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Inside the expansive mind of Liu Cixin

By Kobo • April 16, 2021Author Interviews

Liu Cixin is the author of international bestseller, The Three-Body Problem, for which he won the 2015 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

Sea of Dreams, a new graphic novel adaptation of one of his short stories, is the first in a 16-volume series.

This interview was made possible with the support of FT Culture (Beijing) Co., Ltd. in November, 2020 with translations provided by Jesse Field.

Your novels are so large, they take place in such massive expanses of time and space, and have so many layers of interpretation that I found myself wondering often where you take inspiration for them. I read once that you got your idea for The Supernova Era in a dream, very much like Coleridge did for "Kubla Khan", but also that your trips to the United States in the 80s had an impact on the definition of your imagination. Then there is the section in The Dark Forest focusing on the love story between Zhuang Yan and Luo Ji, there is history of China, philosophy, science and what Joseph Campbell with a beautiful paradox called “the inner reaches of outer space”. How do you manage to keep all that together when you write?

Compared to ancient mythology and philosophy, modern science gives us a picture of nature and the universe that is even greater and more majestic, yielding an even more expansive imaginative space for science fiction. This is also the major source of my creative inspiration. In China, science fiction is an imported literary form. In my work, the elements of Chinese history and Chinese philosophy are certainly not much, for I more often approach my considerations and creative work with modern thinking. The love story you mention, from The Dark Forest, is by no means a Chinese style of love story. In the east and in the west, the imaginative elements of love are equally rich. For example, during the Middle Ages in Europe, in an epic poem set on the Iberian peninsula, a certain knight merely heard the name of a princess in a distant kingdom, and suddenly he was madly in love with her. In my fiction, I have never consciously tried to show off Chinese culture, nor have I deliberately tried to combine Western and Chinese culture. But I am a Chinese, so no matter what, my works certainly possess elements of and the context for Chinese culture. But just what these are, I could not say specifically.

One possible way of reading your books is through the lens of philosophical pessimism: The Three-Body Problem starts with what we could call historical pessimism and then the trajectory spirals out to anthropological pessimism and reaches an accomplished cosmic pessimism in Death’s End. Do you agree with this interpretation? Do you consider yourself a philosophical pessimist? Personally, I think that, with all the challenges and complications, pessimism has proved to be one of the most powerful speculative tools we have to think about the present in this troubled but also somehow interesting age.

I don’t agree with this interpretation. I think of myself as an optimist, and I believe humanity will have a bright future. The three volumes of The Three-Body Trilogy all have a basic optimism in them. In these books, although the humans of the solar system are destroyed in the end, human civilization spreads to the entire galaxy. Yes, The Three-Body Trilogy also describes the end of the universe in its conclusion, but in science fiction, describing the end of the world need not be pessimistic, because according to the laws of nature, the existence of the end of the world is necessary. All within the universe must come to an end. As an optimist, I’m something of an exception among science fiction authors, Chinese or otherwise, for pessimism takes up the mainstream of modern science fiction. At the same time, I’m a rational optimist. Although I believe human civilization has a bright future, this positive future will only be reached via a long and winding historical course. On the course, there will be enormous setbacks and disasters, exacting an enormous price. My fiction describes this historical course, but when it comes down to it, I still take an optimistic view of the human future.

"... in science fiction, describing the end of the world need not be pessimistic..."

There is a point in the first novel, The Three-Body Problem, when you write that “the intellectual elites were different; many had already started considering things from a perspective that transcended humanity”. Adopting a perspective that transcends humanity without throwing us into despair at the same time seems to be one of the most difficult challenges our time has to face. Is it really possible? Will we ever be able to look at ourselves and the world around us in an objective, detached way, and live with what we see? Or will we, as H.P. Lovecraft once famously said, be blinded by the sight and “flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age”?

