Nature Future Conditional

The Three-Body Problem and beyond — a Q&A with Liu Cixin

Liu Cixin is the award-winning Chinese author behind the Three-Body trilogy. In China, he has won the prestigious Galaxy Award multiple times, and when the first volume of the series, The Three-Body Problem, was translated into English by Ken Liu and published by Tor, it was met with overwhelming critical acclaim and won the 2015 Hugo for best novel. The third volume in the trilogy, Death’s End, (also translated by Ken Liu) came out this year, and a film of The Three-Body Problem is forthcoming.

Preston Grassmann spoke to Liu Cixin for Futures to discuss his writing, his inspirations and Chinese science fiction. (Interview: Preston Grassmann, Chinese translation: Ken Liu).

Throughout The Three-Body Problem there is a compelling interplay between the historical setting and the high-concept ideas (unique forms of energy transmission, a fascinating alien race, the physics problem referred to in the title, to name only a few). What inspired you to set this story in the context of the Cultural Revolution?

The Cultural Revolution provides the necessary background for the story. The tale I wanted to tell demanded a protagonist who gave up all hope in humanity and human nature. I think the only episode in modern Chinese history capable of generating such a response is the Cultural Revolution. It was such a dark and absurd time that even dystopias like 1984 seem lacking in imagination in comparison.

In a previous discussion, you mentioned that Chinese science fiction is currently going through a Golden Age, similar to that of the United States in the early half of the twentieth century. During that era, writers such as Clarke and Asimov were envisioning galactic-scale futures and optimistic views of human endeavour. The Three-Body Problem could certainly be seen as a worthy successor of that tradition. Do you see a similar grand-scale view of the future in other fiction being produced now in China?

Few works of contemporary Chinese science fiction hold a positive view of scientific development and an optimistic attitude towards the future. Like most current American science fiction, most Chinese science fiction concerns itself with the negative effects of scientific advancement and the dark future that will result. In this respect, I’m somewhat of an oddball among Chinese writers. Earlier in my career, others criticized me and mocked me for my optimism. Among Chinese intellectuals, it’s fashionable to emphasize the problems created by new technology and science. But it’s worth reflecting on the fact that my science-positive works have been more influential. I think it shows that intellectual elites in China are out of touch with the majority of Chinese people, who make up the bulk of science-fiction readers.

There is a high level of scientific detail throughout The Three-Body Problem. In particular, I’m thinking of the human-formation computer, the complex puzzles of the game, and the technology of signal/energy transmissions. How much research goes into your work before you begin writing? What were some of the most difficult challenges you faced in working out the technical details?

I write science fiction because I love science, and I want to give the beauty of science literary expression. Ideas about science and technology thus form the core of my stories. But I do think there’s a difference between science-fictional thinking and scientific thinking. The ‘science’ portrayed in science fiction is mixed with a large dose of imaginative speculation, and is no longer, strictly speaking, science at all, but a fictional projection of science. Thus, what you call ‘scientific details’ are really ‘science-fictional details’.

For example, the initial inspiration for writing The Three-Body Problem came from a paper about the three-body problem in classical mechanics, which involves the motion of three bodies under mutual gravitational attraction and is unpredictable under current mathematics and physics. I read the paper and suddenly thought: what if the three bodies were three suns? How would intelligent life on one of the planets in such a system develop? This was a good science-fictional idea — based on solid science but also evocative of interesting stories. But to go back to real science, we have not, to date, discovered any trinary star systems in which the stars move in this chaotic manner.

My biggest challenge is creating interesting stories from the latest results of fundamental scientific research. Take physics as an example. Compared with classical physics, contemporary physics is extremely abstruse. Not only is the maths complicated, but its theories are far from the daily experience of the average person. When given a proper explanation, even an illiterate person can understand Newton’s three laws of motion, and special relativity only requires middle-school mathematics. But it’s almost impossible for a person in the street to truly grasp advanced theories in contemporary physics. The Universe revealed by contemporary science is even more marvellous and rich than the Universe of classical science, and far grander. This is a vast field for science fiction to explore, and perhaps will revive the genre from its recent signs of exhaustion.

