By: Okuma Yuichiro
Translated by: John Broach
[Originally published in Chinese at Kyodo News Beijing, March 1, 2021. Translated and posted with permission. click here for link to article]
Okuma Yuichiro (hereafter referred to as OY): The Three-Body Problem tells a story about a female scientist who, having lost hope for humanity after her father’s death during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), initiates communications with aliens. Why did you choose the Cultural Revolution as the background of the story?
Liu Cixin (hereafter referred to as LCX): When conceiving this novel, I dove into modern Chinese history and looked for what can cause complete disillusionment with humanity. I found the Cultural Revolution. Even though the later Reform and Opening up have brought many challenges for Chinese people as well, none of those problems were enough to make someone lose hope in humanity and human civilization. Things like the COVID-19 pandemic unsettle us, but they are insignificant when compared to the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. I came of age during the Cultural Revolution, which has made me more sensitive than younger generations to possible future crises or disasters. The future catastrophes depicted in my novel are not entirely fantasies, but exist in my subconscious. Of course, I only searched in Chinese history, if I looked for the context of the novel in world history, I might have found other historical periods of similar gravity.
OY: Isn’t humanity being threatened by an unknown virus similar to aliens using communication as an attempt to invade Earth?
LCX: When I was writing The Three-Body Problem, I was under the influence of Sakyo Komatsu’s disaster novel Japan Sinks and tried to find a subject that touched the most sensitive parts of the Chinese psyche. I thought of the most tragic memories of modern Chinese history, when China was invaded by other civilizations. At that time western civilization was more advanced and it was impossible for the old Chinese civilization to get an edge when facing such a foreign invasion. This history is engrained in the memories of the Chinese people, so I thought the invasion of Earth by an alien civilization would have the same shocking effect on the Chinese people.
There have been many pandemics in human history. Even though COVID-19 is not out of the ordinary, it serves as a reminder that the past three decades have been a rare period of prosperity and peaceful development for humankind. Those years gave us an illusion as if the world would be stable and peaceful forever; however, we now see that the future is unpredictable. From a broader perspective, the pandemic has revealed a non-linear historical model: history can change directions at any moment. This unpredictable state of the future gives sci-fi fiction a vast imaginary space and many potential narratives.
We should anticipate possible crises, for example, what would happen if there is a breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence that makes AI smarter than humans? How do we deal with a situation in which medical advancements allow people to escape their limited lifespan and live forever? The problem is that no one person or country is truly thinking through these issues. Only sci-fi fiction sometimes mulls over these potential crises.
OY: In your novel, The Three-Body Problem, humans try to fight back against an alien invasion but they cannot unite, just like what is happening now during the pandemic.
LCX: I don’t think this is out of the ordinary. Since the birth of human civilization, there have been great internal divides regardless if there is a crisis or not. Such disagreements and divisions are not going away, at least not in the near future. It is very disheartening to see different political groups and countries blaming and passing the buck to each other during the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, if you look at the entirety of human history, you can see some great progress. At least humanity can use reason to limit our differences to a certain extent; at least we won’t employ large-scale wars to solve differences like we did in the recent past. I believe that although humanity’s disagreements will continue to exist for a long time, they will develop in the direction toward reason and civility. The first thing to do is to strengthen communication and mutual understanding between cultures. Luckily, today’s information technology and network technology have brought forth more avenues to facilitate communication and understanding, this has made me more optimistic about the future.
OY: What insight does The Three-Body Problem have for us when thinking about our new norms of life shaped by the pandemic?
LCX: It is my long-held belief that our survival in this universe all boils down to relying on the power of science and technology. Humanity has had technology long before the birth of modern science, but it is not until we had a basic understanding of science that technological developments really took off. The main struggle of The Dark Forest, the second book in The Three-Body Problem trilogy, is how a weak civilization, like mankind, can defend itself and survive with such limited means when it is faced with an alien civilization that is significantly stronger in terms of technological capabilities.
This kind of life-or-death situation can cause fundamental changes to humanity. Things that we consider sacred and unchangeable, like our morals and value systems that have accumulated over a long period of history, will change. Never in our history have we faced such a catastrophe, changes have to be made to avoid extinction. Adopting these changes may be painful, it is even possible that many necessary changes are completely unacceptable in our current way of thinking. But again, if we want to survive we have to change, this is, I hope, what readers can get from my work.
John Broach is a Chinese and Political Science Undergraduate Student at The University of Oklahoma. He manages Chinese Literature Today’s web presence and also volunteers his time at OU’s Chinese Literature and Translation Archive (CLTA). There he provides translation assistance for Chinese Scholars and attends weekly discussions with them about translation, Chinese literature, and other related topics.