"Liu Cixin's War of the Worlds" - a profile in The New Yorker
June 19, 2019 9:12 PM   Subscribe

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.
Jiayang Fan profiles science fiction writer Liu Cixin, primarily known internationally for his trilogy The Three-Body Problem and the film adaptation of The Wandering Earth, in The New Yorker.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth (14 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting article. I only read the first of the trilogy and plan to read the rest. I was at first repelled by his adherence to the line on some Chinese social issues, but the way he explains himself reminds me, as it did the author of the piece, that I am alien to them.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:04 PM on June 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

fwiw: dan wang's 3bp review

Liu has been criticized for peopling his books with characters who seem like cardboard cutouts installed in magnificent dioramas.

sounds familiar :P
  • If We Told You Neal Stephenson Invented Bitcoin, Would You Be Surprised? - "Stephenson's idea was that the internet would be a place, a virtual space with formal rules and unspoken conventions, somewhere people would go to hang out and spend time, that it would have culture, or rather a lot of cultures, clashing and colliding and mixing with each other, just like people and cultures do in the real world. The internet wasn't just a technology for delivering and organizing information; it was an entirely new world existing in parallel to, and on top of, this one."[1]
  • Neal Stephenson Explains His Vision of the Digital Afterlife - "I saw someone recently describe social media in its current state as a doomsday machine, and I think that's not far off. We've turned over our perception of what's real to algorithmically driven systems that are designed not to have humans in the loop, because if humans are in the loop they're not scalable and if they're not scalable they can't make tons and tons of money... I think the only way to get good content out of the internet is by having humans in the loop."[2]
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.

also btw...
What Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" Tells Us Now (by salman rushdie!)
I love Kilgore Trout as deeply as I love the inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore. I even own a copy of the novel “Venus on the Half-Shell,” in which the writer Philip José Farmer took a Trout story written by Vonnegut and expanded it to novel length. “Venus on the Half-Shell” is about the accidental destruction of the earth by incompetent universal bureaucrats, and the attempt by the sole surviving human being to seek answers to the so-called Ultimate Question. In this way, Kilgore Trout inspired Douglas Adams’s celebrated book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” in which, you may recall, the earth was demolished by Vogons to make room for an interstellar bypass, and the sole surviving man, Arthur Dent, went in search of answers...

In Vonnegut’s novel “Breakfast of Champions,” we learn about another Kilgore Trout story, “Now It Can Be Told,” written in the form of a letter from the Creator of the Universe addressed to the reader of the story. The Creator explains that the whole of life itself has been a long experiment. The nature of the experiment was this: to introduce into an otherwise wholly deterministic universe one single person who is granted free will, to see what use he makes of it, in a reality in which every other living thing was, is, and always will be a programmed machine. Everyone in the whole of history has been a robot, and the single individual with free will’s mother and father and everyone he knows are also robots, and so, by the way, is Sammy Davis, Jr. The individual with free will, God explains, is you, the reader of the story, and so God would like to offer you an apology for any discomfort you have endured. The end.
posted by kliuless at 11:42 PM on June 19, 2019 [10 favorites]

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.”

I love this bit. If I ever created a narrative piece of media, this would be me as well (and I can't recognize central themes or meanings in other people's work, either; I'm much too literal of a media consumer to not take things at face value).

I finished the TBP trilogy last summer. The writing had some issues (hard to say how much of it is translation difficulties), but each volume had some huge sci-fi ideas that blew my mind like no other book has for the last two decades.
posted by jklaiho at 3:02 AM on June 20, 2019 [10 favorites]

I finished the TBP trilogy last summer. The writing had some issues (hard to say how much of it is translation difficulties), but each volume had some huge sci-fi ideas that blew my mind like no other book has for the last two decades.

I still haven't been able to get through the whole trilogy, and I definitely know it's mostly due to translation difficulties. Ken Liu did a fantastic job with the first one, but trying to read through Joel Martinson's translation was pure and absolute torture. Martinson's translation felt so robotic, as if he was more worried with getting the literal meaning more than anything else. I found that Martinson's translation lost a lot of the lyricism that Ken Liu's version (and the Chinese language in general) can have. By the time I was done with the second one, I was so bored by the stilted prose that I didn't bother to move on to the last in the triology. I'm more inclined to believe that Liu Cixin's writing in Cinese is closer to how Ken Liu translated it

Interestingly, though, I've also noticed that my non-Chinese speaking/understanding friends seem to prefer the Martinson one, while those who understand Chinese prefer Liu's translations.
posted by astapasta24 at 4:06 AM on June 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ken Liu did a fantastic job with the first one, but trying to read through Joel Martinson's translation was pure and absolute torture.

