Liu Cixin on American vs. Chinese science fiction

Presently — faced with the immaturity of Chinese sci-fi — everyone in our sci-fi community is envious of the adult sci-fi readership in the US, and see it as a sign of maturity in sci-fi literature. But one must know that senility comes after maturity, and death comes after senility. The prosperity of US sci-fi is largely a result of the prosperity of its movie and TV industries, and these sci-fi movies and TV shows are but a stylistic extension of the “golden age” (sci-fi). Contemporary sci-fi literature itself in US is already deep in twilight — full of works applying complex techniques to express dense metaphors, completely devoid of the youthful energy of the “golden age” (sci-fi); and many magnum opuses in recent years already have an air of death about them. Americans under 25 these days basically don’t read sci-fi; I don’t see what’s to be envied about that.

And this:

But to look at it in another way, sci-fi literature is by its very nature immature — because it shows humanity in its childhood, filled with curiosity and fear for the vast and profound universe, as well as the urge to explore it. In the face of such a universe, human science and philosophy are very immature, and sci-fi is the only literary form available to express our scientific and philosophical immaturities; so it’s no surprise that sci-fi is filled with immaturity. When human science is developed to the furthest extent and everything in the universe is discovered down to its minutia, that will be the day sci-fi dies.

Here is the entire Reddit thread, via Benjamin Lyons.


There won't be peace or understanding as long as both Chinese and Americans keep believing and professing their culture as superior, even on such a petty subject as 'the contemporary sci-fi subculture'. This is just another cheap shot in the culture wars.

" both Chinese and Americans keep believing and professing their culture as superior"

Meh, the Germans, French and Americans have been doing the same thing at least since the end of WW2. I could probably throw the English, Russians and Japanese in there too. All great cultures are self selected for competition. Human competition almost always involves some kind of trash talk.

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Not sure gross aggregates like national sci-fi scenes can even be described much less understood when 50 percent or more of sales now are of self published work. Niches within niches. Even in countries without big sci-fi readerships, it is hard to get a handle on what is happening.

Well, the quote is from 2001. (Maybe TC didn't notice this? Maybe just didn't mention? Somewhat unfortunate given that excerpt he chooses starts "Presently...") Lot has changed in sci-fi and generally.

Would like to see him revisit his sentiments today.

Thanks, I missed the date. Last year in Forbes, there was a piece that claimed science fiction and fantasy sales have doubled since 2010. Liu Cixin no doubt contributed much to that rise: his Three Body Problem is ranked number one right now on Amazon under Chinese Literature.

I found it unreadable, although I did struggle through about half of the first book. I almost never give up on a book. I'm wondering how many who claim to have read it didn't completely.

Read all 3. Enjoyed all of them, but the first one was the best of the 3.

Note: I was referring to the English translations of the trilogy, not the original Chinese versions.

I'm glad someone thinks this. Read the first. Thought it was pedantic science jargon randomly tossed together into a story (and that nano-wire that cuts the ship in half is just dumb). Got 20% of the way through the second book and just gave up. In that one Venezuela is somehow a powerful country.

" In that one Venezuela is somehow a powerful country."
That's why its called science fiction, son.

"Americans under 25 these days basically don’t read sci-fi"

Yeah, young geeks don't read Asimov, Herbert, Heinlein, Gibson or Stephenson any more. If you believe that, I've got a planet moving engine I can sell to you....

I picked up on this as well. It's wrong. A 2015 survey of science fiction readers showed that c. 20% of them were 29 years old or younger (the groupings were under 15, 15-19, 20-29, older brackets - so not an exact fit).

Mark Neimann-Ross claims that 21% of Americans read science fiction.

Extrapolating that suggests that over 13.5 million Americans aged 29 or younger read science fiction, or just over 4% of all Americans. That doesn't feel like no one to me.

Yep, as data that seems roughly what I'd expect.

Liu may not be wrong that the production side of Anglophone sci-fi is relatively weak as platonic hard sci fi today, relatively concerned with social science, social issues, diversity, social satire and traditional literary merit. But I suspect that there is a stocks vs flows issue here.

The stock of older hard sci fi still holds up, as there have been no drastic revolutions in our understanding of physics, so new entrants have an incentive to specialise into commentary on trends in current society in a way that older authors would have trouble predicting in a way that feels authentic to contemporary audiences. Hence why Black Mirror is probably the most alive form of sci fi today in the cultural conversation that actually has a pretense, at least, of having ideas (as opposed to only costumes and special effects).

