REINCARNATED GIANT AND INVISIBLE PLANETS
“Invisible Planets” and “The Reincarnated Giant”, edited by Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters, are anthologies of contemporary Chinese Science Fiction that serve as good introduction to the genre and its writers . “The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First Century Chinese Science Fiction”, co-edited by Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters (Columbia University Press, 2018) features some of the most important science fiction stories from the contemporary authors, including Liu Cixin, Han Song, Chen Qiufan, Bao Shu, Xia Jia, as well as excerpts from the experimental novels based on variations of the theme, style, rhetoric, language of science fiction, by authors such as Taiwan's Lo Yichun and Hong Kong's Dung Kai-cheung.
Han Song predicted the destruction of the Twin Towers a year before 9/11. Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In his novel "2066: Red Star Over America," published in 2000, Han, China's premier science-fiction writer, depicts a disturbing future. It is the year 2066. China rules the world while the U.S. festers in financial decline and civil war. A team has been sent to America to disseminate civilization through the traditional Chinese board game Go. But during the critical Go match held at the World Trade Center, terrorists strike. The seas around New York rise, the Twin Towers crumble and the U.S. is plunged into pandemonium." "2066: Red Star Over America" is not in anthologies mentioned here. [Source:Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2012]
“Invisible Planets”, edited and Translated by Ken Liu, (Tor Books, 2016) is an easy introduction to the already massive genre of Chinese science fiction assembled by translator Ken Liu, who many credit with bringing Chinese SF to a global audience. Ryan Britt wrote in Inverse: “Make no mistake, Invisible Planets is 100 percent Ken Liu’s baby. And though he might be known as the translator of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, the anthology wasn’t exclusively born out of that novel becoming popular in translation. “I had published 40+ translations of short Chinese fiction, and I realized that I had enough material to create a compelling anthology for readers interested in hearing new voices,” Ken Liu told Inverse. [Source: Ryan Britt, Inverse, November 29, 2016]
““Whimsy” is the pervasive thread holding all the stories in Invisible Planets together, and “Grave of Fireflies” by Cheng Jingbo is one of its stand-out stories. In it, the author describes a future in which starships are seemingly evacuating the remnants of humanity in a mad dash to find the last remaining stars that might still be burning. Stars are going out left and right all around the universe, and no one knows why. Meanwhile, a kind of portal helps to guide the main character, Rosamund, to safety. “To the south was the Door Into Summer, built from floating asteroids like a road to heaven,” Cheng writes.
“Xia own story “Night Journey of the Dragon Horse” is another good example: it features a sentient, mechanical creature lumbering through a decayed, vaguely future-dystopian landscape. Xia Jia based the Dragon Horse on “real” dragon horses on planet Earth; it’s a kind of parade float, an attraction that would delight children. Imagining what a living version of a complex parade float might look like wouldn’t occur to most American science fiction writers. Is lack of imagination to blame? More likely, science fiction has been long dominated by western imagery and tropes, meaning everything about the imagination in Chinese science fiction seems fresh.
“But how does one define “Chinese Science Fiction”? The essays in Invisible Planetsdon’t totally agree. In his essay “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” Xia Jia writes that the “disparate stories” found in the anthology “speak of something in common, and the tension between Chinese ghost tales and science fiction provides yet another way to express the same idea.” That’s not to say that there was ever a plan to present one unified theme with this anthology. Editor Ken Liu told Inverse that the book hopefully gives “… an overall sense of Chinese science fiction as a diverse category that includes many themes and approaches.”
Recommended books available in English: 1) “Invisible Planets”, Edited and Translated by Ken Liu; 2) The Reincarnated Giant, edited by Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters (both anthologies of contemporary Chinese SF); 3) The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung (banned in China and described as the Chinese 1984); 4) “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin; and 5) “Cat Country” by Lao She. Further reading (via tor.com, with articles translated by Ken Liu: A) “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” by Xia Jia; B) “The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction” by Cixin Liu; C) “The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition” by Chen Qiufan. [Source: Gautham Shenoy, Factor Daily, January 12, 2019]
Liu Cixin is arguable the biggesr science fiction writer in China. His most famous work “The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award, science fiction’s top prize, in 2015 and became a worldwide success, read by a number of celebrities all around the world, including former US President Barack Obama, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and George R. R. Martin, author of “A Song of Ice and Fire. Liu is the first Asian to win and the Hugo award and there is hope his books can spark a Chinese 2001: Space Odyssey or Star Wars.
Joshua Rothman wrote in The New Yorker: Liu has written thirteen books. Until very recently, he worked as a software engineer at a power plant in Shanxi. He’s often compared to Arthur C. Clarke, whom he cites as an influence. His most popular book, “The Three-Body Problem,” has just been translated into English by the American sci-fi writer Ken Liu, and in China it’s being made into a movie, along with its sequels. Liu Cixin’s writing evokes the thrill of exploration and the beauty of scale. “In my imagination,” he said, “abstract concepts like the distance marked by a light-year or the diameter of the universe become concrete images that inspire awe.” [Source: Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker, May 6, 2015]
Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “Liu’s fellow sci-fi writers in China call him Da Liu — Big Liu — but he is small, with an unusually round head, which seems too large for his slight, wiry physique. He has the unassuming presence, belying an unflappable intelligence, of an operative posing as an accountant. Rarely making eye contact, he maintains an expression at once detached and preoccupied, as if too impatient for the future to commit his full attention to the present. “There’s nothing special or memorable about me,” he said at one point. “I always blend into any crowd.” Sure enough, as we walked around town, I found that it was disconcertingly easy to lose sight of him, and I started consciously trying to keep an eye on his inconspicuous frame and clothes — dark jeans and checked tops — as if I were minding a small child. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, June 17, 2019]
“Liu’s tomes — they tend to be tomes — have been translated into more than twenty languages, and the trilogy has sold some eight million copies worldwide. He has won China’s highest honor for science-fiction writing, the Galaxy Award, nine times, and in 2015 he became the first Asian writer to win the Hugo Award, the most prestigious international science-fiction prize. In China, one of his stories has been a set text in the gao kao — the notoriously competitive college-entrance exams that determine the fate of ten million pupils annually; another has appeared in the national seventh-grade-curriculum textbook. When a reporter recently challenged Liu to answer the middle-school questions about the “meaning” and the “central themes” of his story, he didn’t get a single one right. “I’m a writer,” he told me, with a shrug. “I don’t begin with some conceit in mind. I’m just trying to tell a good story.”
