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Cixin Liu, China, and the Future of Science Fiction

刘慈欣,中国,以及科幻未来

By Amanda DeMarco September 10, 2018



“I’m so tired of the future.” It was late in the day at the Tsinghua University Art Museum and I was getting whiny. My boyfriend and an acquaintance thumbed through some catalogs near the exit and managed to ignore me. We had reached the end of an exhibit of architectural models from the firm Foster + Partners: London’s Gherkin, a cruise ship terminal, sundry airports… I’m a Berliner and the most dizzying display was a table of alternate models for the Reichstag dome, a dozen potential realities in balsa and cardboard. In the final room, an animated video envisioned some sort of building project in space—on Mars maybe?—but I couldn’t really muster the energy to watch it.

“我真是烦死未来了。”那天在清华大学艺术博物馆已时候不早,我开始发起牢骚。我的男友和一位熟人在出口处边上翻阅目录,试着不理我。我们早先已看完了福斯特及合伙人建筑设计事务所的建筑模型展览:伦敦地标“小黄瓜”、某个邮轮码头、各式各样的的机场等等。我是柏林人,最让我眼花缭乱的展示,是一整桌德国国会大厦【译注:同一设计事务所的作品】的替代设计模型,由轻木和纸板搭建的十来个或然现实。最后一间展室里,一部动画短片畅想了在太空或是火星上的某种建设工程;但我是真打不起精神了。

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Reading Cixin Liu on the spotless, teeming subway (the world’s busiest annually) could be described as therapeutic. I often felt I was caught in the eddies of a time warp in China, a society that’s all but done away with paper currency but does not yet have potable tap water; one in which facial recognition software will prevent you from stealing toilet paper but the plumbing can’t handle flushing it. Remember William Gibson’s old saw “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed”? In Beijing that’s true on a meter-for-meter basis. Liu writes hard science fiction, and his plots are propelled by the human pursuit of relentless scientific advancement. To read them is to be gripped by the frisson of discovery, of the infinite and infinitesimal brought within our comprehension. They give the comforting sense that humanity is rushing toward something, rather than just thronging along the ring line staring at their phones.

在一尘不染客流如潮的地铁里阅读刘慈欣,可称得上是纾困解乏有益身心。我不时感觉自己被困在时空穿越中国后的涡流里,在一个几近废除了纸币却尚未有直饮自来水的社会,一个拥有防止偷窃厕纸的脸部识别软件却没有能承受带纸冲厕的下水管道的社会。还记得威廉·吉布森【著名科幻作家,《神经浪游者》作者】的那句老话“未来已来,只是尚未流行(平均分布)”吗?在北京,每一米的间距,都印证着这句话。刘慈欣写硬科幻,是通过人类对科学进步不懈的追求而推动剧情的。阅读他的作品,就是沉迷于我们理解力上下限之内获得新发现的悸动感。他的作品给予了一种安心感:人类正努力奔向远方,而非仅仅拥挤在地铁环线里盯着自己的手机。

This August, Tor released a new English translation of Liu’s Ball Lightning, an earlier novel much more limited in scope than the Three Body trilogy, that nonetheless demonstrates the power of Liu’s scientific imagination. Ball lightning is what it sounds like—an unexplained atmospheric phenomenon, usually associated with thunderstorms, in which a slow-moving ball of electricity floats near the earth’s surface, then explodes. The protagonist Chen sees his parents incinerated by a freak occurrence of the phenomenon, and spends his life trying to understand it. The book follows him through university and graduate school, onto civilian and military research projects, a quest that takes him to the limits of our understanding of physics. It’s also the sort of bureaucratic Bildungsroman only communism could produce, full of meetings, endless hierarchies, and funding issues; ball lightning may fuel Chen’s dreams, but officialdom determines their trajectory. Chen’s dilemma is that, in order to pursue his research, he must allow his discoveries to be used to destructive ends. As always with Liu, human curiosity wins out, with large-scale geopolitical ramifications.

今年八月,托尔出版社新出版了刘慈欣的《球状闪电》的英文译本,这本早于三体三部曲的小说相较三体而言,虽视野范围颇受局限,但仍证明了刘慈欣的科学想象力。《球状闪电》书如其名,是一种尚未完全阐释的大气现象,通常伴随着雷暴而出现一颗移动缓慢的电球,漂浮于地表之上并随即爆炸。主人公陈某目睹双亲被这一离奇现象焚为灰烬,将毕生精力用来理解它。本书跟随他一路进入大学和研究所,走向民用和军用的研究项目,踏上理解物理学极限的旅程。这也是一本只有共产主义国家才会产生的某种官僚式的“成长小说”,充斥着会议、无止境的等级、以及拨款问题。球状闪电或许能为陈的梦想充作燃料,但梦想的发射轨道是由官方决定的。进退两难之处在于,陈要想追求他的科研,就得允许他的发现充作毁灭之用途。刘慈欣一贯的风格,人类的好奇心战胜了理智,带来了大规模地缘政治变化的后果。

Ball Lightning was originally published in 2004, which means that the society it emerged from is now antediluvian in Chinese terms, but the book’s focus on grand scientific and ethical questions place it somewhat outside of the flow of time. The human cost of technical progress and development is always in the air in China—in the form of PM2.5 particles—and I would imagine that AI developers feel much the same as Chen when their work is in the service of surveillance.

《球状闪电》最初出版于2004年,意味着本书所脱胎于的当时社会,用如今中国人的话讲,称得上是老古董了,但本书对科学和伦理的宏大质问,某种程度上将其置身于时间洪流之外。科技进步发展让人类付出的代价总是悬而未决(悬于空中),在中国是以PM2.5颗粒的形式;我也能想象人工智能的开发者在其成果被用作社会监控时,会对陈心有戚戚焉。

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This immanence and imminence of possibility felt true to the fabric of my experience of China, the not-quite-benign magic of the unexpected. The only predictable aspect was my reaction when enchantment eventually gave way to exhaustion. On our final day in Beijing, I dumped Cixin Liu’s books in a trash bin on our hutong—they were too bulky to carry back and we didn’t know anyone who would want to read them in English. I feel a bit cowardly admitting it: the future is nice to visit, but I’m not sure I would want to live there.

就我在中国的亲身体会,像是经历了未曾预料的非良性魔法,使得这种可能性本身的固有感和迫近感显得如此真实。唯一能预料的是我自身的反应,精疲力竭最终取代了神魂颠倒。在北京的最后一天,我把刘慈欣的书扔进了住的胡同里的垃圾箱,带回去太占地方了,我们也不认识谁会读这英文版。我有点怯于承认:游览未来虽然很好,但要住在未来,我不知道。

Amanda DeMarco is a translator living in Berlin

作者是定居柏林的一位翻译家。