Learn about China in this COVID Moment through the Eyes of World-Class, Science Fiction Writer, Liu Cixin
Many, if not most of us, must feel right now like we're living in a surreal, science fiction novel. And China is a big part of that narrative, regardless of how much we know about the country.
For those that want to learn about China from the lens of science fiction, an entertaining approach would be through the writings of world-renowned, Liu Cixin, 2018 winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society. The late Arthur C. Clarke is best known as author of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that was made into a movie.
With fans like Barack Obama and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and with works translated into 20 languages, this wonderfully written piece by Jiayang Fan of The New Yorker, leaves few stones unturned regarding Liu Cixin's meteoric rise to popularity belied by his unassuming demeanor.
It's worth listening to Liu Cixin's speech on Facebook delivered in English upon his receipt of the Arthur C. Clarke award (metered at 2:02:00). He's so funny and wise, saying that his challenge is "to write about something before it becomes boring." Speaking to both the reaches of science fiction and human nature, he also says that if we, as humans, somehow ever actually make it to Mars through space travel, our imaginations will at some point make that a boring story and Jupiter would be the next frontier.
He gives voice in 2018 to the rapidity of change that, in my view, aptly captures this COVID moment, "Future is like powering a submarine that floats under us before we have time to open our umbrella." Indeed, our umbrellas were definitely not open....
A leading sci-fi writer takes stock of China’s global rise.
Two rival civilizations are battling for supremacy. Civilization A is stronger than Civilization B and is perceived by Civilization B as a grave threat; its position, however, is more fragile than it seems. Neither side hesitates to employ espionage, subterfuge, and surveillance, because the rules of conduct—to the extent that they exist—are ill-defined and frequently contested. But the battle lines are clear: whoever controls the technological frontier controls the future.
In Liu Cixin’s science-fiction trilogy, “Remembrance of Earth’s Past”—also known by the title of its first volume, “The Three-Body Problem”—Civilization A is a distant planet named Trisolaris and Civilization B is Earth. Life on Trisolaris has become increasingly difficult to sustain, so its inhabitants prepare to colonize Earth, a project made possible by their vast technological superiority. Using higher-dimensional geometry, they deploy supercomputers the size of a proton to spy on every terrestrial activity and utterance; Earth’s entire fleet of starships proves no match for one small, droplet-shaped Trisolaran probe. Yet Trisolaris’s dominance is far from assured, given the ingenuity of the underdogs. Seeking out the vulnerabilities of its adversary, Earth establishes a deterrence based on mutually assured destruction and forces the Trisolarans to share their technology.
When the first volume of the series was published in the United States, in 2014, the models for Trisolaris and Earth were immediately apparent. For the Chinese, achieving parity with the West is a long-cherished goal, envisaged as a restoration of greatness after the humiliation of Western occupations and the self-inflicted wounds of the Mao era. As Liu told the Times, “China is on the path of rapid modernization and progress, kind of like the U.S. during the golden age of science fiction.” The future, he went on, would be “full of threats and challenges,” and “very fertile soil” for speculative fiction.
In the past few years, those threats and challenges have escalated, as China’s global ambitions, especially in the field of technology, have begun to impinge upon America’s preëminence. Disputes about tariffs, intellectual property, and tech infrastructure have become urgent matters of national security. The U.S. has blocked China’s access to certain technologies and has cracked down on cyber espionage. In January, the Justice Department filed charges against the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, for alleged offenses (denied by the company) including fraud, theft of intellectual property, and violations of sanctions against Iran; the company’s C.F.O., who is the daughter of its director and founder, was arrested in Canada, and faces possible extradition to the U.S. In May, Donald Trump signed an executive order that warned of foreign tech companies committing “malicious cyber-enabled actions” at the behest of their governments. The next day, Huawei was added to a list of organizations prohibited from doing business with American companies without explicit government approval, and, not long afterward, Google discontinued Huawei’s access to the Android operating system. In response, the president of Huawei told the Chinese media, “I’ve sacrificed myself and my family for the sake of a goal that we will stand on top of the world. To achieve this goal, a conflict with the U.S. is inevitable.”