That was my experience as well - loved the first one, thought the second one was interesting but kind of a slog to get through. FWIW, I just read the third one (Death's End) and it was a much easier read than The Dark Forest but the story/concept just wasn't on the same level as the first book.
posted by parallellines at 5:57 AM on June 20, 2019

I had missed that Ken Liu wasn't the English translator for the second one. It does explain why the third felt more like a return to the first.
posted by PMdixon at 7:03 AM on June 20, 2019

I was really disappointed by The Three-Body Problem, given how everyone was just gushing about it - paper-thin characters, all female characters exist to motivate the male characters, and Dan Brown-esque conspiracies. The first book had developed just enough momentum that I did indeed start to read the second one, but it just amplified all the problems I had with the first - I just read the Wikipedia summary and moved on with my life. I can't understand the word count either - it's not like there are flowery descriptions of every scene, or deep investigations into characters thoughts.

I do recommend his work to people who love reading Asimov, but sci-fi has moved on from that style for good reason.
posted by Dmenet at 7:21 AM on June 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

Liu has been criticized for peopling his books with characters who seem like cardboard cutouts installed in magnificent dioramas.

It worked for Asimov and so many other American SF writers.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:26 AM on June 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I didn't like everything about The Three-Body Problem--I was really fascinated by the psychology/cultural trauma that could lead the conspirators to do what they did, but that wasn't the focus--but I also felt that much of what felt odd or off or unsatisfying to me arose from cultural differences and were more puzzles to be considered rather than lapses in the writing.
posted by praemunire at 8:07 AM on June 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I was very impressed by Three-Body Problem: by its torrent of ideas, twisty plot, and the use of Chinese history and society to ground most of the plot. The marginalized scientist's reaction to the aliens, after going through the Cultural Revolution - brrr.

Dark Forest offered a similar ideas rush, but shifted in many ways. By the end it became much, much darker, not to mention more epic in scale.

The thinness of characterization irked me a bit, but I wasn't sure how much was being lost in translation. The treatment of women was just plain wrong, especially in the second book.

I'm looking forward to the third.

Thank you for sharing this profile, save alive nothing that breatheth .
posted by doctornemo at 10:08 AM on June 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I recently watched (much of) The Wandering Earth, and it was kind of fascinating to see one notable conceit of Western science fiction -- that the technology will change but culture will stay the same -- reflected from another angle. (Specifically, bribing a guard in a quasi-military jail with baked goods strikes me as another version of the robotic maid helping stay-at-home mom cook a big dinner for her family.)

TBP didn't strike me initially as having so much of a cultural imprint -- sure, lots of the human interactions are clearly based on a cultural shorthand I didn't understand, but the human side of the story is clearly an afterthought so it's easy to mentally skip over much of that.

But this article really makes a case that the bleak worldview of TBP -- as quoted in the article, "idealism is fatal and kindness an exorbitant luxury" -- is derived substantially from Liu's life experience, and that this is something that reflects the culture of modern China.

Which I find a bit worrying, to be honest.

I hope I'm painting with a really overly-broad brush here -- I mean, the other author I think of in the same vein is Peter Watts, and I wouldn't suggest that his writing reflects something troubling about Canadian culture -- so I'd actually love for someone to set me straight here.
posted by bjrubble at 10:23 AM on June 20, 2019

I finished The Three-Body Problem on the train this morning. I thought it was a lot of fun and has some great set pieces that will look fantastic on the screen. The characters were paper plot dolls, but most of the "classic" science fiction that I've read has had that problem--all I remember from Childhood's End is closing the book and wondering if Arthur C. Clarke had ever spoken to or even met an actual human before.

The Three-Body Problem is kind of Dan Brown-ish, but the prose is far more readable, the Cultural Revolution background is fascinating, and I am always there for Cop and Not-a-Cop adventures.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:46 AM on June 20, 2019

The best part of The Three-Body-Problem was that it was an unabashed throwback to 50s and 60s scifi of a kind that doesn't get written these days. Same with the worst part.
posted by AndrewStephens at 1:33 PM on June 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

bjrubble, I'd point to the key role played by the Cultural Revolution at the start of The Three-Body Problem. That's crucial context. It shapes how the scientist responds to the signal, and thereby kicks off the trilogy.
posted by doctornemo at 7:59 AM on June 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

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