Wed
May 7 2014 10:00am

The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction

The Three-Body Problem Cixin Liu

Article translated by Ken Liu.

A few years ago, a science fiction novel appeared in China under the strange title of Three Body.

There were, in total, three volumes, and the title for the entire work is Remembrance of Earth’s Past. After volume I, Three Body (note: the official English title for volume I is The Three-Body Problem), the next two volumes are The Dark Forest and Death’s End. However, Chinese readers habitually refer to the entire work as Three Body.

Science fiction is not a genre that has much respect in China. Critics have long been discouraged from paying attention to the category, dismissed as a branch of juvenile literature. The subject of Three Body—an alien invasion of Earth—is not unheard of, but rarely discussed.

Thus, it surprised everyone when the book gained widespread interest in China and stimulated much debate. The amount of ink and pixels that have been spilled on account of Three Body is unprecedented for a science fiction novel.

Let me give a few examples. The main consumers of science fiction books in China are high school and college students. But Three Body somehow gained the attention of IT entrepreneurs; on Internet forums and elsewhere, they debated and discussed the book’s various details (such as the “Dark Forest Theory” of the cosmos—an answer to the Fermi Paradox—and the dimension-reduction attack on the Solar System launched by aliens) as metaphors for the cutthroat competition among China’s Web companies. Next, Three Body came to the attention of China’s mainstream literary world, which had always been dominated by realist fiction. Three Body was like some monster that suddenly erupted onto the scene, and literary critics were baffled by it while also feeling that they couldn’t ignore it.

The book even had an effect on scientists and engineers. Li Miao, a cosmologist and string theorist, wrote a book titled The Physics of Three Body. Many aerospace engineers became fans, and China’s aerospace agency even asked me to consult with them (despite the fact that in my novel, China’s aerospace establishment was described as so conservative and hidebound that an extremist officer had to engage in mass assassinations to allow new ideas to flourish). These sorts of reactions are probably familiar to American readers (e.g., The Physics of Star Trek, and NASA scientists regularly teaming up with science fiction writers), but they’re unheard of in China, and they contrast sharply with the official policy of suppressing science fiction during the 1980s.

On the Web, one can find many fan-composed songs for Three Body, and readers yearning for a movie adaptation—some have even gone to the trouble of creating fake trailers out of clips from other movies. Sina Weibo—a Chinese microblogging service analogous to Twitter—has numerous user accounts based on characters in Three Body, and these users stay in character and comment on current events, expanding the story told in the novel. Based on these virtual identities, some have speculated that the ETO, the fictional organization of human defectors who form a fifth column for the alien invaders, is already in place. When CCTV, China’s largest state television broadcaster, tried to hold an interview series on the topic of science fiction, a hundred plus studio audience members erupted into chants of “Eliminate human tyranny! The world belongs to Trisolaris!”—a quote from the novel. The two TV hosts were utterly flummoxed and didn’t know what to do.

Of course, these events are only the latest entries in the century-long history of science fiction in China.

 

Chinese science fiction was born at the turn of the 20th century, when the Qing Dynasty was teetering on the edge of ruin. At the time, Chinese intellectuals were entranced by and curious about Western science and technology, and thought of such knowledge as the only hope for saving the nation from poverty, weakness, and general backwardness. Many works popularizing and speculating about science were published, including works of science fiction. One of the leaders of the failed Hundred Days’ Reform (June 11-September 21, 1898), the renowned scholar Liang Qichao, wrote a science fiction story called “A Chronicle of the Future of New China.” In it, he imagined a Shanghai World’s Fair—a vision that would not become true until 2010.

Like most genres of literary expression, science fiction in China was subject to instrumentalist impulses and had to serve practical goals. At its birth, it became a tool of propaganda for the Chinese who dreamed of a strong China free of colonial depredations. Thus, science fiction works from the end of the Qing Dynasty and the early Republican years almost always presented a future in which China was strong, prosperous, and advanced, a nation that the world respected rather than subjugated.

