In Liu Cixin’s award-winning sci-fi novel The Three Body Problem, humans come into contact with an alien civilization on the brink of environmental destruction. In order to visualize and understand a species with an entirely foreign biological, sociological, and ethical organization, scientists built a simulated game in which players could interact with this landscape from a humanistic perspective: dress up as Einstein, climb atop pyramids, or roam the Warring States. After all, what are we but blinded by the hallmarks of human achievement? With his ambitious Emissaries Trilogy, artist Ian Cheng comes close to tackling that conundrum from the opposite standpoint, that is a non-anthropocentric one. He asks the question, can a simulation operating on its own rules and logic, take on a life of its own, and offer insights on the nature of our own chaotic consciousness?
Second, as Cheng has formulated in Mousse Magazine, simulation reaches a conceptual tipping point for human identity and historical understanding. Used in forecasting the weather, election results, and other predictions models, it is an “imitation of a reality”, a “model of a system”, a tool for understanding a world with too many intertwining forces, networks, and dimensions to be essentialized into simple categories. To grasp the role it plays in past, present, and future, a lot of prioritizations rooted in Western thought—reality over imitation, human over the non-human, culture over nature, the earthly over the cosmological—need to be overturned and reconfigured. As Bruno Latour speculates in We have Never Been Modern, rather than maintain the illusion that modernity and progress are somehow stable reference points, “we are going to have to slow down, reorient and regulate the proliferation of monsters by representing their existence officially”. Perhaps these monsters are manifest in the surprising points of convergence and divergence between the emissaries’ quests and our own existential questions.