Not since Mao’s Little Red Book has an English-language translation of a Chinese author sold as well in the United States as Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem. Translated in 2014 by Ken Liu and published by Tor Books, it is the first book in a trilogy that has earned plaudits from leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg and President Barack Obama, as well as sci-fi fans who propelled it to a Hugo Award in 2015 – a first for a Chinese writer.
While Liu Cixin was already a multiple award winner in China for his work, Chinese science fiction is garnering more accolades in the United States: Hao Jingfang won a Hugo Award this year for her novelette, Folding Beijing. As a way to better understand China, and its recent past and future rise, science fiction binds together crucial cultural, political and technological elements that would otherwise be inaccessible or considered unrelated. Taken together, the books in Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem trilogy represent some of the most important contemporary science fiction to explore strategic problems that are almost too big to consider any other way.
Treating the plot superficially to avoid spoilers, the premise of Three Body Problem is that an alien civilization called the Trisolarans, whose planet exists at the mercy of the movement of the three suns near their home planet, learns that there is intelligent life on Earth during China’s Cultural Revolution and soon after sends out a fleet to destroy the human race. An urgent threat of extinction that unites mankind? Yes and no. The Trisolarans aren’t going to arrive for hundreds of years, which puts humanity in a generations-long bind of deciding how best to respond scientifically and militarily without getting distracted by internal battles amid the calamity that is humanity’s fate. Three Body Problem was first published in China in 2008.
The second book in the series, Dark Forest (Tor Books 2015), is highly relevant for its focus on the human element within the scientific, and bureaucratic, battles in preparing a unified strategic and military response to the Trisolarans. The ultimate strategy chosen to confront the Trisolarans is truly innovative, which can be an overused word but is not in this case. There are real-world lessons in the book, which was translated by Joel Martinsen, for the national security community as it wrestles with how to approach existential threats.
While deterrence theory is a central focus in Dark Forest, it is more fully explored in the third book, Death’s End (Tor Books 2016). Death’s End, again translated by Ken Liu who also translated Folding Beijing, came out in September, and it is the hard-science culmination of a series that is unabashed in its love and respect for the creative and destructive powers of science. The story can also be read as a meditation on deterrence in an era such as our own that finds the list of potentially cataclysmic technologies growing each year. A step-back historical narrative within the book, A Past Outside of Time, also provides context that is relevant today: “Trisolarans were no longer creatures of transparent thought. During the past two centuries they had learned a great deal about strategic thinking – lies, ruses, and tricks. This was perhaps the greatest benefit they gained from studying human culture.”
The following excerpts are from an Art of the Future project e-mail interview in which Liu Cixin discusses his work; the questions and answers were translated to and from Chinese by the Atlantic Council’s Yirong Mao.
What inspired you to create the Three Body Problem trilogy?
The initial inspiration of this novel came from the three-body problem in physics. This problem shocked me, [because I realized that] if the motion of three particles influenced solely by their own gravitation cannot be determined with the knowledge of mathematics and physics, how could we ever understand the complexity of all of nature? This reminds me of what Albert Einstein once said: Every single leaf on the tree outside the window is calling our attention to the limited explanatory power of science. And taking a science fiction perspective towards this problem, I started to imagine if these three particles were three stars, what would the civilization on a planet of this galaxy be like? This became the core setting of the Three Body Problem trilogy. Of course there are more topics covered in the novel. I want to discuss this kind of a possibility: if intelligent civilizations commonly exist in the universe, what’s the worst status of these civilizations? What is the most horrifying hint offered by the Great Silence of the universe? What is the darkest explanation of the Fermi paradox? In short, it is these big and strange questions that came to my mind when I looked into the dark and silent sky that generates the Three Body Problem trilogy.
You have now won the Hugo Award in the United States and developed an enormous following. Does this change how you think about your readers, and the stories they might like?
When the Three Body Problem trilogy was first published, the readers I expected were only Chinese readers. I didn’t expect it would be translated for the United States, not to mention accepted by US readers. Because to my knowledge, science fiction in the United States has developed and evolved for a century and become very mature, which makes it quite different from the newly emerging Chinese science fiction. Also because of the different cultural backgrounds of the two countries, I suppose the readers’ tastes towards literature might be distinct. But the reality tells me that science fiction can really be the most universal type of literature.