As the standoff has intensified, Liu has become wary of touting the geopolitical underpinnings of his work. In November, when I accompanied him on a trip to Washington, D.C.—he was picking up the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation’s Award for Imagination in Service to Society—he briskly dismissed the idea that fiction could serve as commentary on history or on current affairs. “The whole point is to escape the real world!” he said. Still, the kind of reader he attracts suggests otherwise: Chinese tech entrepreneurs discuss the Hobbesian vision of the trilogy as a metaphor for cutthroat competition in the corporate world; other fans include Barack Obama, who met Liu in Beijing two years ago, and Mark Zuckerberg. Liu’s international career has become a source of national pride. In 2015, China’s then Vice-President, Li Yuanchao, invited Liu to Zhongnanhai—an off-limits complex of government accommodation sometimes compared to the Kremlin—to discuss the books and showed Liu his own copies, which were dense with highlights and annotations.
Liu’s tomes—they tend to be tomes—have been translated into more than twenty languages, and the trilogy has sold some eight million copies worldwide. He has won China’s highest honor for science-fiction writing, the Galaxy Award, nine times, and in 2015 he became the first Asian writer to win the Hugo Award, the most prestigious international science-fiction prize. In China, one of his stories has been a set text in the gao kao—the notoriously competitive college-entrance exams that determine the fate of ten million pupils annually; another has appeared in the national seventh-grade-curriculum textbook. When a reporter recently challenged Liu to answer the middle-school questions about the “meaning” and the “central themes” of his story, he didn’t get a single one right. “I’m a writer,” he told me, with a shrug. “I don’t begin with some conceit in mind. I’m just trying to tell a good story.”
The trilogy’s success has been credited with establishing sci-fi, once marginalized in China, as a mainstream taste. Liu believes that this trend signals a deeper shift in the Chinese mind-set—that technological advances have spurred a new excitement about the possibilities of cosmic exploration. The trilogy commands a huge following among aerospace engineers and cosmologists; one scientist wrote an explanatory guide, “The Physics of Three Body.” Some years ago, China’s aerospace agency asked Liu, whose first career was as a computer engineer in the hydropower industry, to address technicians and engineers about ways that “sci-fi thinking” could be harnessed to produce more imaginative approaches to scientific problems. More recently, he was invited to inspect a colossal new radio dish, one of whose purposes is to detect extraterrestrial communications. Its engineers had been sending Liu updates on the project and effusive expressions of admiration.
Earlier this year, soon after a Chinese lunar rover achieved the unprecedented feat of landing on the dark side of the moon, an adaptation of Liu’s short story “The Wandering Earth” earned nearly half a billion dollars in its first ten days of release, eventually becoming China’s second-highest-grossing film ever. A headline in the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, jubilantly summed up the mood: “Only the Chinese Can Save the Planet!”
Liu, who is fifty-five, first travelled to the U.S. in the eighties, on work trips he made as an engineer, but before his November visit he had never been to Washington. In an Uber to his hotel—we’d come from New York by train—he peered through square-rimmed glasses at the city gliding by, which reminded him of the kind of development zone one sees on the edge of China’s ever-expanding cities. “Sparsely populated, with everything neat, orderly, and symmetrical,” he observed. “As if the city were built yesterday.” When he saw the gilded letters of the Trump hotel, he gave a gleeful chuckle. “Out of all the American Presidents, he is the only one whose speeches I can understand directly, without translation,” he remarked. “There are no big words or complicated grammar. Everything he says is reduced to the simplest possible formulation.”
Liu’s fellow sci-fi writers in China call him Da Liu—Big Liu—but he is small, with an unusually round head, which seems too large for his slight, wiry physique. He has the unassuming presence, belying an unflappable intelligence, of an operative posing as an accountant. Rarely making eye contact, he maintains an expression at once detached and preoccupied, as if too impatient for the future to commit his full attention to the present. “There’s nothing special or memorable about me,” he said at one point. “I always blend into any crowd.” Sure enough, as we walked around town, I found that it was disconcertingly easy to lose sight of him, and I started consciously trying to keep an eye on his inconspicuous frame and clothes—dark jeans and checked tops—as if I were minding a small child.
Although it was his first time in Washington, the cityscape was already familiar to him, thanks to his predilection for Hollywood blockbusters. As a result, our sightseeing trips yielded disappointments. Things were invariably bigger or smaller than he expected, and in surprising juxtapositions. The Reflecting Pool was farther from the Washington Monument than “Forrest Gump” suggested, and it looked strange without Vietnam War protesters thronging its perimeter. When we climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Liu expressed dismay that the seated statue featured Lincoln’s pensive face, rather than a simian one. “I think I prefer the ‘Planet of the Apes’ version,” he said.
