‘General’ Liu Cixin deserves highest rank

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 genre “traditions”.

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. In China, where the novel has existed since the 14th century, ghost tales akin to fantasy proliferated. The first popular space-travel tale was published in 1904: Lunar Colony, by the anonymous Old Fisherman of the Secluded River.

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” contest.

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 The Three.

Other recent SFF worth reading:

  • Joe Abercrombie brings the Shattered Sea trilogy to a subversive end with Half a War (Orbit): a truly shocking set of stings-in-the-tail, gore and severed heads galore — and some of the most musical writing Abercrombie has ever produced.
  • Robin Hobb presents a doorstopper of a middle book for the Fitz and the Fool trilogy in Fool’s Quest (Harper Voyager): a dazzling tour de force that finally unites her Farseer, Liveship Traders, Tawny Man and Rain Wilds worlds. You can almost hear the tantalising details clicking together like Lego pieces — but it ends on a cliffhanger once more.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora (Orbit) must now be the benchmark for generation starship sagas: a deadpan-straight account of how entropy messes with the best-laid technology, combined with a wonderfully sensitive exploration of what being a human political animal, for better or worse, means.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

‘Frustrated’ police resort to force

Regulation uncertainty leaves slap-happy police and soldiers to decide when people should or shouldn’t be allowed on the streets

Mail & Guardian needs your help

Our job is to help give you the information we all need to participate in building this country, while holding those in power to account. But now the power to help us keep doing that is in your hands

Press Releases

New energy mix on the cards

REI4P already has and will continue to yield thousands of employment opportunities

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders