Somewhere in a quiet city, hidden within the depths of a landlocked Chinese coal mining province, one of China’s most critically-acclaimed novelists discussed the eerie nature of the COVID-19 pandemic through his personal lens of science fiction and imagination.
“Science fiction stories reflect major issues that concern humanity,” said Liu Cixin, a pioneering Chinese sci-fi writer who headlined a virtual writers’ festival in November.
“They lay out all possible scenarios: the good, the norm, and the absolute worst. History has seen many virus outbreaks, even more severe in comparison to the one which we are living in today — but the coronavirus serves as a reminder that the only thing we can really do in the face of uncertainty is to prepare ourselves adequately on all fronts — philosophically, politically, and economically.”
Liu’s epic works, originally written for mainland Chinese audiences and then translated for wider, global audiences, showcase in great detail the former engineer’s knowledge of physics, science, and technology. Extraterrestrials also feature heavily in his literary universe and they mean serious business.
In his award-winning 2008 magnum opus The Three Body Problem, set during China’s Cultural Revolution, Liu tells of spaceships that arrive after the demise of nature, marking the start of an alien invasion with one clear goal: to wipe out humanity. It’s the first book in a trilogy of the same name.
“Three-Body started as a short story but later expanded in my mind like a plant and grew slowly over time,” Liu explained. “The story is set in a complex universe and comprises many ideas — especially relating to the meeting of humans and aliens.”
“Aliens are always of great interest to us. Science fiction may often deviate from reality but if we think about it carefully, the questions we might have about outer beings aren’t all that unrealistic.”
He speaks about aliens with a heated passion and remains the voice of cosmic affairs in China — his fascination with outer space beings well-documented in several interviews with science magazines. In 2016, Liu was invited by the Chinese Academy of Sciences as a guest of honor to the unveiling of its latest technological wonder: a state-of-the-art radio telescope hidden within a giant wok-shaped dish, made for the sole purpose of hunting aliens.
“We are living in the age of pandemics. The future is full of truly unexpected and unprecedented developments. Who knows if alien encounters will come next?”
The Wandering Earth, another Liu Cixin classic, is an apocalyptic tale set in space, one that shadows earth’s doomed fate as it’s about to be swallowed by the sun. It’s a narrative that resonates well in today’s pandemic world, with frantic governments, civilians, and the military trying desperately to save humanity. Its 2019 film adaptation went on to break box office records in China, the world’s second-largest film market.
“A bright future may be what humanity aspires to achieve but it’s far easier to talk about conflicts that play out in dark and pessimistic settings,” Liu said, explaining that the story was “strongly shaped” by his personal scientific theories.
“The earth’s crust is very thin but the planet can act as a spaceship if a force or energy powerful enough was exerted on it, to eject it from the solar system. But its mantle and core may leak due to inertia, causing the planet to disintegrate,” he theorized.
To many of his fans in China and around the world (which include the likes of fellow fantasy fiction king George R.R. Martin and former United States President Barack Obama), Liu’s contributions to science fiction are unrivaled. Readers love his ability to convey China’s rapid modernization and resonate with his brand of Chinese sci-fi in new ways.
To his readers, Liu’s work may be second to none. But to critics, they discourage public opinion and thinking — insinuating a projection of Liu’s own views about China’s political climate. In 2019, Liu waded into heated controversy, courting fierce criticism from rights groups for past remarks he made over mass internment camps in Xinjiang.
“If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty,” Liu infamously said about persecuted Uighur Muslims in an interview with The New Yorker before launching into his most controversial statement of all: “If China were to transform into a democracy, it would be hell on earth.”
His words have not been forgotten, resurfacing in September when Netflix, along with Game of Thrones co-creators David Benioff and DB Weiss, announced a controversial decision to adapt Liu’s award-winning trilogy. The move drew swift scorn and public fury from five Republican senators who voiced “significant concerns with Netflix’s decision to do business with an individual who is parroting dangerous Communist Party propaganda.”
Liu has kept a low profile since. He did not directly address the public uproar during the writer’s festival but came out in defense of his work and personal views, refuting suggested political allusions in his work, saying that it wasn’t “his style.”
“I am a conventional science fiction author. But that said, once your work is published, it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the readers and they will derive all sorts of interpretations,” he said.
His controversial views have divided fans but he undoubtedly remains one of China’s most prolific authors on the global stage, credited with pioneering a diverse and unique genre that gives a glimpse into hypothetical future social and technological developments in the Sinosphere.
His stories are even more significant now. The pandemic originated from a case in the red steel city of Wuhan, in a country that gets more futuristic by the day. China’s space ambitions, well reflected in its mammoth aerospace industry, has advanced in leaps and bounds over the past few years. Last week, it launched the “world’s first experimental 6G mobile telecom satellite” and unveiled a stellar new mission to explore the moon’s south pole beyond 2024, adding to its already impressive lunar resume.
“China’s imagining of the future and the universe will intrigue others and our science fiction reflects that,” Liu said. “Chinese science fiction has gone through a phase of substantial development. It has a colorful existence, one that can’t simply be summarized in one line. The nature of it is the problems that humanity faces in general. The human race is a single entity. Crises, disasters, and problems depicted are not about a person, group, or even country.”