Liu Cixin is the leading writer in China’s small but vibrant science fiction scene. He’s won numerous literary awards, including China’s Galaxy Award, which he took home eight years in a row, from 1999 to 2006, and received again in 2010. He’s also the top-selling Chinese science fiction writer, having sold more than 500,000 copies of each novel in his most popular series, Remembrance of Earth’s Past (popularly known as the Three-Body trilogy, after the first title in the series).
A computer engineer by profession—until 2014, he worked for the China Power Investment Corp.—Liu began writing science fiction as a hobby, but The Three-Body Problem made him famous. It was initially serialized in Science Fiction World magazine in 2006 and then published as a standalone in 2008. The book and the series it belongs to tell an epic story of alien invasion and of humanity’s journey to the stars. It begins with a secret Mao-era military effort at establishing communications with extraterrestrials and ends with the end of the universe.
Tor, an imprint of Macmillan, began publishing the English translation of the Three-Body trilogy in November 2014, and in March The Three-Body Problem was nominated for a Nebula Award.
How do you feel about the Nebula nomination?
A: I’m honored and overjoyed. As a science fiction fan, the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award mean a lot to me. If I had to choose between the Nobel Prize in literature and the Nebula/Hugo awards, I would choose the latter without hesitation—though I’m not so arrogant as to think I could win the Nobel Prize. But the ultimate goal of my writing has always been delighting readers, not winning awards. For me, the most valuable affirmation comes from readers. Thus, the best thing about being nominated for a Nebula is that perhaps more people will read my novel, and the award will build more publicity for the two sequels in English.
How did the English translation of the Three-Body trilogy come about?
This was mainly the result of a successful collaboration between Science Fiction World Publishing, the publisher of Science Fiction World magazine, and China Education Publications Import & Export Co. Ltd. (CEPIEC). SFW was the original Chinese publisher, and it laid the groundwork for the translation and introduction of the novels to readers in other languages. CEPIEC, on the other hand, was responsible for the key piece: the translation itself. At a time when the company’s own finances were rather tight, it invested a great deal of resources and effort into the project, successfully overcoming obstacles during the translation and publishing process. In the end, CEPIEC had to choose between Amazon and Tor as potential American partners, and it decided on Tor.
More importantly, CEPIEC found excellent translators for the series. Ken Liu [the translator of the first and third books in the trilogy, who also conducted and translated this interview] and Joel Martinsen [the translator for the second book] both possess deep, comprehensive linguistic knowledge of Chinese, as well as the requisite cultural understanding, and they were thus able to create outstanding translations. After the publication of The Three-Body Problem, Liu’s translation was widely praised by readers and critics. A portion of the success of the book in the American market should be attributed to his skill. Collaborating with such translators is one of the most fortunate events of my writing career.
What has surprised you most about the reactions of non-Chinese readers to the book?
To be honest, before the American publication of The Three-Body Problem, I prepared myself for the possibility of uniformly negative reviews. Science fiction has had more than a century of development in America, and the tastes of readers and the level of published works are very mature. Chinese science fiction, on the other hand, is still relatively immature—though Chinese science fiction started fairly early, the genre’s development was interrupted many times. After each interruption, new writers reviving the genre had to start over without the benefit of lessons learned by previous writers.
The books in the Three-Body series were written entirely to the tastes of Chinese readers and are stylistically quite different from contemporary American science fiction. The series also suffers from some obvious literary flaws—especially in the first book, The Three-Body Problem.
The fact that so many American readers and critics responded to the book positively was completely unexpected. In contrast to the kind of crude sarcasm and abusive language sometimes directed at my work on the Web in China, even the critical English comments were very logical and justified, offering suggestions that will be helpful for me in the future. The positive reception proved a belief I’ve long held: science fiction is the most global of literatures, and it is capable of being understood by the peoples of all nations and states. One day, I hope that American readers will read my book not because it’s Chinese science fiction, but simply because it’s science fiction.
Although science fiction movies dominate the box office in the West, science fiction books are generally less popular than those of other genres. Do you think visual media are best for expressing science fiction ideas?
I do think that science fiction ideas are best expressed through visual media like film and TV. Realist literature depicts things that we have seen in life, but science fiction is different: what it depicts exists only in the author’s imagination. When it comes to science fiction, the written word is inadequate. Most science fictional imaginings—especially truly original conceptions—can only be expressed visually.
For several years now I’ve been actively involved in the creation of science fiction films; some are adapted from my stories, others are originals. For a writer, this kind of work is very challenging because writing a story requires only the writer, but making a film requires a whole team and the balancing of multiple opinions.
You’re currently consulting for the film adaptation of the Three-Body series. What has that process been like?
Since all of my movie projects involve confidential commercial information, I can’t reveal too many details. However, I can say that although the movie version of the first installment of the Three-Body series is about to begin filming, most of the other films based on my fiction are still only in the planning stages. It will be some time before filming starts on those, and some of them may never get to that stage.
Most of the film projects based on my fiction require heavy investment, and, as a result, they are complicated. Compared to novels, films face many more restrictions, such as the demands of the market and the censorship regime. Until the day the cameras start rolling, no one can say whether a project will actually go through. The main creators in a film are the director, the producer, and the screenplay writer. As the novelist behind the original work, my involvement is limited.
What are you working on now? And what can readers expect from you in the future?
Since I no longer have to go to work, I stay home all day. I’ve been working on a new novel, but it hasn’t been easy. The main difficulty is finding an idea that really excites me. We live in an age when miracles are no longer miracles, and science and the future are losing their sense of mystery. For science fiction, or at least the type of science fiction I write, this development is almost fatal, but I’m still giving it all I’ve got.
No matter what, my main career in the future will be writing science fiction. I’m a science fiction author who started as a science fiction fan: I came from science fiction, and to science fiction I shall return.