The renowned Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu is best known as the author of the best-selling, Obama-beloved, Hugo-winning, and truly mind-bending trilogy The Three-Body Problem. In 2018, the Brandeis Novel Symposium organized a one-day conference about that work, so we jumped at the chance to speak with Liu when he visited Brandeis. In the booth, John asked the questions (which we had written together), while Pu did simultaneous translation.
A longer version of this interview originally aired (in both Chinese and English) on Recall This Book, a new podcast partnered with Public Books; other recent interviewees include Samuel Delany, Zadie Smith, and Mike Leigh. You can listen to the whole thing here (and see here for an aftermath discussion between Pu and John). Or you can subscribe to Recall This Book on iTunes, or Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. A version of the interview in Chinese recently appeared in a Shanghai-based arts magazine.
John Plotz (JP): Mr. Liu, hello. Let me begin by asking which writers had an influence on you. And were there poets or painters or filmmakers who also had the kind of impact that Jules Verne or H. G. Wells had on you?
Cixin Liu (CL): I would like to divide the influential writers into two categories: mainstream, canonical writers and science fiction writers. When it comes to the first category, of canonical serious literature, the biggest influence on me was Golden Age Russian literature—especially Tolstoy.
I once had a misunderstanding about, or misperception of, my fascination with Russian literature. I attributed this fascination to historical conditions, because back in my formative years Russian literature was quite dominant on the Chinese cultural front. And I once believed that my love for the Russian Revolution, for Russian literature, was only a part of this cultural situation.
But, when I think again and look back again, the most intensive literature reading of my life started to take place during my middle school and high school years. That was already the beginning of China’s age of reforms and opening up. A lot of Western literary works were introduced into China at this time, translated into Chinese, including a lot of Western European and North American works, in addition to Russian works. If we take this into consideration, then probably my love for Russian literature—especially Tolstoy’s huge influence on me—is simply thanks to my personality.
JP: That is so fascinating. I’m rereading War and Peace right now. His world-building capacity is astonishing: the war spaces and the peace spaces seem to be disconnected—yet suddenly readers realize the deep connection underneath. Can you talk more about how you compare your own work to Tolstoy’s?
CL: My favorite Tolstoy is also War and Peace. That’s the biggest influence on me.
There are two reasons why I love War and Peace so much. The first one, of course, is the panoramic totality of the historical world that Tolstoy created. That kind of grand narrative is simply powerful for me. But another reason is also the Russianness of this work, so deeply rooted in its Russian spirit.
There is a sense of profundity that overwhelms me. In my more recent work, there are always echoes and shadows of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But, for me, these are simply very, very low-level imitations, which cannot even begin to match Tolstoy’s profundity.
JP: And are there artists who weren’t writers who affected you like that?
CL: Yes. Kubrick, for one, is my favorite filmmaker. Of course, 2001 is a classic I love. But all of his works have a lot of influence on me.
This year is the 51st anniversary of the making of 2001. For a fan of science fiction like me, this film has the status of the Bible. Last month in Beijing, together with many other science fiction writers and critics, I saw the digitally repaired version of 2001. And all of us were pilgrims, not just moviegoers. There are many poets and painters that I admire, but, in terms of influence, they cannot compare to what I have just mentioned.
JP: When you began to be a writer, what sort of things did you write? And when did you begin to write science fiction?
CL: My experience of writing, actually, was quite simple. I only wrote science fiction. I started with science fiction and I ended up being a science fiction writer. I started as a big fan of science fiction. And in that sense, I might be part of the first generation of Chinese writers who engaged with science fiction self-consciously, which means, we wanted to become science fiction writers, as such.
Here, I want to further clarify the differences between the fans of science fiction and the writers of science fiction. I was a big fan of science fiction, and that was a new subculture in China. I was part of the first generation of self-conscious fans of science fiction, but science fiction writers of course existed way before I started my work. But, I think, in terms of a subculture of science fiction, we were the first generation that generated that kind of self-consciousness.
JP: Can you talk about how that subculture existed? Was it connected by magazines, or was there an online culture—or was it books that you read in translation or books by other Chinese writers? What was the material connection that made you a fandom?
CL: I started my fascination with science fiction while I was a primary school student. That was still in the final years of the Cultural Revolution. There was no cultural landscape of media as we know it today. There was not even the concept of science fiction yet in China. Back then, what I read was translated science fiction from the ’50s, the period of the early People’s Republic. The early socialist period was a relatively open era, culturally. At that time, a lot of Western science fiction works were translated into Chinese.
