Cixin Liu is the most popular SF writer in China, having won the Galaxy Award (the Chinese Hugo) nine times, but it wasn’t until 2014 that The Three-Body Problem, the first volume of his enormously popular THREE BODY trilogy, was first published in English. Amid the Sad Puppies controversy, it deservedly won the 2015 Hugo Award (first time for an Asian writer and first translated novel to win) and was nominated for the 2014 Nebula Award. The Three-Body Problem was translated by Ken Liu, author of the highly-regarded fantasy novel The Grace of Kings, and it was Ken Liu who accepted the award since Cixin Liu was unable to attend. The sequel The Dark Forest was published in Aug 2015, and the author took time from his busy schedule to answer my questions about his books and SF background (big thanks to Diana Griffin at Tor Books for arranging the translations). The final book Death’s End will be published in September 2016. One commenter with either a U.S. or Canadian address will win a copy of The Dark Forest.
Stuart: Your THREE-BODY TRILOGY was a huge hit among Chinese readers and has finally become available in English editions. It took several years for this to happen, so whose idea was it to translate your books into English? Were you concerned that the translations might not capture your books’ original intent?
Cixin Liu: China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation Ltd. first suggested translating the THREE-BODY TRILOGY into English and publishing the books in the US. They are in charge of the English version. I am very confident in the quality of the work; Ken Liu (who translated the first and third book) and Joel Martinsen (who translated the second book) are both great translators. They speak English and Chinese fluently and have a deep understanding of Eastern and Western cultures along with genre novels. I am very lucky that I have met two translators who are both very diligent and responsible and have them translate the THREE-BODY TRILOGY.
What was it like when The Three-Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best SF novel and was nominated for the 2014 Nebula Award? Is it exciting to discover so much interest in your works overseas? When you first wrote the series, was it intended mainly for Chinese readers or did you imagine there would be English readers as well?
I was in Chicago for the Nebula Awards in June but was too busy to attend the Hugo Awards ceremony. Yet The Three-Body Problem was awarded the Hugo Award so I was disappointed that I missed this opportunity. But I am delighted that the translator, Ken Liu, was able to receive the award. His excellent translation played a very important role in earning the award so I have always believed that we won the award together. I am of course very happy that my own work is so successful outside China. The genre of science fiction was introduced to China during the end of the Qing Dynasty by Westerners. One century later, China’s science fiction work is finally being published and recognized in the West. But from another perspective, science fiction novels are the most global type of literature compared to other translated works. These works often involve many aspects of Chinese culture that may be foreign to Westerners so science fiction in translation should be easier for a Western audience to understand.
Fermi’s Paradox is an important idea in the series. Despite the universe’s size and the number of stars and galaxies, why have we not encountered alien civilizations?
I believe that extraterrestrial life should exist. The reason why we haven’t found them could be lack of observation time or that our methods are not advanced enough. Of course, there are many other possibilities, and in The Three-Body Problem I described the worst and most terrible possibility.
Although humanity has managed to develop technology very rapidly in just a few hundred years, would we be able to maintain this pace of innovation if faced with a more advanced alien species?
It depends on the level of development of the alien society we encounter in relation to the current level of human civilization’s development. If we face aliens that are more innovative, the only reference we have is from our own history: in the Age of Discovery, there were many encounters of less advanced civilizations with more advanced civilizations and the results were not positive for the former.
In today’s world, global politics is complicated and contentious, and it’s difficult for nations to agree on economic, environmental, and political policies that will satisfy all parties. In the 21st century, who is likely to take a greater leadership role in developing new technologies, China or the US?
In the 21st century, America is undoubtedly going to lead the development of technology. China is a very fast-developing country, but China faces many challenges and difficulties. People are looking to China’s future, but there are many uncertainties. Although China plays a more and more important role in the development of technology in the world, I think it will be difficult to surpass the US in the next twenty or thirty years. From the perspective of international politics, China and the US will face competition and friction, but win-win collaboration should be the goal of the two countries.
You’ve said that Arthur C. Clarke has been a major influence on your books. What about other SF writers? Do you read them and if so, which are some of your favorite writers or books? Do you recommend other Chinese SF books that have not yet been translated into English?
Arthur C. Clarke’s works have had a big influence on me. My style was influenced in a big way by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama. I have said that all my works are poor imitations of Clarke’s works. However, I think Clarke’s works vary in quality and the real classics make up only a small part, like the two novels I mentioned above.
The other author that has profoundly influenced me is George Orwell. His work is very different from Clarke’s magnificent and intangible style. Nineteen Eighty-Four made me realize that science fiction novels can use different perspectives to reflect and criticize reality, more so than realistic literature.
My favorite science fiction authors include Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Jules Verne. My favorite books are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous with Rama, The Martian Chronicles, and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In terms of Chinese science fiction novels that have not been translated into English yet, I recommend the newly published novel Dooms Year by He Xi. It is an apocalyptic novel that vividly depicts the different Chinese social classes during a disaster.
Your books deal with scientific ideas on a huge scale, including the end of the universe. When you come up with new ideas, what are you main sources of inspiration? Do you read scientific journals about cosmology and physics, or attend scientific conferences?
Most of my inspiration comes from reading. I usually read science fiction, history and military novels. I also regularly read journals like Scientific American and Science et Vie. Because I live far away from the metropolis, I have only participated in a few scientific gatherings, like Songshuhui [a blog dedicated to popular science] events, so they are not a main source of inspiration.
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