“The trilogy’s success has been credited with establishing sci-fi, once marginalized in China, as a mainstream taste. Liu believes that this trend signals a deeper shift in the Chinese mind-set — that technological advances have spurred a new excitement about the possibilities of cosmic exploration. The trilogy commands a huge following among aerospace engineers and cosmologists; one scientist wrote an explanatory guide, “The Physics of Three Body.” Some years ago, China’s aerospace agency asked Liu, whose first career was as a computer engineer in the hydropower industry, to address technicians and engineers about ways that “sci-fi thinking” could be harnessed to produce more imaginative approaches to scientific problems. More recently, he was invited to inspect a colossal new radio dish, one of whose purposes is to detect extraterrestrial communications. Its engineers had been sending Liu updates on the project and effusive expressions of admiration. “We’re looking for someone who can be very naughty when left alone, and your name kept popping up in our database.” In early 2019, “soon after a Chinese lunar rover achieved the unprecedented feat of landing on the dark side of the moon, an adaptation of Liu’s short story “The Wandering Earth” earned nearly half a billion dollars in its first ten days of release, eventually becoming China’s second-highest-grossing film ever. A headline in the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, jubilantly summed up the mood: “Only the Chinese Can Save the Planet!”
The film “The Wandering Earth” went on to earn $700 million. In the story, scientists build massive engines to propel the planet toward another star after they discover the sun is about to grow into a red giant. “Liu’s other, more famous book, “The Three Body Problem”, was meant to hit screens in 2016 but has been hit by multiple delays and still has no definite release date. Filming — much of it done in the Lesser Hinggan Mountains in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang — was reportedly finished in 2015, so you would assume producers were not entirely happy with the result. Liu has also been hired by China's Internet giant Tencent to be their mobile game imagination architect.
Books: “The Three-Body Trilogy” — “The Three-Body Problem”, “The Dark Forest” and “Death’s End” — by Liu Cixin, Translated by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen (Tor Books, 2014-16).
Liu Cixin’s Family and Early Life
Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: ““Liu was born in 1963 in Beijing, where his father was a manager at the Coal Mine Design Institute and his mother was an elementary-school teacher. His father’s family came from the plains of Henan Province, in the Yellow River Basin, a region that suffered particularly dire calamities in the twentieth century. After the Japanese invaded China, in 1937 — interrupting a civil war between Nationalists and Communists that had been raging for a decade — Henan became a vital strategic point in the Nationalist government’s attempt to prevent them from sweeping south. Chinese forces breached dikes on the Yellow River to halt the Japanese advance, but the resulting flood destroyed thousands of villages and killed hundreds of thousands of people. It also ruined vast areas of farmland; the next harvest was a fraction of the expected yield. In 1942-43, after the government failed to respond to the shortage, some two million people starved to death. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, June 17, 2019]
“When the civil war resumed, after the Second World War, both sides conscripted men. Liu’s paternal grandparents had two sons and no ideological allegiance to either side, and, in the hope of preserving the family line, they took a chilling but pragmatic gamble. One son joined the Nationalists and the other, Liu’s father, joined the Communists. He rose to the rank of company commander in the Eighth Route Army, and, after the Communist victory, he began his career in Beijing. To this day, Liu doesn’t know what became of his uncle.
“Liu was three years old when the Cultural Revolution broke out. His father lost his job — having a brother who had fought against the revolution made him politically suspect — and was sent to work in the coal mines of Yangquan, in Shanxi Province, where Liu still lives. The city was a flash point for the factional violence that accompanied the Cultural Revolution, and Liu remembers hearing gunfire at night and seeing trucks filled with men clutching guns and wearing red armbands. Things became dangerous enough that, when Liu was four, he was sent to live with his grandparents in Henan, and stayed there for several years.
“As a child, Liu was mischievous and cheeky. Even today, he retains a fondness for ingenious pranks, and once created a poetry-writing algorithm, whose voluminous output he submitted to a literary magazine. (It didn’t publish any of the poems.) He also had a practical bent: after developing a fascination with weapons, in grade school, he taught himself to make gunpowder. When Liu was six, China launched its first satellite and he became obsessed with space. Initially, his ambition was to explore it rather than to write about it, but he came to realize that, for someone of his background, the advanced degrees necessary to work in the nascent space program were out of reach. Meanwhile, his father had turned him on to speculative fiction, giving him a copy of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” To the young Liu, reading Verne’s book was like walking through a door to another world. “Everything in it was described with such authority and scrupulous attention to detail that I thought it had to be real,” Liu told me.
