Sino-SF: Liu Cixin Makes a Splash in English With “The Three-Body Problem”
China is setting a heady pace in space exploration. This year saw the safe return of a round-trip, unmanned lunar orbiter, the Tiangong Space Station is scheduled go to into low Earth orbit in 2020, and a Mars mission is planned for the same year. And, as in science, the country’s science fiction is also making an impact.
The big news in international science fiction at the moment is the recent release of an English-language translation The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin’s (or Cixin Liu, to use the westernized order of his names). This is the first installment in a hard science fiction trilogy that has been spectacularly successful in Liu’s home country of China. As Liu himself writes in an article entitled “The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three Bodyand Chinese Science Fiction” on Tor.com:
The main consumers of science fiction books in China are high school and college students. But Three Body somehow gained the attention of IT entrepreneurs; on Internet forums and elsewhere, they debated and discussed the book’s various details (such as the “Dark Forest Theory” of the cosmos—an answer to the Fermi Paradox—and the dimension-reduction attack on the Solar System launched by aliens) as metaphors for the cutthroat competition among China’s Web companies. Next, Three Body came to the attention of China’s mainstream literary world, which had always been dominated by realist fiction. Three Body was like some monster that suddenly erupted onto the scene, and literary critics were baffled by it while also feeling that they couldn’t ignore it.
The book even had an effect on scientists and engineers. Li Miao, a cosmologist and string theorist, wrote a book titled The Physics of Three Body. Many aerospace engineers became fans, and China’s aerospace agency even asked me to consult with them (despite the fact that in my novel, China’s aerospace establishment was described as so conservative and hidebound that an extremist officer had to engage in mass assassinations to allow new ideas to flourish). These sorts of reactions are probably familiar to American readers (e.g., The Physics of Star Trek, and NASA scientists regularly teaming up with science fiction writers), but they’re unheard of in China, and they contrast sharply with the official policy of suppressing science fiction during the 1980s.
On the Web, one can find many fan-composed songs for Three Body, and readers yearning for a movie adaptation—some have even gone to the trouble of creating fake trailers out of clips from other movies. Sina Weibo—a Chinese microblogging service analogous to Twitter—has numerous user accounts based on characters in Three Body, and these users stay in character and comment on current events, expanding the story told in the novel.
Now The Three Body Problem looks set to make a splash in the English-speaking world as well–naturally SFATW snapped up an early copy. As NPR reports:
Published in China in 2006 and newly translated by award-winning Chinese-American author Ken Liu, the novel is the first installment of a trilogy that asks one of the oldest questions in SF: What would it mean for the human race to come in contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence? From there, though, it transcends expectation — not to mention borders.
The Three-Body Problem spans multiple decades and characters, but it zooms in on Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, two scientists in the very near future. Wenjie is an astrophysicist with a haunted past; she’s the daughter of a physicist who was executed during the Cultural Revolution for daring to teach the “reactionary” idea of general relativity. Miao is a nanotech engineer, and he’s been swept up in a virtual-reality, online video game called Three Body that’s so deeply metaphysical, it’s begun to resemble a cult.
Either of these premises alone would be make for a rich SF novel, but Cixin Liu is only getting warmed up. By the time the book hits its peak, it’s unveiled a conspiracy that spans solar systems — one that not only threatens to alter the human race, but the very building blocks of physics that we’ve evolved to understand.
As NPR notes, the translation is by Ken Liu, an award-winning SF writer in his own right who will be familiar to readers of SFATW. The Tor edition of the novel includes a postscript by Ken, and he has given a first-hand account of the project over on Novelocity.
I discussed the translation of speculative fiction in Issue #2 of SFATW (In An Alien Tongue: SF and Translation), touching on the idea that the universal translator of Star Trek (and similar devices elsewhere in science fiction), might run into insurmountable problems in the real world, at least in certain contexts. Translation involves, in effect, rewriting a text, not just substituting words in one language for words in another. Liu concretely illustrates some of the ways in which this problem can bedevil even an experienced, human translator:
Though I’ve translated over twenty short stories from Chinese into English, this is my first novel translation, and the challenges I faced felt qualitatively different.
