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