Cixin Liu: Sci-fi Beyond Borders

Chinese Sci-fi sensation Cixin Liu discusses the genre's cultural anomalies while visiting the UK to launch Death’s End, the final part of his Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, and introduce The Wandering Earth, a collection of short stories

Feature by Alan Bett | 26 Oct 2016

Cixin Liu is China's leading science fiction writer and quite simply a phenomenon. He is author of the multi award-winning Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, which includes The Three-Body Problem, the first work of translated fiction to win a Hugo Award. In addition, he has won the China Galaxy Science Fiction Award nine times, and the Nebula award twice. His writing has stretched far beyond China’s borders and fans in high places include Mark Zuckerberg, who selected The Three-Body Problem as one of the titles for the Facebook book group, A Year of Books, and Barack Obama, who chose it for his holiday read in 2015. 

The Skinny: Do you recognise any noticeable differences between Chinese sci-fi and Western works?

Cixin Liu: I feel that science fiction is the most universal genre. Science fiction is the only genre in which mankind appeals as a whole, whereas in other genres nations and individuals are divided. In science fiction, the crisis is faced by all of humanity, not just individual nations, and in this way it is a unifying genre. In most mainstream fiction, the author depicts the differences between humans, but in science fiction there is a focus on commonality. 

In terms of elemental differences, Western science fiction often comes from a Christian background, and focuses on the crisis or morality of certain acts, such as the impact of cloning and life-creation, and this impact is often portrayed as severe and significant because of this Christian background. This is not apparent in Chinese science fiction and we do not have this crisis. In Chinese culture we do not have a ‘doomsday' mentality; the sense of time is infinite, and I think this is reflected in all Chinese literature, not just science fiction. It makes for a more optimistic outlook.  

What social concerns feed into your own work? 

Whether East or West, there is a proportion of authors who have used science fiction as an angle to supplement what mainstream literature is lacking in social commentary and use it as a form of criticism. A lot of good works take this approach and in China, the term for this is Sci-fi Realism. However, I was a science fiction fan who became a science fiction writer, and my intention has never been to comment on social issues, but to fly with my imagination and deliver these science fiction concepts. 

How did it feel for The Three-Body Problem to be chosen as a Facebook book group title and Barack Obama's 2015 holiday read?

There is a peculiar phenomenon happening with The Three-Body Problem. Although literary circles care less about the trilogy, it has caused some ripples in IT and tech – especially with big companies. In the States this is reflected also, as with Mark Zuckerberg’s selection. Stories like The Three-Body Problem create extreme environments, and these may inspire and engage entrepreneurs.

I hope Barack Obama finishes the trilogy, and then perhaps he will be motivated to increase research into alien life. It is the one uncertain element faced by humans in today’s age. We could be meeting aliens tomorrow, or in 10,000 years in the future – or maybe never! But when it happens, all the problems we face today will become negligible. A superpower like the States should be allocating more money to researching this.

Why do you think the book has resonated so strongly with readers internationally?

I think humanity as a united force is key to the success. Back in the 1980s there was a new wave of activity and science fiction was pushed forward to the mainstream. In my opinion this took away the vibrancy and lightness of science fiction at its best. I think The Three-Body Problem appeals as something new, something unapologetically science fiction. Imagination is everything, it has no boundaries, and this appeals to readers of the trilogy because it is so new to them. Some young writers have a lot of influence in the science fiction community because of this.

Another factor may be that China as a nation is itself on the rise. The economy is growing, it is centre-stage and under the spotlight across the world, so readers are paying attention for the first time. Literature can be a forecast for a nation’s power. Britain had a strong export market, now the States dominate. China may be next, and many more will follow me to be centre-stage. 

Death's End is available now and The Wandering Earth will publish in 2017, both from Head of Zeus, RRP £18.99