Liu Cixin’s Career as a Writer and Engineer
Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: ““On the cusp of his teens, reading a book on astronomy, Liu had an epiphany about the concept of a light-year — the “terrifying distance” and “bone-chilling vastness” it implied. Concepts that seemed abstract to others took on, for him, concrete forms; they were like things he could touch, inducing a “druglike euphoria.” Compared with ordinary literature, he came to feel, “the stories of science are far more magnificent, grand, involved, profound, thrilling, strange, terrifying, mysterious, and even emotional.” In high school, he started writing his own stories, and continued after enrolling, in 1981, at North China University of Water Resources and Electric Power. After graduation, he was assigned to work at the Niangziguan Power Plant, where he had plenty of time to hone his writing and to absorb all the sci-fi he could get his hands on, sometimes poring over a dictionary to get through untranslated works by Vonnegut, Bradbury, Pynchon, and Orwell. He didn’t leave his engineering job until 2012, long after he’d achieved wealth and national fame. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, June 17, 2019]
In a speech he gave in English in Washington D.C, he “spoke of how his imagination had been fired by reading Clarke’s novels, some of which were published in China in the eighties — a time when, he said, young people like him felt lost. He recalled finishing “2001: A Space Odyssey” and walking outside to gaze into the night sky: “I was able to see the galaxy, thanks to the unpolluted sky of China back then.” Chinese people of his generation were lucky, he said. The changes they had seen were so huge that they now inhabited a world entirely different from that of their childhood. “China is a futuristic country,” he said. “I realized that the world around me became more and more like science fiction, and this process is speeding up.”
In the Deng Era, Liu was writing at night while maintaining his engineering day job. Science fiction was scrutinized more closely again in the years immediately after the Tiananmen protests, when he was beginning work on “Supernova Era.” Early Chinese sci-fi imagined a China that caught up with the West and then outstripped it. Liang Qichao’s “The Future of New China” (1902) is set in 1962; in the story, Shanghai hosts the World’s Fair, a geopolitically dominant China has developed a multiparty system, and Westerners study the Chinese in the hope of bettering themselves. In “China in Ten Years,” a popular story published anonymously in 1923, China develops laser weapons to repel Western imperialists. Joel Martinsen, the translator of the second volume of Liu’s trilogy, sees the series as a continuation of this tradition. “It’s not hard to read parallels between the Trisolarans and imperialist designs on China, driven by hunger for resources and fear of being wiped out,” he told me. Even Liu, unwilling as he is to endorse comparisons between the plot and China’s current face-off with the U.S., did at one point let slip that “the relationship between politics and science fiction cannot be underestimated.”
In the nineties, tens of millions of workers found themselves laid off, with no social-security system. In 2000, the same year that Liu’s story “The Wandering Earth” was published, he was told to choose which half of his staff to let go and which to keep. “Pragmatic choices like this one, or like the decision his grandparents made when their sons were conscripted, recur in his fiction — situations that present equally unconscionable choices on either side of a moral fulcrum.” Lius continued to work as an engineer until 2012 even after his books became bestsellers long before that.
Liu Cixin’s Books
Joshua Rothman wrote in The New Yorker:“American science fiction draws heavily on American culture, of course — the war for independence, the Wild West, film noir, sixties psychedelia — and so humanity’s imagined future often looks a lot like America’s past. For an American reader, one of the pleasures of reading Liu is that his stories draw on entirely different resources. Much of “The Three-Body Problem” is set during the Cultural Revolution. In “The Wages of Humanity,” visitors from space demand the redistribution of Earth’s wealth, and explain that runaway capitalism almost destroyed their civilization. In “Taking Care of Gods,” the hyper-advanced aliens who, billions of years ago, engineered life on Earth descend from their spaceships; they turn out to be little old men with canes and long, white beards. “We hope that you will feel a sense of filial duty towards your creators and take us in,” they say. I doubt that any Western sci-fi writer has so thoroughly explored the theme of filial piety. [Source: Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker, May 6, 2015]
“But it’s not cultural difference that makes Liu’s writing extraordinary. His stories are fables about human progress — concretely imagined but abstract, even parable-like, in their sweep. Take the novella “Sun of China,” which follows Ah Quan, a young man from a rural village that has been impoverished by drought. In the first three chapters, Ah Quan sets out from the village and finds work in a mine; he travels to a regional city, where he learns to shine shoes, and moves to Beijing, where he works as a skyscraper-scaling window-washer. Then the story takes a turn. We discover that it’s the future: China has constructed a huge mirror in space called the China Sun, and is using it to engineer the climate. Ah Quan gets a job cleaning the reflective surface of the China Sun. It turns out that Stephen Hawking is living in orbit, where the low gravity has helped to prolong his life; Hawking and Ah Quan become friends and go on space walks together. (“It was probably his experience operating an electric wheelchair that allowed him to control the miniature engine of his spacesuit as well as anyone,” Liu writes.) The physicist teaches the worker about the laws of physics and about the vastness of the universe, and Ah Quan’s mind begins to dwell on the question of humanity’s fate: Will we explore the stars, or live and die on Earth? Soon afterward, he is saying goodbye to his parents and setting out on a one-way mission to explore interstellar space. By the end of the story, Ah Quan’s progress is representative of humanity’s. He has traversed an enormous social and material distance, but it pales in comparison to the journey ahead.
“Liu’s stories aren’t always so tender; in imagining the human future, his romantic sweetness is balanced with harsh objectivity. In “The Wandering Earth,” scientists discover that the sun is about to swell into a red giant. In response, they build enormous engines capable of pushing the entire planet toward another star — an “exodus” that will last a hundred generations, during which everything on the surface will be destroyed. Watching the deadly sun recede and transform into a star like any other, the protagonist cries out, “Earth, oh my wandering Earth!” And yet the story suggests that this is just the sort of outrageous project we’ll need in order to insure humanity’s long-term survival.
““In the distant future, if human civilization survives and spreads through the cosmos, humanity must create technological marvels at ultra-grand scales,” Liu wrote to me. “I believe science and technology can bring us a bright future, but the journey to achieve it will be filled with difficulties and exact a price from us. Some of these obstacles and costs will be quite terrible, but in the end we will land on the sunlit further shore. Let me quote the Chinese poet Xu Zhimo from the beginning of the last century, who, after a trip to the Soviet Union, said, “Over there, they believe in the existence of Heaven, but there is a sea of blood that lies between Heaven and Hell, and they’ve decided to cross the sea.”