After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, science fiction became a tool for popularizing scientific knowledge, and its main intended readers were children. Most of these stories put technology at the core and contained little humanism, featuring simplistic characters and basic, even naïve literary techniques. Few of the novels ventured outside the orbit of Mars, and most stuck to the near future. In these works, science and technology were always presented as positive forces, and the technological future was always bright.

An interesting observation can be made when one surveys the science fiction published during this period. In the early years after the Communist Revolution, politics and revolutionary fervor infused every aspect of daily life, and the very air one breathed seemed filled with propaganda for Communist ideals. Given this context, one might have expected that science fiction would also be filled with descriptions of Communist utopias of the future. But, as a matter of fact, not a single work of this type can be found. There were practically no science fiction stories that featured Communism as the subject, not even simplistic sketches to promote the concept.

By the 1980s, as Deng Xiaoping’s reforms took effect, the influence of Western science fiction on Chinese science fiction became more apparent. Chinese science fiction writers and critics began to debate whether science fiction was more about “science” or “fiction,” and ultimately the literary camp won out. The debate had tremendous influence on the direction of the future development of Chinese science fiction, and in some ways can be seen as a delayed Chinese response to the New Wave movement in the West. Science fiction was finally able to escape the fate of being a mere tool to serve the goal of popularizing science, and could develop in new directions.

During the period between the mid-1990s and now, Chinese science fiction experienced a renaissance. New writers and their fresh ideas had little connection to the last century, and as Chinese science fiction became more diverse, it also began to lose its distinctness as particularly “Chinese.” Contemporary Chinese science fiction is becoming more similar to world science fiction, and styles and subjects that have been explored by American writers, for instance, can find easy analogs in Chinese science fiction.

It’s interesting to note that the optimism towards science that underlay much of last century’s Chinese science fiction has almost completely vanished. Contemporary science fiction reflects much suspicion and anxiety about technological progress, and the futures portrayed in these works are dark and uncertain. Even if a bright future appears occasionally, it comes only after much suffering and a tortuous path.

 

At the time of Three Body’s publication, China’s science fiction market was anxious and depressed. The long marginalization of science fiction as a genre led to a small and insular readership. Fans saw themselves as a tribe on an island and felt misunderstood by outsiders. Writers struggled to attract readers outside the tribe and felt that they had to give up their Campbellian “science fiction fundamentalism” and raise the genre’s literary qualities and realism.

The first two volumes of Three Body showed some efforts made in this direction. Much of the first volume was set during the Cultural Revolution, and in the second volume, the China of the future still existed under socio-political institutions similar to the present. These were attempts to increase the sense of realism for readers, to give the speculative elements some foundation in the present. As a result, both my publisher and myself had little faith in the third volume prior to its publication. As the story continued to develop, it was impossible to root the third volume in present realities, and I had to describe distant futures and distant corners of the cosmos—and by consensus, Chinese readers were not interested in such things.

My publisher and I reached the conclusion that since it was impossible for the third volume to succeed in the market, maybe it was best to give up trying to attract readers who were not already science fiction fans. Instead, I would write a “pure” science fiction novel, which I found comforting, as I considered myself a hardcore fan. And so, I wrote the third volume for myself and filled it with multi-dimensional and two-dimensional universes, artificial black holes and mini-universes, and I extended the time line to the heat death of the universe.

And, to our utter surprise, it was this third volume, written only for science fiction fans, which led to the popularity of the series as a whole.

The experience of Three Body caused science fiction writers and critics to re-evaluate Chinese science fiction and China. They realized that they had been ignoring changes in the thinking patterns of Chinese readers. As modernization accelerated its pace, the new generation of readers no longer confined their thoughts to the narrow present, as their parents did, but were interested in the future and the wide-open cosmos. The China of the present is a bit like America during science fiction’s Golden Age, when science and technology filled the future with wonder, presenting both great crises and grand opportunities. This was rich soil for the growth and flourishing of science fiction.

 

Science fiction is a literature of possibilities. The universe we live in is also one of countless possibilities. For humanity, some universes are better than others, and Three Body shows the worst of all possible universes, a universe in which existence is as dark and harsh as one can imagine.

