The future of Chinese sci-fi

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-8-30 19:18:01

An interview with China’s first Hugo Award winner: Liu Cixin

Liu Cixin Photo: CFP

Fifty-two-year-old writer Liu Cixin became the first author in Asia to win a Hugo Award when he was awarded Best Novel by the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention on Sunday.

The Global Times sat down with the author recently to discuss the award, his work and the future of sci-fi in China.

GT: This was a huge win for Asian sci-fi that fills a long empty blank. Why didn't you attend the award ceremony?

Liu: I'm already over 50 years old, so I took the nomination in stride. Of course, I really wanted to attend, but I was too busy. My daughter is about to begin a new semester at school, so I couldn't make it. However, after I realized it had won Best Novel and that it was the only award to be announced by an astronaut on the International Space Station, I regretted [not going] even more because it was really an exciting moment for us in sci-fi. Luckily I will still have other chances over the next two years since the two other volumes of The Three-Body Trilogy will be able to compete for a Hugo Award.

GT: Did you expect to win this "Nobel Prize" for sci-fi?

Liu: Chinese sci-fi began in the last years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but all these years we've been looking up to Western sci-fi. From the first time Western sci-fi was introduced to China to being recognized by the world's top sci-fi award, this transformation took almost 100 years. To be honest, I can't believe what The Three-Body Problem has achieved. This is just the dismay of a si-fi guy talking, but I don't think the rest of [Chinese] society will see this award as we do.  On the same day The Three-Body Problem won the award, Su Bingtian competed in the World Athletics Championship finals for track and field. Both of these honors were firsts for Asians, but most domestic media outlets focused more attention on the latter, which got me feeling a little depressed.

In my opinion, sci-fi is the "barometer" for the national capabilities of a country. Its prevalence in the UK and the US parallels the rise of these two countries. In the past China exported nostalgic literature - literature that looked back and even depicted the backwardness of China -- but sci-fi is literature that looks into future. Like The New York Times said,  The Three-Body Problem shows that the lifestyles of China's new generation have changed. It's for this reason that such a cultural topic shouldn't be ignored.

GT: The second volume of the trilogy went on sale in the US market on August 11. How is it faring in the market?

Liu: I checked on Amazon in the US. It ranks among the top 1,000 to 2,000 books. Normally, a book is considered a bestseller when it ranks within 1,000. However, it is doing really well on Amazon China, where it ranked No.1 an hour after the [Hugo] announcement. Americans have a cultural pride, they are kind of particular when it comes to translated literature. Exporting sci-fi to their world is like importing kungfu fiction to China. As far as I know, most Chinese books normally just sell a few hundred copies in their market. Sales of Mo Yan's works have reached into the tens of thousands. My American publisher estimates The Three-Body Trilogy will sell 20,000 copies. I think that's pretty good.

GT: Some Chinese fans have said they want to band together to vote on the World Science Fiction website next year. What's your opinion on this?

Liu: That's the best way to destroy The Three-Body Trilogy. And not just this sci-fi work, but also the reputation of Chinese sci-fi fans. The entire number of voters for the Hugo Awards is only around 5,000. That means it is easily influenced by malicious voting. Organizing 2,000 people to each spend $14 is not hard, but I am strongly against such misbehavior. If that really does happen, I will follow the example of Marko Kloos, who withdrew from the shortlist after discovering the "Rabid Puppies" had asked voters to support him.

GT: Many fans believe that even if The Three-Body Problem had benefited from the "puppies," it still was deserving of a Hugo Award. Do you agree?

Liu: Deserving is one thing, getting the award is another thing. Many votes went to The Three-Body Problem after Marko Kloos withdrew. That's something I didn't want to see. But The Three-Body Problem still would have had a chance to win by a slim margin of a few votes [without the "puppies"].

After the awards, some critics used this - the support right-wing organizations like the "puppies" gave The Three-Body Problem - as an excuse to criticize the win. That frustrated me. The "puppies" severely harmed the credibility of the Hugo Awards. I feel both happy and "unfortunate" to have won this year.

The second volume was translated by an American translator, while the first and third were translated by Liu Yukun (Ken Liu). Most Chinese readers think the second and the third books are better than the first, but American readers won't necessarily feel the same way. So I'm not sure about the Hugo Awards next year. I'm just going to take things in stride.

GT: It's not easy for foreign literature to break into the English language market. What do you think of Liu Yukun's translation?

Liu: Although only my name is on the trophy, it actually belongs to both myself and Liu Yukun. He gets half the credit. He has a profound mastery of both Oriental and Western literature. He is important to me and Chinese sci-fi. He has also introduced books from other countries to the West. A Japanese author once told me that the quality of Japanese sci-fi is much better than China's, but its influence in the US is much weaker. That's because they lack a bridge like Liu Yukun.

GT: After the awards, netizens began to focus on whether the film version of The Three-Body Problem will be able to grasp the essence of the novel. What criteria do you think we should use to measure a sci-fi film?

Liu: Both special effects and the human spirit are important for a sci-fi film, but films like that are hard to make a reality. Actually, most successful Hollywood sci-fi films were adapted from short stories. There are barely any successful films that were adapted from long novels. Chinese sci-fi films are just getting started. It's a really high bar to compare our first work with  2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner. Who could pull that off? In the end, I'll stay the same and take everything in stride.

Global Times

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