One set of challenges involved becoming sufficiently knowledgeable about various subjects discussed in depth in the book so that I could understand the nuances and render the relevant passages accurately in English. The Three-Body Problem is filled with grand ideas based on scientific speculation as well as very human-scaled stories steeped in China’s ancient and modern history. To properly discharge my duties as a translator, I had to do a great deal of research, including reading papers on pure math and astrophysics, gleaning relevant historical details from books about the Cultural Revolution and Classical Chinese, and interviewing scientists and individuals who lived through the Cultural Revolution to fill in gaps where book research was insufficient. In a lot of ways, translating this book required as much background research as writing a book myself.
Another set of challenges involved going beyond merely linguistic features to ensure the integrity of the translated work. When working with a large, complicated novel like this, a translator’s job isn’t just to re-create the work in a new language; he or she also needs to act as fact-checker and editor. Chinese readers have different expectations about narrative conventions and the desired level scientific detail, and I struggled to strike a balance between preserving the flavor of the original and making the book appealing to a new audience.
For example, to make aspects of the book dependent on knowledge of Chinese history and culture accessible to Anglophone readers, I had to decide how best to integrate the necessary background explanation with the text—a footnote is a very intrusive device, and I resolved to keep their use to an absolute minimum. Similarly, to make sure that I could make the technical parts of the book sound plausible to specialists as well as read fluently for general readers, I had to replicate the calculations in the book, look up the original scientific papers, and consult working physicists to determine the necessary jargon to use to ensure precision without sapping narrative energy. I ended up learning a lot about how to craft a compelling novel in the process.
More Sino-SF: Slash Fiction Finds Fertile Ground in China
By most accounts, slash fiction–in which fictional characters from established works are paired romantically or erotically–got its start in science fiction. “Kick/Spock” fan fiction (from which the term “slash” originates) grew out of the fandom that surrounded the original Star Trek in the 1970s (after the show was cancelled in the late 1960s).
Also known as K/S fiction, it portrayed the captain as intimately involved with his half-Vulcan first officer in stories and art work, a long tradition that now encompasses not only the portrayals by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy but also those by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto.
But like science fiction itself, slash fiction ignores national boundaries, and it has apparently taken hold in China, where authorities have tried and failed to eliminate it. Dan mei, as it’s known, is mostly written and read by young women. Sherlock slash fic is especially popular, but slash’s roots in science fiction still show through in Dr. Who stories.
Unfortunately, Chinese slash has been swept up in the government’s attempts to root out pornography, with a number of people being arrested. As The Advocate reports:
Earlier this year, during a nationwide clampdown on online pornography, some 20 writers, allegedly under contract with “illegal erotic novel Web sites,” were arrested in Henan province, China, and numerous Web sites with explicit written and visual content were shut down. Most of these writers were young women, many of whom, according to footage from Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong broadcaster, were in their 20s, oblivious to the fact that they were breaking the law. The incident followed a similar spate of arrests in 2011 — again of young female writers.
The women were all writers of gay fiction, known as dan mei, which over the past two decades has gained a vast and dedicated following in China, a country where homosexuality is still heavily stigmatized. A form of slash fiction, a genre that first appeared in America in the ’70s and paired male characters from popular TV shows like Star Trek in unauthorized gay romances, it spread to China in the ’90s from a type of Japanese manga known as “boys’ love” (BL). Focusing on male-to-male romance, dan mei (which may be literally translated as “indulgence in beauty”) has surprisingly spawned an exclusive fan base: Its readers and writers are nearly all straight young women and girls.
- The Advocate: “Where Slash Fiction Makes for Dangerous Words”
- Daily Dot: “For Young Women in China, Slash Fanfiction is a Dangerous Hobby”
- The Mary Sue: “Several Women Arrested For Writing Fanfic In China”
- The Wire: “Chinese Women Can’t Stop Reading and Writing Gay ‘Sherlock’ Fan Fiction”
- Publishing Perspectives: “‘Slash Fiction’ Thrives in China, Despite Government Crackdowns”
One Giant Leap for Literature: Was the First Fictional Man on the Moon an Icelandic Peasant?
