From the June 2019 interview with Liu Cixin in The New Yorker.
“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.”
It’s a sad truth that books get voted awards even when – or in some cases specifically because – few people have read them. I have no way to know how many voters for the Hugo awards actually read The Three Body Problem before giving it their support, but I remember being a little bemused by the book’s win. Not because it’s a badly written book – many badly written books have won Hugos – but because the win was widely claimed as a win for “diversity”, while the book itself is somewhat diametrically opposed to the values that might lead to a more diverse world.
2015 was the peak of the Sad Puppies counter-revolutionary campaign against diversity in science fiction. The science fiction writing & publishing community has been going through a culture war in recent years, with the very diverse fandom for sci-fi demanding more recognition in its awards. I’ve supported a more diverse science fiction field at every chance I have had for a simple reasons – science fiction is our modern mythology. For it to have real value, it must include all voices and cultures in our world.
The Three Body Problem is a representation of contemporary Chinese culture, in much the way works of Golden Age science fiction by authors like Robert Heinlein represented the culture of the United States. Which is to say that as a work of science fiction, The Three Body Problem is something of a throwback. It’s a story that sees the universe as fundamentally hostile, life as brutal and short, that demands survival at all costs. As the New Yorker interview says:
“Chinese tech entrepreneurs discuss the Hobbesian vision of the trilogy as a metaphor for cutthroat competition in the corporate world.”
So I wasn’t entirely surprised to see Liu Cixin quoted in support of the Uighur internment in China, recently posted in the Scifi & Fantasy Facebook group. That said, I am also aware that quotes like this often appear out of context and later prove to be only partially true. It’s also possible that Liu Cixin is simply unable to voice any other opinion. However, I would be really interested to know if it does correctly represent the author’s position.
This isn’t – I should add – a call for “cancellation”. I STRONGLY disagree with the trend to cancelling writers we disagree with. The answer to art we find repugnant is to make better art and let audiences choose. But to that end, it is valid for audiences to be interested in the opinions of creators, so they can understand the work they’re engaging with better.
Netflix’s adaptation of The Three Body Problem already struck me as misjudged – the book doesn’t have the depth of character and relationships that “HBO style” shows like Game of Thrones demand. As I’ve written before, the rush to adapt sci-fi / fantasy novels to screen that followed GoT is going to lead to dozens of failed shows, much like the recent cancellation of the dire Altered Carbon.
There are however a few real gems in the canon of science fiction that I would love to see brought to the screen. Octavia Butler’s Mind of My Mind is a story that would perfectly reflect our moment in 2020. We need to look beyond bestsellers and award winners, and instead read deeply and widely, for the real value in science fiction.
Advanced SciFi & Fantasy
Writing the 21st century myth
Damien Walter, writer on sci-fi and geek culture for The Guardian, BBC, WIRED and graduate of the Clarion writers workshop, leads a journey into scifi and fantasy storytelling.