“But to what end? Humanity can’t survive everything; the last volume of the “Three-Body” trilogy is set, in part, during the heat-death of the universe. Liu’s stories see life from two angles, as both a titanic struggle for survival and as a circumscribed exercise in finitude. In my favorite of his stories, “The Mountain” — it’s available in English in a short-fiction collection called “The Wandering Earth” — mountain climbing is proposed as a metaphor for this contradiction. “It is the nature of intelligent life to climb mountains,” interdimensional alien explorers explain. But the universe is so unknowable that “we are all always at the foot,” and will never reach the peak. In another story, “The Devourer,” a character asks, “What is civilization? Civilization is devouring, ceaselessly eating, endlessly expanding.” But you can’t expand forever; perhaps it would be better, another character suggests, to establish a “self-sufficient, introspective civilization.” At the core of Liu’s sensibility, in short, is a philosophical interest in the problem of limits. How should we react to the inherent limitations of life? Should we push against them or acquiesce?
““Everything ends,” Liu said, in his e-mail, “and describing what is inevitable should not be viewed as a form of pessimism. Take the example of a romantic tale: ‘The lovers lived happily ever after’ would clearly be viewed as an optimistic story. But if you add a coda — ‘A hundred years later, they were both dead’ — does that turn the story pessimistic? Only science fiction can go as far as ‘a hundred years later’ at the scale of the universe.”, by email@example.com on May In his novels, a black hole with the mass of twelve billion suns is the sort of thing that Chinese engineers might build. They’d do it a billion years from now, after China’s spaceships have spread throughout the universe.
Liu Cixin’s Writing and Imagination
Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: ““Liu’s stories typically emerge from a speculative idea that has the potential to generate a vivid, evocative fable — more often than not, one about mankind’s ability to bring about its own demise. “The Three-Body Problem” takes its title from an analytical problem in orbital mechanics which has to do with the unpredictable motion of three bodies under mutual gravitational pull. Reading an article about the problem, Liu thought, What if the three bodies were three suns? How would intelligent life on a planet in such a solar system develop? From there, a structure gradually took shape that almost resembles a planetary system, with characters orbiting the central conceit like moons. For better or worse, the characters exist to support the framework of the story rather than to live as individuals on the page. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, June 17, 2019]
“Liu’s imagination is dauntingly capacious, his narratives conceived on a scale that feels, at times, almost hallucinogenic. The time line of the trilogy spans 18,906,450 years, encompassing ancient Egypt, the Qin dynasty, the Byzantine Empire, the Cultural Revolution, the present, and a time eighteen million years in the future. One scene is told from the perspective of an ant. The first book is set on Earth, though some of its scenes take place in virtual reality; by the end of the third book, the scope of the action is interstellar and annihilation unfolds across several dimensions. The London Review of Books has called the trilogy “one of the most ambitious works of science fiction ever written.”
“Much of the books’ resonance, however, comes from the fact that they also offer a faithful portrait of China’s stringently hierarchical bureaucracy, that labyrinthine product of Communism. August Cole, a co-author of “Ghost Fleet,” a techno-thriller about a war between the U.S. and China, told me that, for him, Liu’s work was crucial to understanding contemporary China, “because it synthesizes multiple angles of looking at the country, from the anthropological to the political to the social.” Although physics furnishes the novels’ premises, it is politics that drives the plots. At every turn, the characters are forced to make brutal calculations in which moral absolutism is pitted against the greater good. In their pursuit of survival, men and women employ Machiavellian game theory and adopt a bleak consequentialism. In Liu’s fictional universe, idealism is fatal and kindness an exorbitant luxury. As one general says in the trilogy, “In a time of war, we can’t afford to be too scrupulous.” Indeed, it is usually when people do not play by the rules of Realpolitik that the most lives are lost.
The Three-Body Trilogy
“The Three-Body Trilogy” by Liu Cixin consists of “The Three-Body Problem”, “The Dark Forest” and “Death’s End” . Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: ““Two rival civilizations are battling for supremacy. Civilization A is stronger than Civilization B and is perceived by Civilization B as a grave threat; its position, however, is more fragile than it seems. Neither side hesitates to employ espionage, subterfuge, and surveillance, because the rules of conduct — to the extent that they exist — are ill-defined and frequently contested. But the battle lines are clear: whoever controls the technological frontier controls the future. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, June 17, 2019]
“In Liu Cixin’s science-fiction trilogy, “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” — also known by the title of its first volume, “The Three-Body Problem” — Civilization A is a distant planet named Trisolaris and Civilization B is Earth. Life on Trisolaris has become increasingly difficult to sustain, so its inhabitants prepare to colonize Earth, a project made possible by their vast technological superiority. Using higher-dimensional geometry, they deploy supercomputers the size of a proton to spy on every terrestrial activity and utterance; Earth’s entire fleet of starships proves no match for one small, droplet-shaped Trisolaran probe. Yet Trisolaris’s dominance is far from assured, given the ingenuity of the underdogs. Seeking out the vulnerabilities of its adversary, Earth establishes a deterrence based on mutually assured destruction and forces the Trisolarans to share their technology.
An episode in the trilogy depicts Earth on the verge of destruction. A scientist named Cheng Xin encounters a gaggle of schoolchildren as she and an assistant prepare to flee the planet. The spaceship can accommodate the weight of only three of the children, and Cheng, who is the trilogy’s closest embodiment of Western liberal values, is paralyzed by the choice before her. Her assistant leaps into action, however, and poses three math problems. The three children who are quickest to answer correctly are ushered on board. Cheng stares at her assistant in horror, but the young woman says, “Don’t look at me like that. I gave them a chance. Competition is necessary for survival.”
