Science Fiction Epics That Transcend the Moment

From The Wall Street Journal:

Science fiction can be hard to disentangle from the real world. Futuristic tales about advanced technology and clashing alien civilizations often read like allegories of present-day problems. It is tempting, then, to find some kind of political message in the novels of Liu Cixin, 57, China’s most famous science fiction writer, whose speculative and often apocalyptic work has earned the praise of Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. The historian Niall Ferguson recently said that reading Mr. Liu’s fiction is essential for understanding “how China views America and the world today.”

But Mr. Liu insists that this is “the biggest misinterpretation of my work.” Speaking through an interpreter over Skype from his home in Shanxi Province, he says that his books, which have been translated into more than 20 languages, shouldn’t be read as commentaries on China’s history or aspirations. In his books, he maintains, “aliens are aliens, space is space.” Although he has acknowledged, in an author’s note to one of his books, that “every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it,” he says that he writes science fiction because he enjoys imagining a world beyond the “narrow” one we live in. “For me, the essence of science fiction is using my imagination to fill in the gaps of my dreams,” says Mr. Liu.

In China, science fiction has often been inseparable from ideology. A century ago, early efforts in the genre were conspicuously nationalistic: “Elites used it as a way of expressing their hopes for a stronger China,” says Mr. Liu. But the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution banned science fiction as subversive, and critics in the 1980s argued that it promoted capitalist ideas. “After that, science fiction was discouraged,” Mr. Liu remembers.

In recent years, however, the genre has been making a comeback. This is partly because China’s breakneck pace of modernization “makes people more future-oriented,” Mr. Liu says. But the country’s science fiction revival also has quite a lot to do with Mr. Liu himself.

In 2015, he became the first Asian writer to win the Hugo Award, the most prestigious international science fiction prize. A 2019 adaptation of his short story “The Wandering Earth” became China’s third-highest-grossing film of all time, and a movie version of his bestselling novel “The Three-Body Problem” is in the works. His new book, “To Hold Up the Sky,” a collection of stories, will be published in the U.S. in October. (His American books render his name as Cixin Liu, with the family name last, but Chinese convention is to put the family name first.)

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His first book appeared in 1989, and for years he wrote while working as an engineer at a state-owned power plant. The publication of “The Three-Body Problem,” in 2006, made him famous, and after a pollution problem shut the plant down in 2010, he devoted himself to writing full-time.

Mr. Liu’s renowned trilogy “Remembrance of Earth’s Past,” published in China between 2006 and 2010, tells the story of a war between humans on Earth and an alien civilization called the Trisolarans who inhabit a planet in decline. The story begins in the 1960s, in the years of the Cultural Revolution, and eventually zooms millions of years into the future. The aliens’ technological superiority and aggressive desire to exploit Earth’s resources have made some readers see them as a metaphor for the colonial Western powers China struggled against for more than a century. But Mr. Liu says this is too limited a view of his intentions. What makes science fiction “so special,” he says, is that its narratives often encourage us to “look past boundaries of nations and cultures and races, and instead really consider the fate of humankind as a whole.”

The English version of “The Three-Body Problem,” the first book in the trilogy, differs from the original in a small but telling way. In this 2014 translation, the story begins with an episode from the Cultural Revolution, in which a character’s father is publicly humiliated and killed for his “reactionary” views. The translator Ken Liu (no relation to the author) moved the scene to the start of the book from the middle, where Mr. Liu admits he had buried it in the original Chinese because he was wary of government censor

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)