You’d better start reading Chinese science fiction right now

The Three-Body Problem cover

Chinese science fiction, including the Hugo Award-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem, is breaking through in the West.

China is a rising power. China’s economy is the second largest in the world, after the United States’, as measured by gross domestic product. China is the most populous nation the world. The power of its leader, Xi Jinping, is now compared to Mao Zedong, the emperor-like founder of the modern Chinese state.

If you want to understand the Chinese mind, read its science fiction. It’s probably already in your Kindle, if not on your bookshelf.

Carbon Run cover

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In 2015, Chinese writer Liu Cixin won the Hugo Award, the most prestigious award in science fiction literature. I read his novel The Three-Body Problem in translation by Ken Liu, himself a Hugo Award-winning author. The word “ambitious” does not begin to describe the novel, which opens with the Cultural Revolution, a bloody civil conflict of the 1960s defined by deadly purges of intellectuals and teenage Red Guards waving copies of Mao’s sayings. Thirty million people died.

In the midst of the paroxysm, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie loses her father to murderous radicals intent on eliminating Western ideas from China. She finds herself exiled internally after a Kalfka-esque charge, but her unique expertise gets her a job at a top secret communications base run by the People’s Liberation Army. She sends a message to an alien intelligence inviting them to Earth, because she knows they will destroy her species to save themselves. It’s an act of revenge.

If you want to understand the Chinese mind, read its science fiction.

Liu Cixin offers a unique twist on the first-contact question, suggesting not only that an alien intelligence might destroy life on earth to preserve its own civilization, but that a human might invite it here to do what Jehovah did with the Great Flood, wipe the slate clean of a terrible mistake, more or less.

In the author’s afterword, Liu Cixin says he does not write science fiction as a commentary on the present. “I feel that the greatest appeal of science fiction is the creation of numerous imaginary worlds outside of reality,” he says. Indeed, The Three-Body Problem’s canvas is the entire universe, understood through science, though told through the experience of two species, homo sapiens, and the intelligent life of Trisolaris, a three-sun system four light-years away.

However, as Liu Cixin admits, no author can divorce himself from the times he lives in, and I see echoes of Chinese history in The Three-Body Problem. Human communities have always faced the problem of “alien encounters,” most of which end in disaster for the weaker party, whether it’s 19th century Great Britain pushing opium on China or white-skinned invaders committing genocide on Native Americans.

Americans often think of Chinese science as a thing of history. China invented gunpowder in the Middle Ages, right? China is now a technology powerhouse. Few Americans realize, for example, that China has launched satellites since 1970, only eight years after US astronaut John Glenn orbited the earth. Chinese “taikonauts” have flown in space since 2003. China plans to land a human on the moon by 2030.

Many believe Chinese science fiction has entered a golden age, echoing fans’ view of Western sci-fi’s mid-20th century heyday. Though I may be missing some of the cultural nuance, I’m struck by the sobriquet given to three leading science fiction authors. They’re called the “Three Generals:” Liu Cixin, Wang Jinkang, and Han Song. The military metaphor suggests a conquering army. In his 2000 novel, 2066: Red Star Over America, Han imagines a world dominated by China, taking the role once reserved for a divided, weak, and declining United States.

Han’s work, in the best tradition of sci-fi, seems eerie and prescient. As it does with science and technology, science fiction sits on the leading edge of cultural thinking, especially views of the future. Nearly a year after the election of Donald Trump, America appears ready to embrace a new brand of nativist isolationism, euphemistically called “economic nationalism.” The exhortation to “build a wall” signals a people tired of being out in front.

In a speech to the 19th National Communist Party Congress, Chinese President Xi vowed to fill the gap created by a withdrawing America. In a few years, Chinese science fiction masters may stand next to Wells, Asimov, and Clarke, and we’ll wonder what the hell happened.

What Chinese science fiction writers do you admire?

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