You worked with Ken Liu on the first and last book in this series. Can you tell us how this translation project began and how you first met?

China Educational Publications Import and Export Corporation (CEPIEC) first approached me about translating the Three-Body trilogy and publishing the books in the United States. They acquired the English rights and selected Tor Books as the American publisher. For more than a century, China has imported a large amount of science fiction from Europe and America, but The Three-Body Problem is the first Chinese science-fiction novel to be published in the United States. None of us had high expectations for the project, and it was enough for us if some American readers saw the book and realized that China had science fiction as well.

The first time I met Ken was at the Chinese Nebula Awards in November 2014, but before then, I had already read many of his stories, which I enjoyed and admired. I feel fortunate that he became the translator for two of the books in my trilogy.

In previous interviews, you mentioned Arthur C. Clarke as an influence on your work. Who are some of the writers in the field that you currently enjoy reading?

As I mentioned, I like Ken Liu’s work. He has created a new science-fictional aesthetic that combines the restraint, depth and refinement of Eastern culture with the expansive imagination of modern science fiction. I’m also a big fan of Ted Chiang, whose Tower of Babylon is among the most powerful pieces of science fiction I’ve ever read. I also enjoy works by Robert Sawyer, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman and Paolo Bacigalupi.

To be sure, American science fiction has always evolved and changed, and contemporary American science fiction is very different from fiction from the ‘Golden Age’. As a traditional science-fiction fan, most contemporary works cannot give me the same kind of awe I experienced when I first read 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama.

I hold fast to Asimov’s sentiment: “I hope that when the New Wave has deposited its froth and receded, the vast and solid shore of science fiction will appear once more.” But based on current trends in the evolution of the field, I very much doubt that his words will come true; they serve only as comfort.

Aside from writing, you also work as an engineer. How do you manage to balance the two careers? Do you keep a rigorous writing schedule?

Most science-fiction writers in China do not write full time because the market for the genre is too small. I work at a state-owned power plant, and although parts of the year are very busy, I can find time the rest of the year to write. Many other writers are not nearly as lucky. The demands of their day jobs leave no time for the kind of sustained effort required for novels, and they are forced to write only novellas and short stories.

I don’t hold to a rigorous writing schedule. I’ve always followed this principle: write only when I have a creative idea that makes me excited and demands to be written. If I can’t even be excited by an idea, readers will surely be bored as well. But it’s very hard to get an idea like that, and so I often go through long periods without writing anything — I’m in the middle of just such a bottleneck right now.

Can you tell us about your writing process?

First, I have to come up with a new speculative idea that moves me profoundly. For example, the unpredictable motion of three suns and the civilization that would arise in such a planetary system. Then I plan out a story around this seed. Finally, I create the characters to serve the story. My method of composition inevitably leads to stories in which the speculative idea is the core, the kind of stories seen as appealing to hardcore fans.

Are there any forthcoming projects or publications that we can look forward to seeing in the near future?

I plan to tell stories that are very different from the Three-Body trilogy. For example, I’ve spent a lot of time planning a novel about the future of energy. As a power-plant engineer, I’m familiar with the field.

I also want to write a novel about near future life in China, one that offers a panoramic view of Chinese society in the coming decades. The protagonist is a labourer at the bottom of the social pyramid in urban China, and I want to show this person gradually progressing into a new life as Chinese society develops, ultimately taking the journey into space. I even have a title for the novel, Extraordinary World, which is a reference to Lu Yao’s influential realist work, Ordinary World.

I’ve always been deeply interested in stories about the struggle between humanity and powerful cosmic forces. The Three-Body trilogy is about a war between humans and aliens, but I want to tell a story of humans fighting against forces far more powerful than alien civilizations. There are many choices within this framework, and I haven’t decided exactly which way to go yet.


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