When we passed a block-long brutalist building, Liu immediately recognized it as the headquarters of the F.B.I. It turned out that he had pored over its floor plan online while researching his early novel “Supernova Era,” which was published in 2003 and will appear in English later this year. It took him twelve years to get the book published, with several rounds of revision, in part because prospective publishers worried about the likely reaction of the state censors. Liu, unlike many Chinese writers popular in the West, is no dissident, but he had conceived the novel in the nervous aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. He told me that during the protests, in 1989, he happened to be in Beijing for an engineering conference. In an afterword to the forthcoming English translation, he writes:
On the night of June 4 I listened in my hotel to the chaotic noise outside, and the muffled sounds of gunfire. That night I dreamed of a limitless expanse of snow, whipped up by the wind into a ground blizzard, and an object—perhaps the sun or a star—glowing with a blinding blue light that painted the sky an eerie color between purple and green. And beneath that dim glow, a formation of children advanced across the snowy ground, white scarves wrapped around their heads, rifles fitted with gleaming bayonets, singing some unrecognizable song as they moved forward in unison. . . . I awoke in a cold sweat and couldn’t get back to sleep, and that’s when the germ of the idea for Supernova Era first took shape.
In the book, a supernova bathes Earth in deadly radiation, killing everyone over the age of thirteen. In the absence of adults, children must figure out how to apportion resources, forge diplomatic relationships, and maintain order. It soon becomes evident that a world run by children is very different from one run by adults. “Fun” is established as an organizing principle of life, and international wars and an event known as the “bloodbath Olympics” are planned, purely for thrills. Liu told me that he intended the novel to express the reactions of Chinese people at a time of utter confusion in the face of change, when old beliefs collapsed before new ones could be enshrined.
Liu was born in 1963 in Beijing, where his father was a manager at the Coal Mine Design Institute and his mother was an elementary-school teacher. His father’s family came from the plains of Henan Province, in the Yellow River Basin, a region that suffered particularly dire calamities in the twentieth century. After the Japanese invaded China, in 1937—interrupting a civil war between Nationalists and Communists that had been raging for a decade—Henan became a vital strategic point in the Nationalist government’s attempt to prevent them from sweeping south. Chinese forces breached dikes on the Yellow River to halt the Japanese advance, but the resulting flood destroyed thousands of villages and killed hundreds of thousands of people. It also ruined vast areas of farmland; the next harvest was a fraction of the expected yield. In 1942-43, after the government failed to respond to the shortage, some two million people starved to death.
When the civil war resumed, after the Second World War, both sides conscripted men. Liu’s paternal grandparents had two sons and no ideological allegiance to either side, and, in the hope of preserving the family line, they took a chilling but pragmatic gamble. One son joined the Nationalists and the other, Liu’s father, joined the Communists. He rose to the rank of company commander in the Eighth Route Army, and, after the Communist victory, he began his career in Beijing. To this day, Liu doesn’t know what became of his uncle.
Liu was three years old when the Cultural Revolution broke out. His father lost his job—having a brother who had fought against the revolution made him politically suspect—and was sent to work in the coal mines of Yangquan, in Shanxi Province, where Liu still lives. The city was a flash point for the factional violence that accompanied the Cultural Revolution, and Liu remembers hearing gunfire at night and seeing trucks filled with men clutching guns and wearing red armbands. Things became dangerous enough that, when Liu was four, he was sent to live with his grandparents in Henan, and stayed there for several years.
As a child, Liu was mischievous and cheeky. Even today, he retains a fondness for ingenious pranks, and once created a poetry-writing algorithm, whose voluminous output he submitted to a literary magazine. (It didn’t publish any of the poems.) He also had a practical bent: after developing a fascination with weapons, in grade school, he taught himself to make gunpowder. When Liu was six, China launched its first satellite and he became obsessed with space. Initially, his ambition was to explore it rather than to write about it, but he came to realize that, for someone of his background, the advanced degrees necessary to work in the nascent space program were out of reach. Meanwhile, his father had turned him on to speculative fiction, giving him a copy of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” To the young Liu, reading Verne’s book was like walking through a door to another world. “Everything in it was described with such authority and scrupulous attention to detail that I thought it had to be real,” Liu told me.
