What’s it like to write science fiction novels in China? Novelist Cixin Liu, author of The Three Body Problem takes us through the history, present, and the possible future of science fiction in China.
Today, Cixin Liu joined us — along with the book’s translator Ken Liu, who also translated both our questions and his responses — to take questions about the first installment in his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, The Three Body Problem. Among the first questions he answered was about the history of science fiction in China, and where in that tradition his latest work fits:
Chinese science fiction first appeared in the last years of the Qing Dynasty (the beginning of the last century). Later, due to wars and other reasons, the development of science fiction was interrupted many times. The Chinese science fiction of the last century is very different from Western science fiction, mainly seen in the fact that Chinese science fiction was once viewed as a way to popularize science and contained many juvenile elements. Even now, some in China still view science fiction as children’s literature. But contemporary Chinese science fiction is clearly influenced by Western science fiction and isn’t so obviously different.
[The novel’s “reality-grounding”] has to do with the habits and preferences of Chinese readers. The Western convention of opening a science fiction novel by grabbing the reader by the hair and tossing her into the future or space right away is not something Chinese readers are used to. They are more used to starting with familiar reality and then gradually progressing to the future or space. Another way of putting it is that they prefer to tether the kite of imagination to the ground. Of course, such reading habits have been changing recently.
He went into further detail in this question on the role that state policies played (or, in some case, didn’t play) in impacting what science fiction made it into publication in China:
I recently read this on a wikipedia article about Chinese Science Fiction:
“On March 31st 2011, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television(SARFT) issued guidelines that strongly discouraged television storylines including ‘fantasy, time-travel, random compilations of mythical stories, bizarre plots, absurd techniques, even propagating feudal superstitions, fatalism and reincarnation, ambiguous moral lessons, and a lack of positive thinking’”
Is this true? Do you think these guidelines could ever be reversed?
The announcement (likely) is real, but its true impact is limited. Something similar happened during the 1980s, and overnight Chinese science fiction virtually ceased to exist. But now, such policies have limited effect. “Time travel” (or “chuanyue”) novels and movies, as well as works involving other “discouraged” themes, have consistently been published and released even after the date of that announcement. [KL: the Chinese term “chuanyue” refers to a specific subgenre of time travel to the past to alter it — the best Western example would be Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court]
Finally, he also shared some thoughts on where science fiction in both China, and the world at large, was headed in the future:
The biggest influences on my writing are two authors: Arthur C. Clarke and George Orwell. Clarke taught me to appreciate the magic of science fictional depictions of the relationship between Man and the Universe. Orwell, on the other hand, showed me that science fiction can reflect and critique reality from an angle that does not exist in mainstream literature.
In many ways, contemporary China resembles the rising United States at the beginning of the last century. Her future is full of challenges and crises, but there are also tempting opportunities. I’m optimistic about China’s future. I do not believe China will return to isolationism. If you have a chance to visit China and experience life here, you will know that it is inconceivable for this country to return to isolationism. I believe China in the future will be more open, more integrated into the world.
You can read the full Q&A — which covers the translation process Ken Liu used, the role of video games in the book, and why China’s Cultural Revolution was central to the story — right here.