China’s num­ber one science fic­tion writer, the hugo award-win­ning au­thor Cixin Liu, dis­cusses sf in his home­land

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Chi­nese au­thor Cixin Liu on sci-fi in his home­land.

As it faces the fu­ture, Chi­nese so­ci­ety is wit­ness­ing rapid de­vel­op­ment and change, with risk and hope co­ex­ist­ing, and op­por­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges. Such an en­vi­ron­ment is fer­tile soil for the de­vel­op­ment of science fic­tion, and has con­trib­uted to the genre’s me­te­oric growth in this coun­try. Like a mir­ror, science fic­tion re­flects China’s de­vel­op­ment. In the science fic­tion of the 20th cen­tury, China played a pe­riph­eral role in the fu­ture. Back then, there were no Chi­nese su­per­heroes. Even in the Chi­nese reader’s mind, the fu­ture of the world and the fate of hu­mankind de­pended on the su­per­pow­ers – the United States and the USSR – rather than China. But as China’s moderni­sa­tion gains pace, Chi­nese read­ers have started to be­lieve that their coun­try can play – will play – a lead­ing role in the fu­ture of the world. For ex­am­ple, in my own The Three-Body Prob­lem, many of the he­roes and an­ti­heroes are Chi­nese – Chi­nese read­ers have not been un­com­fort­able with this set­ting. My story Sun Of China [pub­lished in the UK in 2012] also fea­tures optimism about the coun­try cre­at­ing its fu­ture. The pro­tag­o­nist is a migrant worker, a “spi­der man”, who cleans city’s high-rise build­ings. Be­long­ing to the un­der­class, he takes a tough job with a mea­gre in­come and has no right to set­tle in the city as a per­ma­nent cit­i­zen. In the story, China has un­furled a huge mir­ror in geosyn­chronous or­bit to ad­just the cli­mate and in­crease crop pro­duc­tion. But the “Chi­nese Sun” needs to be kept spot­less and to save money the gov­ern­ment hires migrant work­ers and sends them into space to clean and pol­ish. The pro­tag­o­nist gets the job thanks to his ex­pe­ri­ence as a “spi­der man” and starts a new life in or­bit. By the end of the story, our hero, a peas­ant from China’s poor­est north­west­ern coun­try­side has turned the gi­ant mir­ror into a so­lar sail, and leaves the so­lar sys­tem for the stars.

Of course, the con­flicts and crises con­fronting Chi­nese so­ci­ety can be man­i­fested ex­plic­itly or sym­bol­i­cally in science fic­tion. For ex­am­ple, Chen Qi­u­fan’s The Waste Tide, which won Best Novel cat­e­gory in China’s Ne­bula Awards in 2013 has de­picted a both fa­mil­iar and un­fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ment: with the in­va­sion of cap­i­tal, an is­land has be­come an elec­tronic waste dump. Peo­ple scav­enge for liv­ing ma­te­ri­als and re­sources among the moun­tains of e-waste, which makes them evolve into a strange man-ma­chine hy­brid.

But such re­flec­tions of re­al­ity do not con­sti­tute the pop­u­lar main­stream of Chi­nese science fic­tion. Con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese science fic­tion has moved fur­ther and fur­ther away from re­al­ity, be­com­ing more ethe­real and philo­soph­i­cal. So an in­ter­est­ing conclusion can be drawn: the most pro­found re­flec­tion of re­al­ity in Chi­nese science fic­tion lies pre­cisely in its ten­dency to tran­scend re­al­ity. The fur­ther you get from to­day’s Earth­bound re­al­ity, the closer you get to the fu­ture and the deep starry sky. This shows that to­day’s Chi­nese peo­ple, the younger gen­er­a­tion in par­tic­u­lar, have gone through a pro­found change in their way of think­ing. Their minds have be­come broader. They have be­come in­ter­ested in the uni­verse’s grand philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions; they have started to aban­don their closed cul­ture and see hu­man­ity as a whole.

Science fic­tion is gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity in a time-hon­oured civil­i­sa­tion like China, and the old Chi­nese na­tion has be­gun to raise its head and look to the stars. What will hap­pen next? That is, in it­self, a very science fic­tional thing.

“like a mir­ror, science fic­tion re­flects china’s de­vel­op­ment”

Death’s End, the fi­nal book in Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Prob­lem se­ries, is out now from Head Of Zeus.

The poster for The Mer­maid, China’s high­est gross­ing film.

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