I think it is possible to consider matters outside of humanity, such as some matters that have nothing to do with human existence per se. For example, consideration of the universe and natural law certainly takes a stance external to humanity. Even when it’s those objective bodies revealed by quantum mechanics as observed by humans, we are already considering them from a perspective other than that of humans. But when it comes to questions related to the existence of humanity itself, it becomes hard to consider things from outside the perspective of humanity. For example, in an ideal ethical system, we should consider all forms of life equal, but this ethics is in conflict with human existence, because humanity can only survive by eating other lifeforms. Even vegetarians are this way, for if they believe that animals and humans resemble each other more, and thus place them at a higher rank than plants, then this is not external to the human perspective, but precisely a sign of anthropocentrism. What’s more, the ending of your question seems incoherent at the end, for why should it be that considering matters from within the perspective of humanity means that we should choose to be blinded and flee from the light? Do you believe that the existence and safety of humanity itself is something blinding and dark?

I am not sure if anyone else noticed that, but in the trilogy the metaphor of the eye returns over and over again. Across the three books I could count dozens of eyes: Jupiter as a giant eye in the Milky Way, futuristic suits decorated with hundreds of eyes, stars as eyes that look at the characters, the eye at the centre of the Sophon just to name a few. This is incredibly ominous and so very psychedelic, especially because we are used to thinking that an eye always implies some sort of agency behind it, some intelligence that looks through it, whilst in your novels there’s often nothing, or at least nothing that we consider “intelligent”. I was very fascinated about this. I wonder if you can comment on that.

Even in our everyday lives, eyes are an organ that can make people quite sensitive, because eyes are the main channels by which biological bodies observe the world. When we see a pair of eyes, it means the object can see us, and this means the eyes have become a symbol of the sentient Other. If a certain existence of the universe can appear in the form of eyes, then this means it is not a purely material form, because behind the eyes there must be some intelligence and even a soul. This is definitely something that can make us shudder. But from the perspective of modern science, this could be another human illusion. Because eyes, and all that lies behind them, are all a part of nature, and all follow the laws of nature that we already know. In my view, life, intelligence, and the soul are not things that transcend natural law. Quite the opposite, they are the highest manifestations of natural law. Science refutes things like the soul which claim to be supernatural. So in my fiction, it’s possible that there is nothing behind the eyes.

The only other work of science-fiction that I can compare The Three-Body Trilogy to is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation: the two works share the ability to interpret the culture of their times, the maximalist approach to storytelling, their commentary on the raising political and cultural powers they come from. Where Asimov explores the implication of the (then) young social sciences, your novels delve deep into the seemingly endless weird possibilities of modern physics. Do you agree with this comparison? Was Asimov’s work a source of inspiration -- beyond the fact that Asimov must be a source of inspiration for every sci-fi writer?

Foundation is a classic example of science fiction, but it was not the inspiration for The Three-Body Trilogy. The world described in Foundation is much larger than that described in The Three-Body Trilogy, and it has the following important differences: even though the world in Foundation is vast and expansive, distributed all along the galaxy, still it only features humans, no aliens. And in the world of The Three-Body Trilogy, the universe holds many, many intelligent civilizations. In philosophical terms, despite the vastness of the world of Foundation, still it lacks an Other, while in The Three-Body Trilogy, there exists an Other. In fact, The Three-Body Trilogy takes more inspiration from the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Sakyo Komatsu.

I mentioned the endless possibilities of modern physics and the psychedelic atmosphere of many scenes in your novels. The two perspectives share vertiginous movements from the macrocosm to the microcosm, an inherent weird dimension, a deep interrogation on the texture of reality and the nature of the Self, the terrifying but also liberating doubt that at the very centre of life lies emptiness. Recently, this connection has been made evident by the work of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. I was wondering if you know the work of Rovelli and if this convergence makes sense to you. Is science opening the gates of a new spirituality?

