.
Although they learned to read Tianming’s thoughts with relative precision, the Trisolarans discovered that due to the unique neural topology of each individual, what they learned from him was applicable to other humans only at a very basic level. The neural structures and patterns for higher thought they learned belonged to Tianming alone. The Trisolaran dream of reading all human thought remained out of reach.
The individuality of experience and memory thus preserved the black-box nature of human thought. If the Trisolarans had had access to thousands or millions of test subjects, they probably could have broken through this barrier as well. Alas, the Trisolarans had only Yun Tianming.
Still, what they accomplished with just one brain was immense.
With seven Earth years of additional, concentrated study of Tianming’s brain, the Trisolarans completed the first digital model of the organ. This model contained all the information in his mind at the quantum level and could be used to simulate his basic thoughts. After the Trisolarans deleted all the “useless” human sentiments and sense of belonging from this digital brain, they filled it with their own data, hoping that the machine mind could then help the Trisolarans with devising plots and schemes. The Trisolarans called this invention “cloud” computing, because it concealed the light of truth like a cloud and because “Yun” in Chinese meant “cloud.”
As Trisolaran civilization grew increasingly commercialized, low-cost versions of Yun Tianming’s simulated digital brain found applications as consumer technology. The Trisolarans installed these cloud-computing devices on their organs of cognition and relied on them to disguise their own true thoughts, thereby achieving novel effects impossible for the unenhanced Trisolaran.
For example, a traditional conversation during the Trisolaran mating season might go something like this:
“My dear sex-one entity, this humble sex-two entity wishes to join our bodies.” The imploring Trisolaran would wave its feelers in a gesture of desire. (Like humans, the Trisolarans are also divided into two sexes, though they are entirely different from human sexes.)
“Get away from me, you ugly thing! The very sight of you makes me wish to expel fecal matter!” The other Trisolaran would release thought waves that indicated extreme disgust.
Such honesty from the second Trisolaran often led to fierce fights between the two parties, an unfortunate state of affairs no one desired. The invention of cloud computing allowed uninterested Trisolarans to answer in a more indirect manner.
“Thank you! I think you’re wonderful. But I don’t think I’m good enough for you.”
The imploring Trisolaran would then leave, satisfied and proud, perhaps even happier than if it had mated.
This was without a doubt a major improvement in Trisolaran society, but some other applications of the technology did not seem so wonderful. Due to the lack of deception and the almost eidetic memory of Trisolarans, there was no cash or coinage on Trisolaris. Most business transactions were not even recorded, but involved only the recitation of desired prices and remaining balances. A typical Trisolaran market exchange, described below, was practically unimaginable for humans:
“I’d like to purchase this rapid-action dehydrator. I still have 12,563 credits. I’ll now pay you 231 credits, leaving me with 12,332 credits.”
“Agreed. I had 73,212 credits. I’ve just received 231 credits, giving me a total of 73,443 credits.”
“Done. I’ll now take the rapid-action dehydrator and leave.”
In reality, market exchanges didn’t involve such ponderous dialogue. The two parties simply projected their separate calculations and observed the changes in the counterparty. If one side made a mistake, the other side would immediately correct it. But cloud computing allowed a Trisolaran to disguise true thought waves and project falsified results. A poor Trisolaran without the funds for luxuries could claim to be a billionaire, and no matter what they bought their account balances never decreased. Merchants could similarly claim that the basest goods were really special high-quality specimens and jack up the prices.
The popularity of cloud computing almost led to the total collapse of the Trisolaran economy. The Trisolaran government had to ban the direct installation of cloud-computing devices on organs of cognition on penalty of immediate dehydration followed by incineration. To enforce the ban, cloud detectors were installed in various locations. Finally, market order was restored.
But even if cloud-computing devices could not be integrated directly with Trisolaran thinking, it was fun for the average Trisolaran to converse with an imitation Yun Tianming brain. If one controlled for the relative slowness of human thought and the pronounced forgetfulness, a human was not unintelligent compared with a Trisolaran. In fact, the human mind possessed some qualities that were unmatched by the Trisolaran mind. Other than being deceptive, a human was also sensitive to nature, curious, imaginative, and creative—unpredictably so. In some sense, mastering human thinking processes—specifically Yun Tianming’s mind—was the key to the Trisolaran technology explosion at the end of the Deterrence Era, culminating in the invention of curvature propulsion.
This was the real reason for the high honor and genuine gratitude the Trisolarans accorded Yun Tianming. Later, after he demonstrated loyalty to Trisolaris, they granted him a very elevated social status.
Cloud computing nonetheless proved inadequate for directly advancing the strategic goals of the Trisolarans. The second-generation simulated Yun Tianming brains used digital models specifying quantum-level details. But just as Hines had discovered during the Common Era, human thought was affected by quantum uncertainty. The Trisolarans couldn’t replicate the activities in Yun Tianming’s brain at the quantum level, so they couldn’t master the essence of human thought. To achieve the level of complexity and intricacy characteristic of true human cognition, they had to rely on a genuine human brain.
After three generations of experimental cloud computing, the Trisolarans had to admit that simulation was no answer. They settled on the last choice available to them: wake Yun Tianming from his endless dreams and, by coercion or inducement, make him serve Trisolaris.
Excerpted from The Redemption of Time, copyright © 2019 by Baoshu.