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Chinese Cultural Revolution Sci-Fi Wins Hugo Awards’ Best Novel Prize

2015 Hugo Awards Best Novel goes to Chinese writer Liu Cixin. Image: Book covers of Liu's first two trilogy.

2015 Hugo Awards Best Novel goes to Chinese writer Liu Cixin. Image: Book covers of Liu's first two work in his trilogy.

This year's fan-selected Hugo award for best novel goes to The Three-Body Problem, the first part of a trilogy by former engineer Liu Cixin.

Translated by American author Ken Liu, this is the first year the prestigious sci-fi prize has gone to a Chinese or even Asian author, and the first time a translated work has taken the prize.

First published in 2006 as a series in a local science magazine, Three-Body is a story of an alien invasion set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, pitching humans who side with the aliens against those who defend the human race—with some outside assistance.

Though the quality of writing hasn't been disputed by readers, Liu's win wasn't for his novel alone. A strictly homogeneous group of U.S. writers and readers had made concerted efforts to skew vote results to keep the award within their circle according to the perceived political leanings of the writers. But the “Rabid Puppies” campaign backfired when their efforts prompted their preferred frontrunner, Marko Kloos, to withdraw his nomination earlier this year and distance himself from the group, leaving Liu the voters’ choice.

It's pretty ironic that the Puppies brigade tried to rig the Hugo Awards vote and ended up with an even less desirable outcome. That said, there wasn't much difference in the way Three-Body fans tried to swarm the voting. I can't stand it when works are judged solely for political correctness, but the Puppies really took it too far. In any case, it can't be that bad when it's the first time ever a mainland Chinese author has won a Hugo.

In China, interest in Three-Body now has been less focused on the Puppies campaign failure and more on details of the film adaptation, which began production in March this year. Fans fear a domestic production won't give the film the high-budget Hollywood treatment they feel it deserves.

Author Liu Cixin, who is also executive producer of the film, said in interviews that he had no time to wait for a Hollywood deal given the strong possibility the planet will be destroyed by aliens at any moment. However, Liu also pointed to films such as Japan Sinks, saying that the 2006 remake was far inferior to the 1973 original, made free of computer imagery.

Journalist and vocal Three-Body fan Michael Anti says this is simply the price to be paid for such delayed international recognition of the novel.

It's too bad The Three-Body Problem wasn't given a Hugo Award in time for a Hollywood director to sign on to film it, and instead will be ruined by a shitty Chinese director.

The director of the film is Zhang Fanfan, who bought the copyright of the trilogy back in 2009 when Liu started repackaging the serial into book form. Many are skeptical of the upcoming movies as the production team is not considered the best that the Chinese film sector has to offer.

Politically correct paradox

The Hugo award is likely to bring the book readers from outside the sci-fi community. Another sci-fi writer, Baoshu, worries that critics will ruin Liu:


This puts Liu in a tough spot. Before, he could write whatever he wanted, but now having drawn so much attention, if the science in his next work isn't perfect, he'll get it from his sci-fi fans. If his form isn't spot-on, he'll be hearing it from the literary critics. There'll be heat from the feminists if the women he creates don't meet expectations, as well as from the liberals if the future he imagines isn't liberal enough, though if it's too liberal it won't be any…if he has to take all these demands into account, he'll never write anything again.

Chinese sci-fi readers, many not fans themselves of political correctness, have pointed out the way women and race are portrayed in Third-Body is probably closer to the taste of right-wing Puppies than not.

And then there's an authoritarian aesthetic to which a Chinese director is more likely to stay faithful, writer Star River argued:

The science fiction in Three-Body is truly impressive, but as a novel it's infatuated with totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Much sci-fi comes from despair over reality, at what's inescapable by design, and reflects the author's values and worldview. Which is why it's appropriate to have [investor] Kong Ergou make the film, it'll be part of the same project.

Even with all the dodgy science in Liu Cixin's sci-fi, his values and literary skill aside, his imagination still far surpasses that of other contemporary Chinese sci-fi writers. Authoritarianism strips people of wits, imagination, and ability to express one's self, which has long kept modern Chinese language literature in a very low place. Inferiority is collusion between author and audience, and also the hallmark of authoritarianism.

Liu Di, the dissident and sci-fi writer who uses the pen name Stainless Steel Rat, added:

Random speculation: the first part of the trilogy was rewarded for denouncing the Cultural Revolution, but as the latter two books don't fit with American values, they don't stand a chance.

The second part of the trilogy, The Dark Forest, was published in English just this month, and the final part is in translation now.

Liu Cixin, writing this week at an online forum popular with Tsinghua university students and alumni, had this to say in his notes of thanks:

最想感谢的还是本书的读者,感谢他们分享了我的想象世界,在《The Three Body Problem》和其后的两部续集中,展现了一个最糟的宇宙,但像其它的科幻小说一样,在其中人类是做为一个整体出现的,面对着共同的危机和挑战,面对着共同的未来。在宇宙中做为一个整体的而出现的人类,是科幻小说带给我们最珍贵的感受;事实上,在现实中人类也正在变为一个整体,这不用等到外星人到来,为此,科幻小说做出了微小但宝贵的努力。

Those I'd like to thank most are the readers of these books, for sharing my imaginary world. The Three-Body Problem, along with the following two books, has revealed the worst kind of universe, but as is the case in all sci-fi novels the humans in them come together as one in the face of a common threat and challenge, and a common future. And it's the bringing together of humans as a single entity in the universe that is the beauty sci-fi gives us; in fact, in reality, humans are coming together as one at this very moment; we don't need to wait for the aliens to show up for that.

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