Nautical compass

by Cixin Liu

China’s walled garden, which keeps on widening itself, remains ideologically closed, their freedom of speech severely impaired, their technology deeply controlled, although of an exponential growth. With fewer regulations and restrictions, more competition of copycat corporations in a ruthless landscape, less of a legislative burden to bring technology behemoths to the forefront of every transaction and communication, and western corporations severely impaired when competing within its territory, China is a force to be reckoned with.

Cut to the end of 2019. Once again, a Chinese wet market is at the genesis of a pandemic, one that soon engulfs the world with a terrifying rate of dissemination. I doubt any of you were unaffected by the pandemic, wherever you’re from.

It made me think about our biological connection. What a way to find ourselves intricately linked. Across the hundreds of countries, we might be different in many ways, but our basic engineering remains the same. Even if we’re so culturally opposite, politically contrasted, geographically apart — we’re equally vulnerable to whatever risks the integrity of our making.

Which makes it all the more fascinating to read a great “first contact” story from a Chinese author. The blocks of life aren’t the only thing we have in common. We’re also human, and what is human if not, fundamentally, an ape that wondered at its place in the universe? On the other hand, how refreshing would it be to be taken on a journey where, for once, the west didn’t call all the shots? With a different set of cultural layers, history, values, fears and states of wonderment?

The last trip I made before this whole thing erupted was in February 2020. I went to A Coruña, in Galicia, Spain, to spend the weekend before my birthday. On the car trip on the way there, I finished listening to the 14-hour audiobook version of The Three-Body Problem, the first part of the epic Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy.

Its events kick off in 1960s China, when Ye Wenjie, an astrophysics graduate, witnesses her father being beaten to death by a session of the Red Brigade, becoming a victim of the violence and scientific suppression of the Cultural Revolution. Ye is forced to work in a labor camp in Mongolia. From there, the narrative starts alternating between past and present, when Wang Miao, a professor of nanotechnology, is asked to help investigate the mysterious deaths of several scientists.

Ye and Wang will offer two different prisms of the story, which by this point is off to the races, with the author offering a dizzying account of everything that entails a civilization like Earth coming into contact with another. Would we want them to know where we are? How could humanity arrange itself in coming to terms with the possibility of an encounter with an higher power?

I’m not going to lie. Listening to the audiobook was difficult at first, with all the names sounding so foreign to me. The concepts at times are hard to grasp, but with the amount of detailed explanations the author grants the reader, every concept is within reach.

I remember distinctly walking across the streets of A Coruña, and thinking about all of the things I love about the Spanish culture, their never-ending familiarity to mine, and how safe and home I felt in Galicia.

With the rumbling of the waves on rock near it, you can find in A Coruña’s coast the oldest operating lighthouse known to mankind, a structure of Roman origin named Tower of Hercules. Majestic, 55 meters tall, this colossus has overlooked the North Atlantic Ocean for centuries upon centuries.

Next to it, a gigantic nautical rose compass is carved on the ground, painted with beautiful blue, like a continuation of the sea. Seven Celtic icons, of seven different peoples, are represented there.

Battling the fierce wind of that day, I walked around the rose compass and the old lighthouse, feeling my smallness next to them, and next to everything they can represent.

The journey, the traversing of boundaries, the old and new connections, perils and obstacles. The taming of the unknown quantity that was the sea, under the distant gaze of an endless starry night.

What wonderful beings, us. All birds of a feather, in this tiny planet together.

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