Posted on behalf of Iulia Georgescu
Last week’s Chinese Sci-Fi event at the London Literature festival was irresistible: I love science fiction and have a keen interest in the Far East. The star here was Cixin Liu, whose 2008 Hugo-awarded novel The Three-Body Problem is a huge best-seller in China and, since its English translation (Head of Zeus, 2015), beyond. (See Nature’s interview with its translator, sci-fi writer Ken Liu, here.) Liu’s fellow panellist was Xiaolu Guo, the award-winning, genre-defying Chinese novelist and filmmaker now living in Britain, whose works include the 2014 I Am China and 2012 UFO In Her Eyes.
Both Cixin Liu and Guo had much to say. They agreed that sci-fi is a Western concept imported into China in the late 1970s and 80s. Post-Cultural Revolution China had the perfect climate for nurturing the genre, they said. First, there was a void in fantastic and speculative literature: much of Chinese literature in the twentieth century was focused on realism. Secondly, as science education was very poor at that time, sci-fi was a means of educating about science. The public fell upon it, eager to learn more about the latest discoveries.
Although Liu was heavily influenced by Western sci-fi writers, Chinese sci-fi has unique features. The difference, he seemed to think, lies in the Christian tradition imprinted on Western fiction. For instance, there is much discussion of whether the ethical implications of human cloning are perceived differently in China (see this Nature article). Liu averred that more than that, the idea of a doomsday, so dominant in Western thought, is less so in Chinese culture, which enshrines the concept of time flowing continuously and eternally.
That said, Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is about the end of the world — which is perhaps one of the reasons for its international popularity. (Japanese sci-fi is rich in apocalyptic scenarios too, for example in classics such as Kobo Abe’s Inter Ice Age 4, Sakyo Komatsu’s Japan Sinks, or the Neon Genesis Evangelion media franchise.)
Liu and Guo agreed that for them, the appeal of sci-fi lies in its departure from realism. Guo suggested that sci-fi is perhaps the only way for writers living in China to talk about political and social issues, as with Jingfang Hao‘s Hugo-winning novelette Folding Beijing (set in a future where three social classes inhabit Beijing in different spatial dimensions that only occasionally overlap). For Liu, sci-fi allows him to explore a bigger picture – humanity as a whole and its place in the Universe, as in the last book of his Three-Body trilogy, set in the very distant future.
The event made me realize anew how little of contemporary Asian literature has been translated into English. I hope that Liu’s popularity prompts publishers to more translations: I already have a long wish list.
Iulia Georgescu is senior editor, Nature Physics.
Access Nature’s science fiction special here; and Nature’s science-fiction column Futures (and Future Conditional blog) here. For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.