In science fiction, humans usually appear as a whole; the science fiction readers in the real world can also be a unified group – there are way more similarities than differences between them. On the other hand, the story of the Three Body Problem trilogy is based on scientific facts and technical details, and thus can be categorized as a traditional type of science fiction with a style of the golden age of American sci-fi. I thought this type of science fiction might be outdated in the United States, but actually it’s still welcomed by lots of readers. This reminds me of a saying, that no matter how old a guiding principle is, we cannot easily conclude that it has lost its appeal.
In Dark Forest, Earth’s strategy to defend against the Trisolarans did not come from the military or a government. What was your message here?
This is just a way of constructing a story through “legendizing”. The characters in the book are actually not lone rangers but affiliated to government or the military. It’s just because they themselves play such a crucial role that makes us neglect their affiliation. “Legendizing” is common in science fiction. We as writers tend to let the incidents that will promote the course of history all happen to a few or even one person, but in real history it’s obviously not like that. Another example is that, although fanatic scientists who attempt to control or destroy the world frequently show up in science fictions, this kind of person has never existed. Their deeds of controlling the world through technology are actually all done by states. This also shows the “legendizing” feature of science fiction as a kind of popular literature.
How well do you think mankind understands the biggest threats it faces, as the Trisolarans did, and what might those be?
I don’t think mankind has understood the threats it faces. Mankind as a whole tends to focus their attention only on the issues at hand rather than long-term issues. The future plans made by states and the international community seldom span over half a century. Mankind will face lots of threats in the future, including those that may destroy the Earth civilization. One example is the climate change. For now, people only pay attention to the climate change caused by human activities, but a much bigger threat is the periodic change of the climate on Earth – if the new ice age comes, modern agriculture systems will collapse and Earth civilization is likely to be reduced to one-tenth of its current size. There’re surely other threats coming, and they cannot be all mentioned here, but the biggest threat to mankind is the fact that people haven’t even realized these threats. People haven’t realized a simple fact—that it’s so fortunate for mankind, as a whole, not to have encountered a doomsday-disaster in the real sense throughout the history of human civilization. This is good fortune, but it might not always be the case.
What is your favorite book in the Three Body Problem trilogy?
The trilogy is like my three kids; it’s hard for me to tell which one I like best. Each of the three books has its merits and flaws, but in general I’m satisfied with them all.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about technology’s influence on humanity vs. humanity’s influence on technology?
I think humanity is more influenced by technology than vice versa. I agree on Kevin Kelly’s opinion: technology is like a self-evolving, living organism, whose development is independent of man’s will. And the development of technology has changed and will continue to change and shape humanity. But it doesn’t mean that I’m pessimistic about the development of technology, because although the development of technology has its own direction, humanity can avoid or at least limit the negative impacts of technology development through our efforts. I believe the development of technology will lead to a wonderful world for mankind.
What do you think life in 2035 will be like?
I think human life and social activities will mostly take place in the online digital world. This could be a great migration of mankind, a migration from the real world to the digital virtual world, whose significance can be compared with ancient humans’ venturing out of Africa. In the meantime, as artificial intelligence technology matures, in 2035, most of the jobs previously done by human will be replaced by smart machines, thus leading to tremendous changes in political, economic, and cultural aspects of human society. The changes will be fundamental and create new cultural and social forms.
What role today does science fiction play in Chinese culture?
Compared to before, science fiction is no longer marginalized in China in recent years, and it’s starting to gain popularity. The number and scope of readers are expanding, news media is starting to pay attention to science fiction, many science fictions are being adapted into movies and TV series, and the government is also greatly supporting it out of the consideration that science fiction is helpful for breeding an innovation culture. But in general, China has fewer sci-fi readers, a smaller market, and fewer science fiction writers, especially influential writer and representative works.
What do you do for inspiration?
I used to get inspiration through reading and thinking, but it has changed in recent years. As science fiction is gaining popularity in China, sci-fi writers like me are able to get opportunities to be directly engaged with various fields of scientific research, including talking to scientists of different fields, visiting research centers, etc. I personally have more contacts with people in the field of aerospace and have visited the labs and manufacturing sites of satellites and rockets, and I’ve watched the launch of spaceships on-site. These experiences are all helpful to get inspirations for my works.