“When the first volume of the series was published in the United States, in 2014, the models for Trisolaris and Earth were immediately apparent. For the Chinese, achieving parity with the West is a long-cherished goal, envisaged as a restoration of greatness after the humiliation of Western occupations and the self-inflicted wounds of the Mao era. As Liu told the Times, “China is on the path of rapid modernization and progress, kind of like the U.S. during the golden age of science fiction.” The future, he went on, would be “full of threats and challenges,” and “very fertile soil” for speculative fiction.
Mingwei Song wrote: ““The Three-Body Trilogy showcases the most splendid image of the universe, full of awe-inspiring, sublime wonders. “Foregrounding the destiny of an incredibly dystopian future, Liu’s narrative sometimes remains ambiguous with regards to the conflicts between morality and survival, humanity and technology, hope and despair. Liu makes it clear through the overall plot development that the universe is a cold place with little room for morality. However, the most magic power of the trilogy may still come from the sustaining humanity that can be found even in the coldest moments and places. One of only two persons who live until the end of the universe is Cheng Xin, a kind-hearted woman, who is sarcastically nicknamed the “saint mother” by Liu Cixin’s fans to show their dislike of this character who succeeds Luo Ji to become the chief defender of Earth but submits to the tender feelings that swell in her heart when facing the alien invasion. She does not have the heart to push the buttons that will set off the assured mutual destruction of both the invading Trisolarans and all species on Earth. Her failure to act nevertheless makes her morally self-conscious. Against this backdrop of life and death struggles, Cheng Xin remains a person constantly reminding us of the moral principles of compassion and mutual aid. She makes a moral choice in an immoral universe. But she also plays an even more important role in the making of Liu Cixin’s saga: she resorts to writing to pass on some messages about humanity to the next universe. Liu Cixin ends the novel from Cheng Xin’s perspective and renames the trilogy “Remembrance of Earth’s Past”. [Source: Mingwei Song, Wellesley College, MCLC Resource Center Publication, December, 2015]
The Three-Body Problem
Mingwei Song wrote: “The Three-Body Problem opens with a cruel moment in the Cultural Revolution: Red Guards humiliating and torturing a distinguished scientist, whose daughter, Ye Wenjie, after witnessing her father’s death, becomes completely disillusioned with human goodness. She later joins a secret science project that is tasked by the supreme leader to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which aims to compete with the Americans and Russians who are doing the same. But the Chinese SETI team is miserable, for they lack both the proper technology and equipment. It is Ye Wenjie who finds a way to bypass the political prohibitions to shoot the signal directly to the sun that serves as an amplifier to broadcast the message from the Chinese communist leaders to the entire galaxy. Eight years later, Ye receives a reply that reads: “Do not answer! Do not answer! Do not answer!”. [Source: Mingwei Song, Wellesley College, MCLC Resource Center Publication, December, 2015]
“What Ye receives is a message coming from the closest planet located in Alpha Centauri, only four light years away. The message is sent by a self-identified pacifist living in a dying civilization that faces the harshest conditions for survival. In their star system, a lone planet orbits three suns. This situation testifies to the three-body problem, a real mathematical problem: how three bodies move under the influence of their mutual gravitational attractions is uncertain. In the novel, the Trisolaran world has an unpredictable fate, alternated between Stable Eras when the planet orbits one sun and Chaotic Eras when the planet loses its normal orbit. The Trisolaran civilization has been destroyed many times by either being scorched by three suns rising together or being frozen by the lack of any sunlight. The Trisolarans are eager to emigrate to other planets, readying themselves for interstellar invasion. The pacifist, a listener by profession stationed in a post to search for habitable planets, happens to have received Ye’s message, and out of a moral compassion it warns the Earthling that as soon as an answer is sent back to space, the source of the transmission will be located, which means that an invasion will be imminent. Ye Wenjie ignores the warning and replies immediately, inviting the Trisolarans to come to Earth, because “our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems” (276).
“The epic story of the space war begins at this moment. Trisolarans target Earth for their invasion. The first volume depicts how humans gradually learn about the truth of the Trisolaran world: chaotic, unpredictable, and cruel. The contact with Trisolaris is fatal, for the rivalry between the two civilizations can only end with one wiping out the other. The question that serves as a leading thread in the trilogy emerges: is the universe a place for morality, a place for humanity with a moral consciousness?
Books: “The Three-Body Trilogy” — “The Three-Body Problem”, “The Dark Forest” and “Death’s End” — by Liu Cixin, Translated by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen (Tor Books, 2014-16).
Mingwei Song wrote: The second volume, The Dark Forest, sheds light on the darkest rules of the universe. Before Ye Wenjie dies, she passes her reflections on Earth’s encounter with Trisolaris to a student of sociology Luo Ji, who later invents cosmic sociology. The axioms of cosmic sociology are: “First: Survival is the primary need of civilization. Second: Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant” (13). These axioms present a negative answer to the above question: the universe does not have room for morality; it is a dark forest ruled mercilessly by the laws of jungle. [Source: Mingwei Song, Wellesley College, MCLC Resource Center Publication, December, 2015]
“Luo Ji figures out why the universe is silent and why, though it is filled with civilizations, humans had never discovered extraterrestrial intelligence before. It is because nothing is more dangerous than exposing yourself in the dark forest. The chain of suspicion decides that anyone seeing you cannot determine whether you are benevolent or malicious. “The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost... The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life — a another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod — there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out” (484).
