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Cixin Liu, China, and the Future of Science Fiction


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Amanda DeMarco is a translator living in Berlin