Those first science fiction books I read belonged to my father. During the Cultural Revolution, those books were no longer considered politically orthodox enough. My father just put them underneath the bed. So, as a young boy, I sneaked under the bed and started to read those words. Among those authors were H. G. Wells and Soviet science fiction writers.
JP: And who were the other fans of science fiction?
CL: This reading experience of mine was very private, very intimate. Back then, I didn’t even want to let others know I was reading this kind of book. Were there any other young boys, young girls doing the same thing? I don’t know. Because this kind of reading just made me like an isolated island.
JP: When it comes to philosophy and spirituality, are there writers or thinkers that have influenced you?
CL: In terms of religion, I’m an atheist. So, I don’t think any religion has a political bearing on me.
Let me focus on my philosophical influences. Philosophy has a profound impact on me. That’s because, in my view, if we compare science and philosophy, which one is closer to science fiction? Actually, philosophy is closer.
JP: I’m with you.
CL: If we take science as a worldview, according to this worldview, there’s only one single image of the world. But philosophy is entirely different.
Every philosopher has his or her own worldview. And every worldview is so different from the others. If an alien came from outside this universe, they would be totally puzzled by the debates between our philosophers. This alien would be puzzled because it doesn’t seem like the philosophers are talking about the same world.
In this regard, philosophy is closest to science fiction, because different writers of science fiction are striving to create different world images of social formation, of history, of the universe. Of course, the way I am influenced by philosophers might be different from other people’s pursuit of philosophical insight.
For others, they might want to find the truth in a philosophical discourse. But for me, every philosophical discourse will be judged by one standard—which is, whether it’s interesting, whether there’s a story to tell.
One really curious outcome: some radically opposing philosophical schools have equal influence on me. For example, idealism is, of course, so vastly different from materialism. But, for me, they’re both sources of inspiration.
JP: There is a Chinese term, ke huan, which is an acronym that means “science and fantasy.” Science can be a concept or a discourse. It can refer to a discipline of natural sciences, but also a method shared by disciplines. It also means a worldview, a way of thinking and reasoning and of modern enlightenment.
But—and this is important for science fiction—science is sometimes confused with technology, which creates its own kind of world picture. As an engineer—as a science fiction writer living in this post-Einstein technological world—what is your definition of science?
CL: This is indeed a very complicated issue, especially when it comes to science’s relationship with technology.
First off, technology precedes science. Way before the rise of modern science, there were so many technologies, so many technological innovations. But today technology is deeply embedded in the development of science. Basically, in our contemporary world, science sets a glass ceiling for technology. The degree of technological development is predetermined by the advances of science.
But there is also a paradoxical interdependence between the two. What is remarkably interesting is how technology becomes so interconnected with science. In the ancient Greek world, science develops out of logic and reason. There is no reliance on technology. The big game changer is Galileo’s method of doing experiments in order to prove a theory and then putting theory back into experimentation. After Galileo, science had to rely on technology. This kind of reliance becomes stronger and stronger up until our own time.
Today, the frontiers of physics are totally conditioned on the developments of technology. This is unprecedented. Back in China, there has been a huge debate about whether we need to build a new particle accelerator, because the investment for its construction could be as high as ¥100 billion.
And yet, what information you can obtain from today’s technological accelerator is still far, far away from what you need for experiments in the most advanced physics. The difference is 11 zeros. There is a poetic nickname for this difference, between technology’s capacity and the requirements of the scientific question: “a desert of physics.”
JP: I know we have so much to talk about, but it would be really interesting to think about mathematics in this respect, too. Do you think of mathematics as among the sciences, or in a perpendicular relationship to them, because mathematics doesn’t need that kind of empiricism?
CL: It’s curious to see which side we want them to be on, because some people will say mathematics does not belong to science. But even if we say mathematics is part of science, mathematics is an exceptional case, because it does not rely on technology.
Following up on the sciences’ reliance on technology, I would like to point to a very paradoxical phenomenon. Right now, we can see technology is based on the advances of science. Meanwhile, science has to rely on technology for verification. If there has ever been a time when this circularity was good—when science and technology supported each other’s development—then I would like to say that would have been the early 20th century, the golden age of modern physics.
But what we have today might be, instead, a vicious circle. That is, science and technology are mutually limited by each other.