Mingwei Song wrote: In the final volume of the trilogy, Death’s End, Liu Cixin describes the first human spaceship’s encounter with a mysterious four-dimensional “bubble” within which “a bottomless abyss exists in every inch.” “The experience of high-dimensional spatial sense was a spiritual baptism. In one moment, concepts like freedom, openness, profundity, and infinity all gained brand-new meanings” (Ken Liu’s translation). Such depictions achieve a Kantian sublime: infinite, limitless, and overwhelming with a magnitude beyond human ability to measure and grasp. Such a wondrous face of the universe, however, is also inhuman. In Death’s End, Liu Cixin reveals the worst possible situation for humanity confronting the truth of the universe, a bottomless abyss filled with competing intelligent species fiercely engaged in space wars that keep eliminating the weaker ones. [Source: Mingwei Song, Wellesley College, MCLC Resource Center Publication, December, 2015]
“Humans eventually learn about the story of our universe. It originally had eleven dimensions, a paradise, and a world that was timeless and endless. However, it was soon lowered to ten dimensions, and then to nine and to eight, all the way down to three dimensions. Reducing the dimensions or changing the physical rules of the universe are the most powerful ways to wipe out entire worlds, and the novel reveals our three-dimensional universe to be the ruins of wars dating to the very beginning of time. On the astronomical scale, the difference between good and evil becomes meaningless. Whether the morally self-aware humans could survive in an immoral universe also becomes a moot question toward the end of the narrative, because the entire universe comes to an end when dimensions are finally reduced to zero, absolute nothingness.
“In the second half of Death’s End, the conflict between Earth and Trisolaris is no longer the central plot line. A mysterious higher intelligence that patrols the universe passes by our solar system and projects an extraordinarily thin sheet toward us. Called “dual vector foil,” this sheet changes the structure of the space-time continuum, reducing the three-dimensional solar system to two dimensions. The entire solar system begins to collapse into an infinitely large, flat picture: planet by planet, object by object, molecule by molecule, the Sun, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars, the Earth, and all of humanity turn two-dimensional.
“This moment illustrates Liu Cixin’s attempts to render the sublime visible. The entire process of the solar system’s two-dimensionalization is displayed with dazzlingly concrete details — each drop of water is depicted as though it were as large and complex as an enormous two-dimensional ocean. Liu depicts this imagined and miraculous catastrophe directly, openly, and as precisely as if it were real. Three survivors stationed on Pluto observe this reality, awed by the moon-size snowflakes that are actually two-dimensional water molecules. The two-dimensional imaginary of the solar system provides a thrilling moment that concretizes sublime invisibility.
“The two-dimensional picture epitomizes Liu Cixin’s artistic approach to sf: a sublime world image is created out of precise details. His work speaks directly to the infinity of the universe, but he also seeks to transform the invisible and infinite into a plausible physical reality. By the end of the trilogy, he enlivens his work with a wondrous sensation that lifts science fiction from determinism or national allegory (or whatever is rooted in certainty) into a transcendental imaginary realm that opens up to possibilities and perceptions beyond ordinary reality. Yet he also renders the sublime visible, as the very magnetic force of science fiction.
“The ending paragraph of the novel, about two hundred characters long, is an enchanting description of a small “ecological system,” left by Cheng Xin in “our universe” that has come to an end, in which a small fish swims swiftly and the morning dew on grass reflects the fresh sunshine. Is this where a new universe begins? Or is it a testimony to poetic justice? The small ball that contains the lively ecological system may well be the last trace of a utopian space in the moral vacuum of the universe in Liu Cixin’s saga.
Hao Jingfang wins Hugo Award for “Folding Beijing” in 2016
In 2016 Chinese sci-fi writer Hao Jingfang beat out Stephen King to win the Hugo award, science fiction’s top prize, for her dark story of social inequality and injustice in Beijing. This work was originally posted on newsmth.net, an online bulletin board of Tsinghua University, in December 2012. It took the author around one month to map out the story in her head and plan it and three days to write. The story was later published in two Chinese magazines in 2014. An English translation by Ken Liu was published in 2015 on Uncanny Magazine. [Source: Wikipedia]
Catherine Wong wrote in the South China Morning Post: Hao Jingfang, 32, won the Hugo Award for best novelette with “Folding Beijing,” a year after Liu Cixin, won the best novel prize for “The Three-Body Problem”. The best novelette category is for short works between 7,500 and 17, 500 words. Receiving her award in Kansas City, Missouri, Hao said she was not surprised she had won but had also been prepared to lose. “In Folding Beijing, I have raised a possibility for the future and how we face the challenges of automated production, technological advances, unemployment and economic stagnation,” she said. [Source: Catherine Wong, South China Morning Post, August 21, 2016]
“The story describes a Beijing where people of different social status are separated into different spaces, and where low-skilled workers are replaced by robots. “Hao said her book offered a solution to those challenges, but she hoped the situations she described would not become reality. “I have raised a solution, which may seem a little dark,” she said. “It is not the best outcome, but neither is it the worst — people do not starve to death, young people are not sent to battlefields, like what happens in reality.”
“Hao wrote Folding Beijing in three days in 2012, China Radio International reported. Hao is from Tianjin, and graduated with a physics degree from Tsinghua University in 2006. Hao has set up a chairty that supports a program, named the Tongxing Academy that provides education to poor kids in rural areas. In September 2020 it was announced that Folding Beijing will be adapted into a movie titled Folding City, produced by Chinese film production company Wanda Media and is expected to be released between 2021 and 2022. In 2017, Hao said the film would be directed by Korean-American screenwriter Josh Kim, whose previous credits include 2015’s “How To Win At Checkers (Every Time)”.
