Cixin Liu is the most prolific and popular science fiction writer in the People’s Republic of China. Liu is a winner of the Hugo Award, an eight-time winner of the Galaxy Award (the Chinese Hugo), and a winner of the Chinese Nebula Award. Prior to becoming a writer, he worked as an engineer in a power plant.
Interview by Salik Shah. Translated from Chinese by Shaoyan Hu.
In the distant future of Death’s End, “The Rosetta Stone is written in a language that mixed English with Chinese.” What do you think about English as a global language? Is English here to stay as the language of dominant scientific thought and culture? Is there room for other languages to rise or even succeed?
The dominance of English language was established when the Britain became a global country, and the position of English was further strengthened later by the birth and flourish of the United States. As these two countries are the source and driving power of scientific developments in their own respective time, English is naturally the language to describe the concepts of science and technology. Since the beginning of the 20th century, American culture has taken up the dominant position all over the world. As a result, English became the language for cultural expressions as well. I think this situation will last for a long time even if the English-speaking world takes a downturn. In the past, long after the Roman Empire fell, Latin remained the primary language of scholarly study for as long as a thousand years, and even today, this ancient, complex language still asserts significant influence on medical and botanical science.
In The Three-Body Trilogy, Chinese characters save the world. America is the center of its own brand of science fiction. How can science fiction be a truly global literature when the author’s self, identity or culture defines the center? Can humanity ever escape or overcome such a form of “narcissism”—the inherent demands of citizenship, primary readership and market forces?
I think this is a natural choice. An author tends to choose a protagonist of his/her own nation or ethnicity, mostly for the convenience of narration and the acceptance of potential readers. I don’t think it has much to do with nationalism or “cultural narcissism.” As the United States is the country with the most advanced science and the most powerful military force in the present time, it is only natural that Americans become the protagonists in many SF stories. But that does not mean SF cannot be a global literature genre, because, wherever the main characters are from, in those stories, humanity shows up on the stage as a single unified entity and the various crises and hopes developed in the stories are actually faced by the entire population of humans.
In The Three-Body Problem, Chinese became the force that saved the world, which might not be an idea familiar to the readers in the past days. However, as China grows in the recent years, this is not something unthinkable anymore. At least I have not heard any readers questioning the appropriateness of it. In fact, nowadays, Chinese people, especially the younger generation, do not just think themselves as a part of the Chinese nation, but also as a part of the human race. Their cares and concerns are more of the entire humanity. That is why science fiction has won a great many readers in China in the recent years.
China is growing its ties with Africa and India. How do South Asia and Africa with their “alien” peoples and cultures—removed from your readers’ immediate senses or concerns—figure in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past, or in the contemporary Chinese science fictional imagination?
Science fiction is a literary genre that takes science and technology as background settings. Therefore, it usually focuses on the places where science and technology are well developed. It is true that the developing countries such as those in the South Asia and Africa are not sufficiently depicted in typical SF stories. Even in Lord of Light, a SF novel with the cultural settings based on Hindu mythology, the characters are more western than Hindu. However, things are changing in recent years. In American SF, more and more cultures from other parts of the world has come into the spotlight, resulting in a diverse range of works, such as the Hugo Award winner, The Windup Girl. I believe, as the process of globalization continuous, science fiction will reflect a landscape of increasingly diversified cultures.
Female protagonists play significant roles in your fiction. How is the reaction to the series from female critics (and readers) different from their male counterparts? Would you say your choice of female protagonists has anything to do with the trilogy’s terrific success in China and beyond?
In my SF stories, characters are not the central pieces. Instead, they are more like tools for storytelling, and when it comes to the choice of gender, most of the characters do not represent a strong demand to be male or female. When a female takes up the pivotal position, it is mostly because of the need to balance the genders in the story. Readers and critics did not pay too much attention to the gender of my characters and I don’t think the success of the novel is because of the female characters.
In your brilliant essay for Science Fiction Studies (March 2013), you said that you have entered the phase of “social experimentation” as a writer. In Death’s End, Cheng Xin is defined entirely by her extreme sense of maternal instinct and responsibility. What kind of responsibility do you feel toward humanity as an author and an individual today than when you were less interested in characters and more interested in science? How has the wide reception and success of your work abroad changed the way you think about your work and readership, if at all?
Either as an author or a human being, my view toward the human civilization is always the same. I believe that human natures, moral codes and value system change with time as they have to be compatible with the environment humans live in. This is what I have tried to show throughout The Three-Body Problem trilogy. As a science fiction writer, I used to have doubts about writing traditional SF where the scientific imaginations are at the core of the story. I thought it was an outdated style. But the success of this series in China, in America and Europe, has changed my view. It reminds me of Asimov’s words: 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.