If we compare science to a fruit tree, those fruits that are within our reach are already picked. The most important, the most pioneering branches, are totally beyond our reach.
What can we do? We turn to the fields of information and communication. Beyond information and communication, however, it seems to me that there’s no breakthrough in our near future.
JP: Is there a way to think from the outside about that vicious circle of technology and science? Could science fiction itself have a role to play in changing that locked relationship—perhaps just by offering a different way of thinking about the two?
CL: You’ve assigned a mission to science fiction that is too sublime. I continue to see science fiction as simply part of popular culture. If it can help readers open up their horizon and inspire them to explore even more, that would be a huge success already.
JP: Let’s talk about the second element of the term ke huan, that is, fantasy. The question is about the relationship between fantasy and realism, which is obviously a key part of modern fiction.
Does realism have a role in your literary formation? Do you think of science fiction as a form of realism?
CL: My personal view is that there should not be just one single paradigm for science fiction. There should be various kinds of science fiction.
Of course, some writers will use science fiction, or elements of fantasy, to allegorize reality—to be critical of reality and to represent and reflect upon reality. This kind of science fiction gained a particular name in Chinese. Chinese critics like to label it “science-fantasy realism.”
But, as for me, I’m not interested in this approach, tradition, or tendency. I’m not interested in allegorizing, criticizing, and representing reality. For me, the most valuable—the most precious—part of science fiction is that we can build a world entirely based on imagination.
Everything is purely up in the air. That kind of fantastic imagination is the reason why I love science fiction. I remember one historian said that the difference between humans and other species is that we have the ability to use our imaginations to build something. Actually, given the role that imagination has played in our evolution as a species, this creation of the non-actual might be the only ability in which we can surpass artificial intelligence.
JP: And yet, you love Tolstoy. And the realism in Tolstoy is that he’s committed to the facts that we already know happened. And then the imagination is inside that factual structure; Tolstoy builds inside the Napoleonic Wars. So, do you see what you’re doing as a writer as similar to Tolstoy?
CL: For me, realism is the platform, the takeoff ground for my imagination. But if I have started with realism, then my goal is always to reach the pure realm of the imaginary.
We should not drag science fiction from the level of fantasy down to the level of realism. Rather, I would like to have science fiction up in the air, creating something that is totally non-actual.
Chinese readers like to start with a representation of reality. This is vastly different from the tradition of Western science fiction. Western science fiction sometimes lifts the reader off the ground by the hair and then throws everyone into thin air. But for Chinese readers you need to have a slow build-up of this fantasy. For that, you still need realism.
To further explain the role of realism in my work, we can use the metaphor of a kite. My imagination can be high in the air, but I still have a thin line linking it back to reality. That seems to be a stabilizing force in my work.
JP: So, that would be a distinction from fantasy, is that right?
CL: Yes, I do feel that’s what distinguishes my work from fantasy. In Chinese, “science fiction” can mean “science fantasy.” From my perspective, science fiction is surreal but never supernatural.
This leads me to my interpretation of mythology. We have a misunderstanding of mythology today. We believe that mythology is fiction. But think of our ancient ancestors who were the recipients of mythology—for them, mythology was reality.
In our contemporary culture, I think science fiction is the only literary genre that can replace the role of mythology. Because in science fiction, even though it’s pure fantasy, there is a sense of truthfulness. Whereas the genre of fantasy will never be able to provide that sense of truthfulness.
JP: To switch gears a bit: Do you think of yourself as having a message or messages for your audiences?
CL: Ninety percent of my efforts are about telling a creative, compelling story. The focus is always on my striving, as a writer, toward compelling storytelling. If there’s some message in my work, it’s either something I see in hindsight, once the work is finished, or the interpretation of my beloved critics.
Is there a thematic allegorical drive? Is there an allegorical message I want to convey? I don’t think so. I’m always fascinated and surprised by how rich the interpretation of my work has become. So many rich implications of my work are never in my mind, but they have been produced by the interpreters.
JP: Can we ask you a question about translation? Your masterpieces are read and interpreted all over the world. Non-Chinese speakers like me come to this work through translation.
How do you feel about being translated? Are you worried about aspects being lost in translation? Or are you excited about translation as a second life, as something gained?
CL: Conventionally speaking, we believe there has to be a certain loss when we do translingual translation. The more the writer’s roots work deeply into their national cultures, the more loss they face in translation. An example of this is Mo Yan, who received a Nobel Prize less than a decade ago. To translate Mo Yan means, I believe, that you will necessarily lose something that is truly Chinese.