Human interaction with the Moon–from encounters with Moon natives to human landings on the Earth’s natural satellite–has a long history in fiction, including works by Dante Alighieri (in The Divine Comedy, where the Moon is the first sphere of heaven), Edgar Allen Poe (in “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall”), Jules Verne (who wrote about virtually everything before it happened), and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the awesome Russian, and then Soviet, scientist who was a pioneer in both rocketry and astronautics).
And of course a trip to the moon was the theme of Le Voyage dans la Lune written and directed in 1902 by Georges Méliès (embedded below), which is widely considered the first science fiction film.
But the very first fictional man on the Moon may have been an Icelandic peasant imagined by a German scientist. Johannes Kepler is one of history’s most renowned scientific minds, but he’s also the author of the novel Somnium (The Dream in Latin), in which an Icelander usurps Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man.”
If this fact has escaped your attention until now, the folks at The Reykjavik Grapevine want you to know about it. As Vera Illugadóttir recounts in “Was Literature’s First Man On The Moon An Icelandic Peasant?”:
Written in 1608 by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the novel ‘Somnium’ (“Dream”) is by many—including such luminaries as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Jorge Luis Borges—thought to be one of the first examples of science fiction.
Although ‘Somnium’ was not published until 1634, after Kepler passed, he wrote the story as a student at the University of Tübingen, after being inspired by an essay topic he was assigned: What does the earth look like to a man standing on the moon, observing it from above?
Kepler presents ‘Somnium’ as an account of a dream, narrated by a 14-year-old Icelandic peasant boy, Duracotus. The boy’s elderly mother Fiolxhild (these are somewhat unusual Icelandic names, to say the least—but Kepler had never been to Iceland, and probably never met an Icelander), is skilled in magic, and ekes out a living selling magical trinkets to foreign sailors.
Singular: Colombia’s Orozco Brothers Release a New Short
Juan Felipe and Carlos Esteban Orozco are brothers from Medellin, Columbia who previously released the 2011 thriller Saluda Al Diablo De Mi Parte (titled Greetings to the Devil in English).
Now Twitch Film brings word that they’ve released a science fiction short, which is intended to support the development of a feature film. Twitch says of the brothers:
Blessed with a phenomenal visual style it’s really just a question of when and where they break out internationally more than if.
It’s true that Singular is visually impressive, although the writing–which combines tropes from multiple SF sources–could be improved.
That said, it’s always promising to see up-and-coming filmmakers from around the world developing new speculative fiction. I wish the brothers well and hope to see a Singular feature film coming to a nearby multiplex soon.
- Twitch Film: “Watch The Orozco Brothers’ Colombian SciFi Short SINGULAR”
- Robot 6: “In ‘Singular’ short, everybody has superpowers but one poor guy”
Public Domain: The Digital Comic Museum, an Online Treasure Trove
I recently discovered the Digital Comic Museum, which stores digital copies of comics that have passed into the public domain. All the comics can be downloaded for free (with a free membership).
While the DCM houses all sorts of comics, it includes some that fall within the bounds of speculative fiction, like science fiction and horror. It’s stock is largely American, although it does house some Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand comics.
We can only hope that it will thrive and, in the process, be able to broaden its scope. In the meantime, I’m going to be reading a lot of Space Detective and Journey Into Fear.
All downloads are in the CBZ format, which along with CBR is one of the main file formats for comic books. If you don’t have a CBZ/CBR reader, there are a number of them that are available free.
I use Comic Rack, which is free for Windows, and for Android with the Comic Rack Free app, but charges for their iOS app. Comical is also good and works with Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. Comic Flow is a free comic app for iOS devices–I haven’t tested it yet, but it comes highly recommended. If you prefer to shop around, you might want to consult the Lifehacker article Five Best Desktop Comic Book Readers.