On the cusp of his teens, reading a book on astronomy, Liu had an epiphany about the concept of a light-year—the “terrifying distance” and “bone-chilling vastness” it implied. Concepts that seemed abstract to others took on, for him, concrete forms; they were like things he could touch, inducing a “druglike euphoria.” Compared with ordinary literature, he came to feel, “the stories of science are far more magnificent, grand, involved, profound, thrilling, strange, terrifying, mysterious, and even emotional.” In high school, he started writing his own stories, and continued after enrolling, in 1981, at North China University of Water Resources and Electric Power. After graduation, he was assigned to work at the Niangziguan Power Plant, where he had plenty of time to hone his writing and to absorb all the sci-fi he could get his hands on, sometimes poring over a dictionary to get through untranslated works by Vonnegut, Bradbury, Pynchon, and Orwell. He didn’t leave his engineering job until 2012, long after he’d achieved wealth and national fame.
The scale and the speed of China’s economic transformation were conducive to a fictive mode that concerns itself with the fate of whole societies, planets, and galaxies, and in which individuals are presented as cogs in larger systems. The fact that state-owned enterprises were increasingly at the mercy of their balance sheets fundamentally changed social expectations in a country where the danwei—or work unit—had rivalled the family as a facet of one’s identity. In the nineties, tens of millions of workers found themselves laid off, with no social-security system. In 2000, the same year that Liu’s story “The Wandering Earth” was published, he was told to choose which half of his staff to let go and which to keep.
Pragmatic choices like this one, or like the decision his grandparents made when their sons were conscripted, recur in his fiction—situations that present equally unconscionable choices on either side of a moral fulcrum. An episode in the trilogy depicts Earth on the verge of destruction. A scientist named Cheng Xin encounters a gaggle of schoolchildren as she and an assistant prepare to flee the planet. The spaceship can accommodate the weight of only three of the children, and Cheng, who is the trilogy’s closest embodiment of Western liberal values, is paralyzed by the choice before her. Her assistant leaps into action, however, and poses three math problems. The three children who are quickest to answer correctly are ushered on board. Cheng stares at her assistant in horror, but the young woman says, “Don’t look at me like that. I gave them a chance. Competition is necessary for survival.”
No one is more aware than Liu of the connection between the ambitions of sci-fi and the tendency of Chinese history to eclipse the individual. In an afterword to the English edition of “The Three-Body Problem,” he recalls a visit to his grandparents in Henan that coincided with the great flood of 1975. In a single day, forty inches of rain fell and more than fifty dams collapsed. In the course of a few days, nearly a quarter of a million people died. Recalling his experience as a twelve-year-old in a landscape teeming with barefoot refugees draped in cloth sacks instead of clothes, he writes, “I thought I was looking at the end of the world.”
The great flourishing of science fiction in the West at the end of the nineteenth century occurred alongside unprecedented technological progress and the proliferation of the popular press—transformations that were fundamental to the development of the genre. As the British Empire expanded and the United States began to assert its power around the world, British and American writers invented tales of space travel as seen through a lens of imperial appropriation, in which technological superiority brought about territorial conquest.
Extraterrestrials were often a proxy for human beings of different creeds or races. M. P. Shiel’s novel “Yellow Danger” (1898) imagined a fiendish Chinese plan to take over the world, and warned that “the bony visage of the yellow man, in moments of unbridled lust and mad excitement, is a brutal spectacle.” The most famous novel of the era, H. G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds” (1898), in which Martians attack an unsuspecting Earth, was inspired by the violent struggle in early-nineteenth-century Tasmania between Aboriginal people and white settlers, in which the indigenous population was almost completely obliterated.
Wells’s science fiction greatly impressed Lu Xun, a writer who is considered the father of modern Chinese literature, and whose translations of Wells and Verne introduced the genre to China. Lu hoped that incorporating scientific thought into popular fiction could help remedy “intellectual poverty” and provide a means of “leading the Chinese masses on the way to progress.” Lu, born in 1881, had witnessed the drama of China’s ancient civilization brought low by younger, more technologically advanced European ones; the Chinese might be more populous than the Tasmanians, but could they suffer the same fate?