I don’t know much about the work of Carlo Rovelli, I have read his Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which is an outstanding work of popular science, with a great deal of writing that is simple, and yet rich in poetry, showing his deep understanding of physics. Modern physics certainly has given us a fascinating and shocking vision of the world, one that far transcends our own intuition or common sense, and which confirms the title of one of Rovelli’s other books, Reality is Not What It Seems. And the whirling, unstable world described by quantum mechanics has also left a deep influence on the world views of modern people. From what I understand of theories of modern physics, I certainly don’t conclude that life’s origins are in nothingness, but rather tend in this way: as our understanding of the universe increases, the more we discover the lack of any meaning. One option we can be certain of is, the relation between life and the universe is far more complex than we can imagine, and to understand this relationship, we have a long road to go down. But at present, the view of the world revealed by modern physics since the beginning of the 20th century has not yet been circulated to mass audiences. In the consciousness of the masses, the picture of the world remains the Newtonian one. One could conjecture, this lack of understanding of the new vision of the world has a big impact on culture and social thought.

"I really do hope that my work can be made into films, and I have always done everything I could to make this happen."

You have now become the most important literary figure in a literary movement that is changing our ideas about science fiction and is doing so even in Italy, where a number of works have been recently translated (among these, in 2020, Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide and Hao Jifang’s Folding Beijing), in some cases thanks to the work of well-known Italian speculative fiction writers like Francesco Verso. In some important sense, the Chinese new wave of science fiction is also a window or a filter through which the West looks at China, and it will be even more so now that the Three-Body Trilogy is arriving on Netflix, the second of your works to be translated on the screen after the 2019 adaptation of The Wandering Earth. This is a big responsibility, in a way, and a position that can be quite uncomfortable as well. Is this impacting your writing? What did the worldwide popularity change for you? Can you still focus on just (I’m quoting you here) “writing interesting stories from the latest results of fundamental scientific research”?

I am very happy that my work has been translated and published in so many languages, which is certainly not something I ever considered when I first wrote these things. As a fan of science fiction now turned science fiction author, I write science fiction with a deeply holistic consciousness of humanity. That is to say, in my fiction, humanity appears as a whole, and its nations and ethnicities are unimportant. The crises and challenges they face are held in common by all of humanity. I have never deliberately added Chinese characteristics to my work, and even less have I ever wanted to create “Chinese science fiction.” Of course, as a Chinese person, my fiction is unavoidably infused with certain elements of Chinese culture, and western readers will take these works as windows through which to view China. But in terms of myself as an individual, I hope western readers will read my works because they are works of science fiction, and not only because they are “Chinese” science fiction.

I really do hope that my work can be made into films, and I have always done everything I could to make this happen. In the process, as the original author, the changes to my work unavoidably produce discrimination or competition with the movie production. But I have it clear in my mind, fiction and film are two completely different artistic forms, so I keep an understanding and tolerant attitude toward the adaptation of my works for film. Film will influence the original work, but this influence is limited. A mediocre novel does not become a classic because it was successfully adapted into a film, and a successful novel is not destroyed because its movie adaptation was a failure. Moreover, adapting my work into films will not influence my later work. In later work, I will not give undue consideration to whether it is suitable for film adaptation.

Fame has not influenced me much. I live in a small city in Shanxi Province, and my only contacts with the outside world are through mail and the internet. People around here are not certain what it is I do. Nor are they interested. In my future work, I will hold fast to my ideals to date, taking science as story materials for science fiction, expressing the relation between humans and the universe, between humans and nature. I have always thought, modern science is itself a book of, or many books, of, the most marvelous science fiction, fiction without characters. And so my job is to put the people into this science, and to express it all using the methods of literature. ◼

Sea of Dreams by Liu Cixin

An annual ice sculpture festival draws the attention of an extraterrestrial visitor, who learns how to create such art and decides to use local resources to sculpt a piece in a gesture of goodwill. All the water in the ocean is sent to the stratosphere, where the ice sculptor uses splendid techniques to create crystal dominoes scattered by a giant of the cosmos. In the world of the ice sculptor, art is the sole reason for civilization’s existence. After the ice sculptor creates the pinnacle of beauty, but also brings forth devastation and disaster, humanity decides during Earth’s last breaths to fight for their survival.

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