On Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie and Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem
Before reading Mark Fisher, it puzzled me why so few of the novels or films to terrify me over the last few years have been branded as horror. It was as if one morning, without warning, I woke up, and the fear I was able to feel over a character’s plight was no longer feasible. The genre tropes that had me tearing through King’s oeuvre in high school had lost all their power. Traditional monsters—werewolves, vampires, zombies—were uninspired mash-ups of familiar fears. The appearance of a ghost was anticipated; the supernatural had been rendered mundane.
What happened, I now realize, was this: I had mistaken two hallmarks of Gothic fiction—the presence of the eerie and that of the weird—as elements exclusive to it. As Fisher puts it, though, the weird is “that which does not belong.” Given this definition, long-familiar tropes can no longer not belong: a distorted face in a mirror is as mundane as an unchanged reflection; a ghost with no face might be better served by possessing three. What was once new (even if rooted in the old) has long rotted. And the status of the eerie is likewise (anything but) grim. The eerie, after all, is “tied up with questions of agency.” A bump in the night from a boarded-up loft, an unmarked grave in the middle of a swamp: these might have once kept a reader up at night. No longer. To be clear: the Gothic remains effective. It can even frighten, if it pushes the right literary and psychological buttons. If it catches me in the right mood. But it accomplishes these effects without being able (for this reader, at least) to produce an effect of the eerie or the weird.
Enter Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem. Here, we find the weird in abundance: three stars in chaotic, unpredictable motion, orbiting violently around each other, alternately scorching and consuming its system’s planets. And so too do we find the eerie: early on, a countdown appears on one of the novel’s primary scientists’ retinas; later on, this same person witnesses his entire field reduced to obsolescence by the arrival of two protons sent by the scientists of Trisolaris, an extraterrestrial civilization poised to reach Earth in 450 years. The mind reels, and not because of any inexplicability. We shiver because Three-Body’s possibilities are out of this world, but also fundamentally of this world; they obey existing laws of physics and mathematics. We stare because we know who’s coming, and how; more fundamentally, we do not, cannot, know the entities who are on their way.
Perhaps contrary to expectation, that The Three-Body Problem—as “hard” a sci-fi novel as one is liable to find—was able to induce in me such feelings of eeriness and weirdness came as no surprise. Serious science fiction—whether in the form of 2016’s Arrival or VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy or the majority of the stories Mark Fisher discusses—is uniquely equipped to explore the questions of agency and otherness respectively integral to the eerie and the weird. It’s not in spite of, but out of, the novel’s science-fictional premise that Three-Body’s eeriness and weirdness arise. Only the tip of contemporary science’s iceberg lies in the bright-lit Real. The rest lies in the eerie and in the weird, chilling the very mythologies of which it was once a fluid part.