Early Chinese sci-fi imagined a China that caught up with the West and then outstripped it. Liang Qichao’s “The Future of New China” (1902) is set in 1962; in the story, Shanghai hosts the World’s Fair, a geopolitically dominant China has developed a multiparty system, and Westerners study the Chinese in the hope of bettering themselves. In “China in Ten Years,” a popular story published anonymously in 1923, China develops laser weapons to repel Western imperialists. Joel Martinsen, the translator of the second volume of Liu’s trilogy, sees the series as a continuation of this tradition. “It’s not hard to read parallels between the Trisolarans and imperialist designs on China, driven by hunger for resources and fear of being wiped out,” he told me. Even Liu, unwilling as he is to endorse comparisons between the plot and China’s current face-off with the U.S., did at one point let slip that “the relationship between politics and science fiction cannot be underestimated.”
When the Communists came to power, science fiction presented itself as a handy way of furthering Mao’s “Campaign of Marching Toward Science and Technology.” Sci-fi would stimulate the interest of children and adolescents, and encourage them to contribute to the country’s modernization. But during the Cultural Revolution the genre was banned, along with other nonrevolutionary literature, and even science itself was subjected to ideological-purity tests. In astronomy, discussion of sunspots was forbidden, because the literal meaning of the Chinese term is “solar black spots,” and black was the color associated with counter-revolutionaries.
Science fiction made a resurgence in the early years of Deng Xiaoping’s reformist regime, when Liu was writing at night while maintaining his engineering day job. It was scrutinized more closely again in the years immediately after the Tiananmen protests, when he was beginning work on “Supernova Era.” The genre has now been steadily thriving for a couple of decades, but it’s not inconceivable that the political winds could change again, as Xi Jinping’s government seeks to establish increasingly rigid cultural control. Speculative fiction is the art of imagining alternative worlds, and the same political establishment that permits it to be used as propaganda for the existing regime is also likely to recognize its capacity to interrogate the legitimacy of the status quo.
In my days with Liu, he repeatedly played down any sense of state interference, but the issue emerged glancingly when we began discussing the great Polish sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem, whom Liu reveres. “What’s remarkable is that he lived and wrote in Soviet Poland!” he said. “Yet he managed to be as beloved in the East as he was in the West.” I asked how he thought Lem had managed it. “He had a wondrous imagination, truly one of a kind,” Liu replied. Still, even Lem did not wholly escape his government’s crackdown on free speech. When questioned about stories that seemed to allude to Stalinist conformism and paranoia, Lem said the same thing that Liu says about geopolitical interpretations of his trilogy—that he was not writing a veiled assessment of the present but merely making up stories.
One day, Liu and I went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant not far from his hotel. It was half past two and the restaurant was empty, a void of crisp white tablecloths, punctuated by tacky, oversized ceramic vases. Large TV screens burbled to themselves in every corner. As soon as we sat down, Liu called a waiter over and asked for two beers. I said I wouldn’t be drinking, but Liu clarified that he was happy to lay claim to both bottles. After the waiter had brought Budweiser—“I don’t discriminate: beer is beer”—Liu gingerly pulled a bottle of Southern Comfort from his backpack and poured generously into his drink. He had bought the bottle the day before at a liquor store. “I couldn’t make out the labels,” he said, explaining that he’d picked whatever was cheap and easy to reach on the shelf. “I chose wrong—this stuff is way too sweet.” Several times during our days together, he alluded both to his dependence on alcohol and to the need to abstain from hard liquor for the sake of his health. “At least two of my former colleagues have drunk themselves to death,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s not uncommon among engineers. You know the type.”
Types are central to the way Liu thinks of people; he has a knack for quickly sketching the various classes that make up Chinese society. A scientist is described as “nothing more than a typical intellectual of the period: cautious, timid, seeking only to protect himself.” Another character, “a typical political cadre of the time,” had “an extremely keen sense for politics and saw everything through an ideological lens.” This characteristic endows his fiction with a sociopolitical specificity that has the texture of reality. At the same time, it doesn’t allow for much emotional complexity, and Liu has been criticized for peopling his books with characters who seem like cardboard cutouts installed in magnificent dioramas. Liu readily admits to the charge. “I did not begin writing for love of literature,” he told me. “I did so for love of science.”