Folding Beijing Story and Hao Jingfang Interactive Fiction
n an unspecified future, Beijing within the 6th Ring Road is divided by three classes physically, sharing the same earth surface in each 48 hour cycle: The first governing class with 5 million population occupy the space for 24 hours from 6 am to 6 am, after which the earth's surface will be turned upside-down, to move the second and third class up. The second class has 25 million middle-class people, and will enjoy 16 hours from 6 am to 10 pm. Then, the building of the second class will fold and retract while the high buildings of the third class unfold and rise, which hosts 50 million lower class people, who can be awake for 8 hours till 6 am. When each class is turned down or folded, the residents there would be put into sleep. Travelling between classes is tightly controlled and violators would be put into jail. [Source: Wikipedia
Lao Dao, a waste processing worker of the third class, finds a message from Qin Tian, a graduate student in the second class. Qin offers Lao Dao money, if he can delivery a love letter to Yi Yan, Qin's lover in the first class. To make enough money for his adopted daughter Tangtang's kindergarten tuition, Lao Dao accepts this job. After he manages to arrive the first class, he finds that Yi Yan is actually a married woman, who offers Lao Dao more money to hide this fact from Qin. On the way back, Lao Dao is captured due to the lack of an identification of the first class, but rescued by Ge, a security official who was born in the third class. Lao Dao accidentally finds that the whole waste processing industry, the main economic pillar of the third world, can be easily replaced by technology – and it is only kept in order to provide jobs for those third class people. After dropping the response letter to Qin in the second class, Lao Dao comes back to the third class with newly made money, and continues his life.
In 2017, Hao Jingfang released interactive fiction she composed with five other authors in Shanghai.. Xinhua reported: “The story,"The Beginning of Han," was uploaded to an interactive literature website qiaobooks.com late last week. It cost 9.9 yuan (about 1.4 U.S. dollars) to read. With 400,000 characters, it is about Liu Bang, founder of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 24 AD). Through different option, readers can find their way to nearly 50 endings. "Interactive literature is increasingly accepted by readers," Hao said. "While we are talking about different possibilities, we acquire new knowledge." She plans to donate the gains from the new fiction to a welfare project in Tibet. The writer said she is interested in an earlier dynasty, the Qin (221 - 207 B.C.), and did not rule out the possibility of writing another interactive fiction based on that history. “March 8, 2017 [Source: Xinhua, March 7, 2017]
Chen Qiufan , also known as Stanley Chan, is a Chinese science fiction writer, columnist, and scriptwriter and one of the leading figures of a young generation of Chinese science fiction writers who were born in the 1980s. His first novel was The “Waste Tide”, which "combines realism with allegory to present the hybridity of humans and machines". His short fiction works have won numerous awards. [Source: Wikipedia +]
Sun Mengtian wrote: His work has won multiple awards, including Taiwan’s Dragon Fantasy Award, China’s Milky Way Award for Science Fiction, and China’s Nebula Award for Science Fiction. His stories often revolve around contemporary social, political and economic problems in China, thus many critics describe his SF as “realist SF.” Many of his stories are characteristic of the Cyberpunk subgenre, and he is oftentimes called “China’s William Gibson.” He is mostly concerned with the alienation effect of modern technology and society. The English version of his first novel, The “Waste Tide”, was an published in 2018. [Source:Sun Mengtian, City University of Macau. MCLC Resource Center Publication, April 2017]
"The Fish of Lijiang" received the Best Short Form Award for the 2012 Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards. His stories have been published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, MIT Technology Review, Clarkesworld, Year's Best SF, Interzone, and Lightspeed, as well as influential Chinese science fiction magazine Science Fiction World. His works have been translated into German, French, Finnish, Korean, Czech, Italian, Japanese and Polish and other languages. +
Chen Qiufan’s Life
Chen was born in Shantou, Guangdong, near Guangzhou (Canton), in 1981. Yi-Ling Liu wrote in Wired: Born “in the wake of China’s opening up and reform movement, Chen grew up during a moment of exhilarating upheaval: The market economy was introduced, state control over culture loosened, and Western ideas flowed freely into the country — from McDonald’s to rock ’n’ roll to Star Wars. He lived in the city of Shantou, in the culturally diverse, coastal region of Chaoshan, Guangdong, close to the Hong Kong border, with easy access to foreign entertainment. As a teen, he would devour -golden-age sci-fi classics by Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov that his father, an engineer, brought home for him, and he would watch a movie a day, buying bootleg DVDs of Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I was a young boy who liked to ask, ‘Why?’ and so I turned to science for answers,” Chen says. “But when science couldn’t explain everything, I turned to science fiction.” [Source: Yi-Ling Liu, Wired, March 9, 2021]
“While most people were dazzled by the bounty of China’s economic boom, Chen was ambivalent. In his first short story, “The Bait,” which he wrote as a precocious high schooler, aliens arrive on Earth, give humans an invaluable new technology, and eventually enslave them with it. By the time Chen graduated from Peking University in 2004, China was perched on the edge of another revolution — the internet boom — and the Chinese people had bought into another myth: that technology had the power to change the world for good. After completing a dual degree in Chinese literature and film arts and enduring a brief and dispiriting stint in real estate, he left to work in the tech industry, first in advertising at Baidu, then in marketing at Google, all the while writing science fiction on the side.
In 2008, Chen emailed the Chinese American science fiction writer Ken Liu to express admiration for his work. The two became online friends, and in 2011, Liu offered to translate “The Fish of Lijiang” into English. That small, serendipitous idea would kick-start Liu’s role as the preeminent English translator of Chinese sci-fi. “Chen, still moonlighting as an author, kept taking jobs in tech into the 2010s. In 2013 he returned to Baidu to work in product marketing and strategy, then joined the marketing team at a virtual-reality startup in Beijing two years later. He was enchanted by the tech world’s wide-eyed ideal-ism and its central belief that a product, if scaled and optimized, could transform the lives of billions. But he also intuited that those ideals were “ultimately hollow at the core,” Chen says. In 2017 he quit his job in VR to write full-time.
Chen Qiufan’s Writing
Chen's fiction has been described as "science fiction realism". It focuses on the internal struggles of individuals during times of accelerated change. Chen is known for his use of AI-generated content in his stories. His story, "State of Trance," which appeared in Book of Shanghai, a 2020 short story collection, used automatically generated paragraphs based on his own writing. That story won him a literary prize in a contest moderated by an AI judge, over Nobel laureate Mo Yan. He is currently working on a six-story collection about the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. Chen's collaboration with Kai-Fu Lee, AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future, was published in September, 2021.