Not long ago, Canadian writer Robert Sawyer came to China, and when he discussed Three Body, he attributed my choice of the worst of all possible universes to the historical experience of China and the Chinese people. As a Canadian, he argued that he had an optimistic view of the future relationship between humans and extraterrestrials.

I don’t agree with this analysis. In the Chinese science fiction of the last century, the universe was a kind place, and most extraterrestrials appeared as friends or mentors, who, endowed with God-like patience and forbearance, pointed out the correct path for us, a lost flock of sheep. In Jin Tao’s Moonlight Island, for example, the extraterrestrials soothed the spiritual trauma of the Chinese who experienced the Cultural Revolution. In Tong Enzheng’s Distant Love, the human-alien romance was portrayed as poignant and magnificent. In Zheng Wenguang’s Reflections of Earth, humanity was seen as so morally corrupt that gentle, morally refined aliens were terrified and had to run away, despite their possession of far superior technology.

But if one were to evaluate the place of Earth civilization in this universe, humanity seems far closer to the indigenous peoples of the Canadian territories before the arrival of European colonists than the Canada of the present. More than five hundred years ago, hundreds of distinct peoples speaking languages representing more than ten language families populated the land from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. Their experience with contact with an alien civilization seems far closer to the portrayal in Three Body. The description of this history in the essay, ”Canadian History: An Aboriginal Perspective,” by Georges Erasmus and Joe Saunders, is unforgettable.

I wrote about the worst of all possible universes in Three Body out of hope that we can strive for the best of all possible Earths.

 

[Please note that the author’s name has been rendered as it will appear in the upcoming translation of the Three Body trilogy, rather than following Chinese convention and placing his surname first, as we have in previous posts.]


Cixin Liu is a representative of the new generation of Chinese science fiction authors and recognized as a leading voice in Chinese science fiction. He is a member of the China Science Writers’ Association and the Shanxi Writers’ Association. He was awarded the China Galaxy Science Fiction Award for eight consecutive years, from 1999 to 2006, and again in 2010. He received the Nebula (Xingyun) Award in both 2010 and 2011. His novel The Three-Body Problem will be available for the first time in English in October, 2014 from Tor Books, translated by Ken Liu.

Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He is a winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts. Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a fantasy series, will be published by Saga Press, in 2015. Saga will also publish a collection of his short stories.

9 comments
Alkindus
1. Alkindus
I remember reading about this novel when I was living in China, and wishing there was a translation into English I could read. I was already excited to pre-order the book, but now that this article has given a fantastic overview of the history of Chinese science fiction, I'm even more pumped! October is so far away...
Michael Johnston
2. JohnstonMR
I am definitely looking forward to this release. I've heard good things about the novel from one of my Chinese students, who had copies sent to him here in the US and was excitedly telling me all about it.
Sky Thibedeau
3. SkylarkThibedeau
I'd love to sample some more Chinese Science Fiction. The works I've previously read like Chan Koonchung's "The Fat Years" were more like political Treatises wrapped in fiction. Three Body sounds very interesting. I'll try it when the translation comes out.
Alkindus
4. tnv
Sounds fascinating and marvellous. Thank you very much to both Mr. Lius, for this essay and its graceful translation, and I can't wait for the book.
Alkindus
5. shellywb
I can't wait to read this, and already pre-ordered it. I'm so glad someone is translating Chinese sf and that there are those like Tor willing to publish it.
Alkindus
6. s j west
Catherine Shaw shares the same title with the publishers Allison & Busby, c2004
Alkindus
7. Uncle Byron
I definitely want to read this series. And its great Liu called Sawyer on his BS.
Alkindus
8. daikon
Ted Chiang may be a better translator, if he knows Chinese....Works of Ken Liu are not so "scientific", from my perspective.
Alkindus
9. curious
Does anyone know where we can find the essay Liu Cixin mentions,
"Canadian History: An Aboriginal Perspective,” by Georges Erasmus and Joe Saunders"?

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