Liu’s stories typically emerge from a speculative idea that has the potential to generate a vivid, evocative fable—more often than not, one about mankind’s ability to bring about its own demise. “The Three-Body Problem” takes its title from an analytical problem in orbital mechanics which has to do with the unpredictable motion of three bodies under mutual gravitational pull. Reading an article about the problem, Liu thought, What if the three bodies were three suns? How would intelligent life on a planet in such a solar system develop? From there, a structure gradually took shape that almost resembles a planetary system, with characters orbiting the central conceit like moons. For better or worse, the characters exist to support the framework of the story rather than to live as individuals on the page.
Liu’s imagination is dauntingly capacious, his narratives conceived on a scale that feels, at times, almost hallucinogenic. The time line of the trilogy spans 18,906,450 years, encompassing ancient Egypt, the Qin dynasty, the Byzantine Empire, the Cultural Revolution, the present, and a time eighteen million years in the future. One scene is told from the perspective of an ant. The first book is set on Earth, though some of its scenes take place in virtual reality; by the end of the third book, the scope of the action is interstellar and annihilation unfolds across several dimensions. The London Review of Books has called the trilogy “one of the most ambitious works of science fiction ever written.”
Much of the books’ resonance, however, comes from the fact that they also offer a faithful portrait of China’s stringently hierarchical bureaucracy, that labyrinthine product of Communism. August Cole, a co-author of “Ghost Fleet,” a techno-thriller about a war between the U.S. and China, told me that, for him, Liu’s work was crucial to understanding contemporary China, “because it synthesizes multiple angles of looking at the country, from the anthropological to the political to the social.” Although physics furnishes the novels’ premises, it is politics that drives the plots. At every turn, the characters are forced to make brutal calculations in which moral absolutism is pitted against the greater good. In their pursuit of survival, men and women employ Machiavellian game theory and adopt a bleak consequentialism. In Liu’s fictional universe, idealism is fatal and kindness an exorbitant luxury. As one general says in the trilogy, “In a time of war, we can’t afford to be too scrupulous.” Indeed, it is usually when people do not play by the rules of Realpolitik that the most lives are lost.
Liu’s posture slackened slightly as we ate. The drinks had warmed him, and the heat of Sichuanese peppercorns seemed to stir him from his usual reticence. I decided to inch the conversation toward politics, a topic he prefers to avoid. His views turned out to be staunch and unequivocal. The infamous one-child policy, he said, had been vital: “Or else how could the country have combatted its exploding population growth?” He was deaf to the argument that the population growth was itself the result of a previous policy, from the fifties, in which the Party had declared that “a larger population means greater manpower.” Liu took a similarly pragmatic view of a controversial funeral-reform law, which mandates cremation, even though the tradition of “returning to the ground” has been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. (There were reports of elderly people committing suicide in order to be buried before the ban went into effect.) “If there are dead bodies everywhere, where are we supposed to plant crops?” Liu said. “Humans must adjust their habits to accommodate changing circumstances.”
When I brought up the mass internment of Muslim Uighurs—around a million are now in reëducation camps in the northwestern province of Xinjiang—he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” The answer duplicated government propaganda so exactly that I couldn’t help asking Liu if he ever thought he might have been brainwashed. “I know what you are thinking,” he told me with weary clarity. “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” He sighed, as if exhausted by a debate going on in his head. “But that’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of health care, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy.”
I looked at him, studying his face. He blinked, and continued, “If you were to loosen up the country a bit, the consequences would be terrifying.” I remembered a moment near the end of the trilogy, when the Trisolarans, preparing to inhabit Earth, have interned the whole of humanity in Australia:
The society of resettled populations transformed in profound ways. People realized that, on this crowded, hungry continent, democracy was more terrifying than despotism. Everyone yearned for order and a strong government. . . . Gradually, the society of the resettled succumbed to the seduction of totalitarianism, like the surface of a lake caught in a cold spell.
Liu closed his eyes for a long moment and then said quietly, “This is why I don’t like to talk about subjects like this. The truth is you don’t really—I mean, can’t truly—understand.” He gestured around him. “You’ve lived here, in the U.S., for, what, going on three decades?” The implication was clear: years in the West had brainwashed me. In that moment, in Liu’s mind, I, with my inflexible sense of morality, was the alien.
