The author Isaac Asimov thinks that the first science fiction novel was written in 1608. Penned by Johanes Kepler, a German mathematician and astronomer, Somnium described a lunar journey, and used Copernican doctrine to imagine what the earth might look like from the moon.
Ask most sci-fi fans what they consider as the novel that definitively established the category, and many will jump forward almost three hundred years to the era of electricity, the train and the telegraph. Some suggest Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) popularised the genre as did From the Earth to the Moon (1865) in which the author tries to calculate the size of cannon needed to shoot a man to the moon.
Others might give credit to HG Wells, who introduced two new concepts to the genre: time travel (in the 1895 novel The Time Machine) and alien invasion (in his 1897 book The War of the Worlds the Martians try to conquer the earth).
Alien invasion also lies at the heart of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, the first novel in a trilogy published between 2008 and 2010. According to website The Paper, the first book sold a million copies by itself, while box sets of all three have sold 400,000 (and these are figures for legal editions, meaning the counterfeit print runs would have been extensive too).
The trilogy’s success has turned Liu into China’s best-selling science fiction author, and lent credibility to a genre that many other Chinese novelists have steered clear of (in part because of official discouragement, with state-backed newspapers having accused sci-fi in the past of spreading “pseudoscience and promoting decadent capitalist elements”).
But will Liu’s apocalyptic vision sell in the West too? That will soon become clear, as The Three-Body Problem has just been translated into English by another award-winning sci-fi writer Ken Liu (no relation).
Earlier this month it was released in the US, with Liu’s American publisher predicting success. “I don’t think the demand for this kind of classical golden age science fiction has necessarily gone away,” Liz Gorinsky, an editor at Tor Books told the New York Times. “The ‘Three-Body’ series sort of scratches the same itch that harkens back to the kinds of books people read when they were kids.”
The New York Times says the trilogy is written in the style of Arthur C Clarke, the eminent sci-fi writer. That is not a charge that the author denies. He told the newspaper that he grew up reading the Briton’s works and “everything that I write is a clumsy imitation of Arthur C Clarke”.
That said, there are distinctively Chinese elements to The Three-Body Problem. It begins with the madness of the Cultural Revolution and then skips forward to present-day Beijing. Through a virtual reality video game called ‘Three Body’ we meet King Zhou of Shang (who ruled China till 1046 BC), as well as the first emperor Qin Shi Huang (who unified China in 221 BC) and the philosopher Mozi (who died in 391 BC).
Insights are offered on Chinese history too. As King Zhou tells the book’s protagonist: “Other than Stable Eras, all other times belong to Chaotic Eras.”
Indeed, for anyone who has studied China’s past – including Beijing’s current crop of leaders, no doubt – there is a well-trodden ideological lesson here. In the centuries when the country wasn’t governed by a stable central authority, it descended into civil war (and chaos).
Structurally, the first half of the novel doesn’t stick to a purely sci-fi narrative. It contains mysterious murders, allusions to secret societies and a series of chapters dealing with the history of human civilisation (Galileo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton all make appearances).
Only after page 200 does it start to emerge that a species called the Trisolarans are bent on invading earth. With their own planet on the brink of extinction, the aliens intercept messages sent by a Chinese scientist as part of a government programme to search for extraterrestrial life. They decide to facilitate sympathy for their arrival by disseminating a virtual reality game among the world’s intelligentsia (the afore-mentioned Three Body), which is an addictive form of propaganda.
The novel then becomes a square-off between those who welcome the Trisolarans as a superior civilisation and those who see them as an existential threat.
But what explains the growing popularity of the science fiction genre in China? The author told the New York Times: “China is on the path of rapid modernisation and progress, kind of like the US during the golden age of science fiction in the thirties to the sixties. The future in the people’s eyes is full of attractions, temptations and hope. But at the same time, it is also full of threats and challenges. That makes for very fertile soil.”
In Liu’s novel, the Trisolarans use “interstellar flight” to leave their own galaxy in search of a new home. Local media has been quick to draw parallels here with Christopher Nolan’s recently released film Interstellar, which opened in China this month. Riding the sci-fi wave it has done well at the box office, taking Rmb533 million ($86.81 million) in its opening fortnight, according to China Film News.
The parallels don’t end there. The title of Liu’s book – The Three-Body Problem – relates to how gravitational interaction between two objects in space becomes random and unpredictable when a third object is introduced. Gravity is also central to the plot of Interstellar – indeed it is the means (don’t ask us to explain how) by which Matthew McConnaughey’s character communicates with his daughter (Jessica Chastain) from inside a black hole.
And in the film’s case, it isn’t the Trisolaran planet that is dying but earth itself – thus McConnaughey and Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) pilot their ship to find an alternative home for humanity.
Audiences flocking to watch Interstellar must absorb some heavy-duty physics lessons to keep up with the action – not least that the concept of relativity plays havoc with the age differentials of the key characters. But many of the responses from Chinese viewers focus more on the duration of the film, which has been widely discussed as too long. “Half of my friends said they fell asleep several times,” complained one critic, although another hit back, “The three hours are completely worth it. I never expected that science fiction could be so emotional.”
A blogger who calls herself Science Superwoman was more interested in the physics of the film, as well as the fact that her gender didn’t seem to be up-to-speed with the concepts on offer. “After the film ended, almost all the men around me were explaining to their female companions about wormholes, black holes, relativity, multi-dimensional space – from Aristotle, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein to Hawking,” she wrote.
However, she added that she wasn’t complaining: “This is a good opportunity for everyone to get more interested in exploring science!”
Others were less interested in the science and more in the human touch. “No matter how developed the special effects or how mind-blowing the scientific theory, the success of the film has to be attributed to its humanity,” ventured another of the film’s fans. “There’s a line in the film which is wonderful: ‘Love is beyond time, space and dimensions’.”
(Spoiler alert: when McConnaughey’s character starts his voyage, he leaves a daughter who is 10 years-old; when they are briefly reunited at the end of the film, he is 123, but still looking healthily middle-aged, while she is an elderly woman on the verge of death. This is likely the most memorable scene in Nolan’s film – and requires no CGI. Critics have generally concurred that Interstellar is a story of love and personal sacrifice, specifically of how a devoted father gives up the opportunity to watch his daughter grow up – forgoing their relationship in the interest of serving the greater good.)
But there was at least one netizen who was rather less enthused: “While a bunch of people have been watching Interstellar, those who have read The Three-Body Problem know that – compared with Liu Cixin’s novel – it is so bland. When will there be a big director ready to film Chinese science fiction and present it to the world?”
At least the translation of Liu’s book into English has been getting favourable mentions from his peer group. Well-known American writer Mike Resnick has called it “extraordinary” while fellow sci-fi author David Brin said it was “vivid, imaginative and rooted in cutting-edge science”. Israel’s Lavie Tadhar also described it as a “masterpiece”, according to The Paper.
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