But in this regard, science fiction is a happy exception. Because in China, science fiction is 100 percent a foreign import. Many concepts we use in Chinese science fiction, for example, are originally Western concepts, Western words, Western terms. Therefore, it’s a little bit easier for our translators to bring them back into Western languages.
More important is the nature of science fiction as a form of fictional storytelling. In the history of science fiction, humanity always appears in its totality rather than in different nations. In light of this, we can say that science fiction poses the questions that are shared by the whole human community.
Science fiction does not simply pose questions that are unique to a single ethnic group, a single community, or a single nation-state. Since science fiction responds to the crises confronting humanity as a whole, science fiction becomes a genre that is particularly suitable for transnational, transcultural communication.
When it comes to my own work, I’m particularly lucky. In fact, I’m luckier than most science fiction writers. I have two really wonderful translators. When my work is in their hands, I can assure you that my work is not lost in translation. My work gains a lot in translation. It’s no exaggeration on my part to say that the literary quality of my English translation is better than my original.
JP: I don’t believe that.
CL: If you can read in English, then please, just buy the English translation of my work.
JP: I have a question about virtual reality. The first volume of your wonderful Three-Body Problem trilogy begins both with real history, and, of course, with the idea of virtual reality: the online game The Three-Body Problem. The setting of this VR game is a narrative strategy, which enables a representation of something that is by nature unrepresentable.
How do you think about virtual reality and the new frontier of the virtual universe, which is created both in the inward-looking individual and in the community by all kinds of innovative new media—social media, videogames, online communication?
A simpler form of the question: Are you a big fan of videogames or virtual-reality devices or apps or social media platforms? Have you been really interested in and immersed in that kind of subculture?
CL: I’m totally open to the media immersion, the age of media-related innovations, although I have to admit that my screen time has become limited. It’s now reserved, generally, for work-related matters. I’m actually quite interested in spending more time in this way but can’t, because I’m just too busy.
For a short period of time, I was really passionate about videogames. But that was the videogame before the internet. That was the time when Windows was not yet out there. How did that fascination disappear? Looking back, I would say that it’s because I got super busy with my work, with my family. The love for videogames started to take a back seat.
For me, I think we need to pay attention to one important trend in information technology: the advance of information technologies creates a new situation, whereby many of our desires and needs can be met by virtual reality or the world of the internet.
As of now, as we’re talking, I think that the needs that can be fulfilled through virtual reality and the internet only account for a small fraction of human desires. But I have no doubts that in the future—maybe the near future—almost all human desires will be able to be fulfilled in the worlds created by VR, AI, and the internet. For me, the immediate outcome of this is a change in humanity. Human civilization will be changed from an outward-looking to an inward-looking civilization.
How do I differentiate these two types of human civilization? For me, an outward-looking civilization is defined by the age of the great ocean navigations, the discovery of new continents. That’s a desire for discovering new grounds of human development. Whereas in our probable inward-looking civilization of the future, this desire would be nonfunctional.
In the short term, an inward-looking civilization is a civilization of happiness. But in the long term there’s no visionary prospects for an inward-looking civilization. I have a solid belief—this might just be me—that we might have a really prosperous future in store for us. But if in that future there’s no interstellar travel, then, for me, that is not a good future for humans.
So, I have a horrible dystopia in my mind. In that future of our inward-looking civilization, the ecology of the earth will be restored. You will have reforestation and the best ecological surface of the world. But across this world, you will not be able to see any single human individual. Instead, there will only be a huge cave, in which you have a supercomputer. Within that supercomputer, there are 10 billion human beings. And these 10 billion human beings are happy. For me, this happiness is horrible.
We already have some signs of that kind of life. Take any big metropolitan city. If you live in Beijing or New York, for example, from your birth certificate to your death certificate, you do not need to leave a room that has wi-fi. You can spend all your life in an internet environment.
JP: Wow. That is a dark vision for technology and for science. It reminds me of “The Machine Stops,” by E. M. Forster. Do you know the story?
CL: Oh, yes. I see what you mean.
JP: Everyone lives underground inside a hexagonal chamber, like bees in a honeycomb.
CL: Thinking about E. M. Forster: his work was, I believe, from the early 20th century.
CL: Do you see? The kind of dystopia I describe is already predicted.