And so, Liu explained to me, the existing regime made the most sense for today’s China, because to change it would be to invite chaos. “If China were to transform into a democracy, it would be hell on earth,” he said. “I would evacuate tomorrow, to the United States or Europe or—I don’t know.” The irony that the countries he was proposing were democracies seemed to escape his notice. He went on, “Here’s the truth: if you were to become the President of China tomorrow, you would find that you had no other choice than to do exactly as he has done.”
It was an opinion entirely consistent with his systems-level view of human societies, just as mine reflected a belief in democracy and individualism as principles to be upheld regardless of outcomes. I was reminded of something he wrote in his afterword to the English edition of “The Three-Body Problem”: “I cannot escape and leave behind reality, just like I cannot leave behind my shadow. Reality brands each of us with its indelible mark. Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.”
When Liu is at his most relaxed, which is usually when he’s looking at, or learning about, something, he sounds almost like a child. There’s an upward lilt to his voice that suggests a kind of naïve wonder—someone happily lost in his own boundless curiosity. But at the Clarke Foundation award ceremony, at the Harman Center for the Arts, on his final night in Washington, he was in adult, professional mode. Talking to fans, publishing types, and Chinese journalists at a cocktail party before the presentation, he spoke with authority and gravitas, and was more obviously formidable than I’d previously seen. Yet, at the same time, he seemed ill at ease and looked like the person who least belonged at the party, even though it was in his honor. I noticed that he wasn’t drinking, despite the open bar. He wasn’t here to enjoy himself. He was doing a specific job and enduring the situation with stoic discipline.
His acceptance speech came at the end of the evening, after a dinner, and he made a point of reading it in English. His pronunciation hovered on the boundary of comprehensibility, but the text had been distributed to the audience, which listened attentively. He spoke of how his imagination had been fired by reading Clarke’s novels, some of which were published in China in the eighties—a time when, he said, young people like him felt lost. He recalled finishing “2001: A Space Odyssey” and walking outside to gaze into the night sky: “I was able to see the galaxy, thanks to the unpolluted sky of China back then.” Chinese people of his generation were lucky, he said. The changes they had seen were so huge that they now inhabited a world entirely different from that of their childhood. “China is a futuristic country,” he said. “I realized that the world around me became more and more like science fiction, and this process is speeding up.”
The next morning, Liu and I did some more sightseeing, accompanied by a translator his publisher had provided. The sky was cement-colored and heavy and we soon had to duck into a pharmacy to buy umbrellas. As I struggled with the jammed spines of my purchase, I recalled a line from his speech in which he compared the future to “pouring rain” that “reaches us before we have time to even open the umbrella.”
Liu’s observation was more practical: “The quality of umbrellas that China sells to the U.S. is not good.”
We made our way down Constitution Avenue, past the National Archives and the colonnades of the Smithsonian. Liu set a surprisingly brisk pace and remarked that he had not exercised since being on the road, whereas he was used to working out an hour or two a day. Nothing he’d said or done previously suggested a concern with fitness, but it turned out that he had a specific eventuality in mind. “To make it on a spaceship for days or weeks, maybe even months, is not easy,” he said. I asked if he was planning to be a space tourist. “You never know when that will happen,” he responded. “Opportunity doesn’t wait for you to be ready.”
e paused by the World War II Memorial, and looked at the names of various countries carved in clusters around the lip of its fountain. Liu squinted, displeased with the peripheral placement of China, which had been put with India and Burma. Like a man unsatisfied with a photograph of himself, Liu balled up his hands and placed them on his hips. Surely, China had contributed to the war far more than Burma had, he muttered.
As we walked on, Liu noticed the sunken sliver of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Up close, the names of veterans emerged, some fifty-eight thousand of them, etched in rows that felt as unending as the grief they evoked. Pale-pink carnations and notes written on cardboard punctuated the black granite. A man in a wheelchair wept openly where the memorial’s two walls met.
“Why can’t China have something like this?” Liu asked quietly. “The dead deserve to be remembered.”
“But China does, doesn’t it, in some cities?” his translator asked.
“No,” Liu answered emphatically, shaking his head. “We have statues of a few martyrs, but we never—We don’t memorialize those, the individuals.” He took off his glasses and blinked, peering into the wide expanse of green and concrete. “This is how we Chinese have always been,” he said. “When something happens, it passes, and time buries the stories.” ♦
Published in the print edition of the June 24, 2019, issue, with the headline “The War of the Worlds.”