Chen’s novel “The “Waste Tide”” was published in 2013 in Chinese and translated by Ken Liu and published by Tor & Head of Zeus in 2019. His short stories include: "The Tomb" (2004); "The Fish of Lijiang" (2006); "The Year of the Rat" (2009); "The Smog Society" (2010); "The Endless Farewell" (2011); "The Mao Ghost" (2012); "The flower of Shazui" (2012); "The Animal Watcher" (2012); " A History of Future Illnesses" (2012); "Oil Of Angel" (2013); "Balin" (2015); "Coming of the Light" (2015, offline 2012)
Yi-Ling Liu wrote in Wired: “At the beginning of his writing process, Chen says, he often tries to act like “an anthropologist conducting fieldwork.” Before writing his debut novel, The “Waste Tide”, a 2013 eco-thriller about a workers’ uprising in a futuristic dump called Silicon Isle, Chen spent time in the southeastern city of Guiyu, one of the world’s largest dumping grounds for electronic waste, observing migrant workers toil in the toxin-laden trash. Once he has a feel for a given landscape in the real world, he transports the scene into what he calls the imagined “hyperreal” — a zone where the fantastical and factual are so blurred it is unclear where one begins and one ends. (In the novel, one of his main characters transforms into a cyborg, having become subsumed into the world of waste.) He wants his writing to provoke a sense of both wonder and estrangement, like a “fun-house mirror, reflecting real light in a way that is more dazzling to the eyes.” Although Chen’s The “Waste Tide” can be read as a dark and scathing critique of the government’s failure to deal with ecological destruction, the novel can just as easily be interpreted as a criticism of American hypocrisy, a manifesto against global consumerism, or simply an apolitical exploration of post-human consciousness. “With science fiction, I can probe real-life issues through an imaginary narrative,” Chen says, “without explicitly arguing who is right or wrong, good or evil.” [Source: Yi-Ling Liu, Wired, March 9, 2021]
Zheping Huang wrote in Quartz: In his 2009 novelette “The Year of the Rat”, Chen “imagines a China where unemployed college graduates are recruited by the military to kill a species of genetically modified rats that stand on two feet. Much like the iPhone, this new kind of rat is designed by the West (for use as a pet) and churned out in Chinese factories. But a batch of unqualified rats escaped into the wild and have begun to breed and mutate. Hastily trained, under-equipped graduates like the protagonist have to kill as many of the creatures as they can, so as to find a decent job after leaving the Chinese army. The 2006 novelette “The Smog Society”, predicted contest over the public discourse about air pollution. In the story, a Chinese environmental nonprofit has found that the smog index is correlated with people’s happiness index. For example, investors who lost money in a stock market crash would thicken the smog over the bourses. The organization sought to hand over the report to the government, but was dismissed. [Source: Zheping Huang, Quartz, May 11, 2017]
The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung
Chan Koonchung is a Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-raised author who has been living in Beijing since 2000. His political fable “The Fat Years” is banned in China but became available in English in July 2011. In a review of the book Jonathan Fenby wrote in the The Guardian, “The problem with writing novels set in the near future is that time catches up with you. “The Fat Years”, set in a China of 2011, appeared in Hong Kong in 2009. At first glance, it might seem that history has overtaken Chan Koonchung's book, since the terrible events it describes have not come to pass. But in fact, the book's central theme remains as valid as when Chan wrote it. Despite being officially banned, the novel has enjoyed a considerable underground audience in mainland China, even becoming a smart item for society hostesses to give to guests. The Fat Years remains valid because it is not simply a "what might happen" exercise in futurism. Its central conceit — that collective amnesia overtakes the entire country — is an all-encompassing metaphor for today's looming superpower and the question that lies behind its material renaissance since the 1980s — namely, whether a booming economy and an increasingly free individual society can be contained within the political straitjacket of a one-party system that seeks to retain all the levers of power for itself. [Source: Jonathan Fenby, The Guardian July 24, 2011]
"The novel's starting point is that a month has gone missing from the official record and from popular memory in a China which bestrides the globe economically, right down to owning Starbucks. Something terrible took place during the vanished month, but the regime, through nefarious means that are only revealed at the end of the novel, has managed to effect a state of near total forgetfulness. The central character, Old Chen, sets out to find what happened and to understand why everybody is so extraordinarily happy, as he himself is at the start of the book, living in Happiness Village Number Two, and content in the realisation that China has enjoyed continuing growth and ever greater social harmony while the west has wilted after the economic tsunami of 2008.
"The person who sets him on this quest is an old flame he meets by chance, Little Xi, an online dissident with an obnoxious Party-lining son. They join with others who question the country's euphoric condition. They meet characters who have made it materially and those who have suffered on the one side, a real estate tycoon, a jetsetting political adviser and a high-price prostitute; on the other, an underground Christian and a former slave worker. To conclude their investigation, they kidnap a senior official and he spills the beans as to what lies behind the "fat years".
"The theme of collective memory loss is particularly apposite in a country where the past is manipulated by those in power and where no public discussion of the official version of, say, the events of 1989 is permitted. Whether a nation can progress without confronting its own past is a question that hovers over the country, which again adds to the novel's pertinence. Sitting in the comfortable west, it is easy for critics of China to be censorious about the way so many people accept the rush for wealth accumulation and close an eye to the regime's political record and its human rights abuses. But the crude fact is that, after a terrible century and a quarter up to 1978, in which China went through the worst protracted experience of any nation in history, the present era may, indeed, seem like the "fat years". To touch on so many issues, either directly or by implication, in such a compelling narrative is a triumph, abetted by an excellent translation by Michael Duke. One can only hope that Chan, who was born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong, continues to write about the China of today from his current vantage point in Beijing. That will, in its way, be a test of whether the warnings of The Fat Years come true. We can only hope not.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated November 2021