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19 Nov 2015 18:56
Liu Cixin won the 2015 Hugo Award for his novel 'The Three Body Problem".
THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM by Cixin
Liu (Head of Zeus)
Liu Cixin (his name has been
reversed on the book jacket of the Western edition) is known in China as one of
the “Three Generals” of Chinese science-fiction writing. Here he’s best known
in a much narrower context: as the winner of the 2015 Hugo Award for his novel
The Three-Body Problem — in a year when a win for a writer working outside
the West blew a defiant raspberry at factionalists lobbying for a return to
Liu’s victory illustrates
perfectly the absurdity of the faction’s stand.
American science fiction
represents at most one tradition within the genre — and not even that, given
the diversity of literary styles, themes and formats emerging from that nation
alone. Lunar Colony, by the anonymous Old Fisherman of the Secluded
Since then, Chinese science
fiction has experienced drastic switches in status and identity. Post-1949, it
was a vehicle for popular science education on the Soviet model; in the early
1980s it was a reviled symbol of “spiritual pollution.”
By 1991, it had recovered
sufficiently for the magazine Strange Tales (reincarnated as Science Fiction
World) to stage the country’s first science fiction convention in
Chengdu. Science Fiction World has a circulation that dwarfs those of comparable print publications
in the United States, and by last year online magazines were also active, such
as SF Comet, which, in 2014, ran a monthly, international, “flash fiction”
The Three-Body Problem (which has
sold more than half a million copies in China and is already in production as a
movie there) is a “hard” SF work that weaves together three narrative threads.
The first is the tragic story of scientist Ye Wenjie, who sees her physicist
father beaten to death by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, and finds
refuge working in a Chinese space-beacon project on a remote mountain.
The second is that of
nanotechnologist Wang Miao who is drafted into a police investigation
concerning the suicide of prominent scientists, and becomes obsessed with the
online game that gives the book its title.
The third is that of a powerful,
ruthless extraterrestrial power in search of a new home. Detailing how the three are twisted
together would entail far too many plot spoilers — but there are two further
volumes to come that leave Earth far behind.
Liu insists in his author’s
postscript that The Three-Body Problem is not a political book. Given that
every work of fiction at least implies views and questions about society and
power, this might prompt Western readers to seek subversive messages hidden in
metaphor: a technique with deep roots in Chinese literary history.
Liu’s American translator Ken Liu
(no relation) argues against this interpretation in an article on the online
fantasy and science fiction magazine Clarkesworld: “Imagining that the
political concerns of Chinese writers are the same as what the Western reader
would like them to be is at best arrogant and at worst dangerous. Chinese
writers are saying something about the globe, about all of humanity, not just
China, and trying to understand their works through this perspective is, I
think, the far more rewarding approach.”
The translator talks sense. There
are politics here, but the themes are universal. Wang, for example, is
constantly torn between his ethical conviction that there should be more to
life than hard scientific answers (often entailing human suffering), and his
professional knowledge that the science works.
The game — although clunky when
contrasted with current multiplayer online games — gives fascinating
allegorical clothing to this dilemma. One recurring theme in Chinese
literature is dream versus reality, and here — until a nasty shock two-thirds
of the way through the book — the game is the dream.
Though nuanced individual
characterisation is not Liu’s main project, a memorably ruthless voice of
pragmatism comes from Wang’s minder, the gruff detective Shi Quiang.
For the rest, the people — even the
main protagonists — are often predominantly vehicles for the ideas and
arguments. Yet those ideas and arguments are so fascinating, and the narrative
tension so taut, that the book is hard to put down.
Ken Liu plays no small part in
that: his translation crafts a voice for the book that is wholly accessible to
all readers while deliberately not the voice of an English-language writer.
In making their award, the Hugo
judges did pay homage to the old, hard SF tradition — and simultaneously
asserted its defiantly nonstereotyped good health outside the Western world.
In that multinational context,
M&G Books congratulates South African Sarah Lotz on her “best newcomer”
award at the recent British Fantasy Awards 2015, for her supernatural thriller
Other recent SFF worth reading:
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