Any new entrants who wanted to talk about the cutting edge of physics might have to specialise into deeply strange implications of theoretical physics. Which Greg Egan does, but has a really limited audience.

(There's probably also some stuff you might be able to say about how this plays up to Chinese self perception as the place where heroically pushing the hard technology frontier happens, and the West as a post-industrial place that doesn't. This may be true, but probably doesn't affect what audiences like to read so much. Also Western written sci-fi pursuing comparative advantage over emergent interactive videogames in the way paintings and literature generally did over photos and movies.)

I mean, sure, Paolo Bacigalupi is a great example of this "mature" sci-fi in his depiction of a soft-post-apocalyptic climate-change world, but hey, post-apocalyptic sci-fi is very popular with today's youth and is often a form of adolescent power fantasy in any case.

What's Chinese post-apocalyptic sci-fi literature like?

"What's Chinese post-apocalyptic sci-fi literature like?"

History books on Mao's rule.

The only one I've read was fantastic:
A touch of Aldous Huxley, a bit of Mao/Marx, some China Mieville, all adding up to something a bit like Dark City.

The claim that young American's don't read sci fi isn't supported by the evidence. It's a Trumpian claim, not a factual claim.

I believe it. Kids these days don't read Heinlein or Asimov. Young adult sci-fi is a top seller and you only need a quick browse on Amazon to verify this. The golden age authors have a style of writing that doesn't appeal to younger generations, the characters are underdeveloped, and the topics are irrelevant. Rowlings, which every kid has read, is not a sci fi author but this is what those authors will be compared against.

Look at the origins of science fiction, Johannes Kepler wrote Somnium to tell some science truths using a fictional trip to the Moon. Yes, that Kepler that researched the motion of planets. The use of fiction was required to avoid religious censorship. He failed because his mother was trialed for witchcraft. He also got in troubles and the text was published posthumously.

The people of Japan ran to sci-fi to deal with the aftermath of WW2. Fiction in movies, manga or anime was the space to think about things nobody wanted to discuss in public or simply forget.

Then comes Liu Cixin to tell us "writers and readers can experience what is impossible in reality" or "to tear sci-fi out from the confines of literature itself" as if sci-fi were just an art worth pursuing just for aesthetic pleasure.

"...senility comes after maturity, and death comes after senility.....When human science is developed to the furthest extent and everything in the universe is discovered down to its minutia, that will be the day sci-fi dies." What a great display of affection for linear story-telling and XIX century positivism.

Perhaps sci-fi it not about science, it is just another allegoric way to tell uncomfortable things people don't want to discuss. I already forgot the author of this quote: sci-fi uses robots to explore the human condition, the future to talk about the present or something like this.

Considering the current political environment of China, sci-fi should be throwing hidden punches at authoritarianism, not celebrating it. This already happened on the USSR times. Authors that got payed to write inspirational science fiction during the Cold War, found a way to speak the truth and criticize the system.

Hmmm . . . this is disappointing. A sweeping, data free account of complex foreign cultural phenomena that overconfidently embraces deterministic historical paradigms? Seems much more pretentious than insightful.

I am a fan of sci-fi. I don't disagree that the current noir shadow covers most of the American genre. I mean zombies, ancient (extinct) advanced technologies, and dystopian near-futures about sum it up. Pessimism to a distasteful degree. I wonder if it could be that the current science has advanced so much that it simply is very very hard for a fiction writer to master enough of it to write good sci-fi based on it. (The meme I'm referring to is the number of years of education required to provide a 'basic education' in the subject. Lord knows they (the authors) have done a really poor job on nanotechnology - they're clueless.

I found The Book of Strange New Things and Version Control to be pretty good books, but overall I agree with you. Some of the fun stuff (Themis Files series and Dark Matter) are not terribly big on ideas, and other popular stuff (like Scalzi) is just terribly written modern day pulp. And hard sci-fi these days (e.g. Seveneves and Revelation Space) are just books with sciency terms mashed together.

"Seveneves "

Seveneves just had such obvious plot holes it felt like a Sy Fy made for TV movie. There's never a convincing explanation to why they didn't try for a high orbit, instead of sending everyone to a low orbit which was guaranteed to be full of debris. The moons breaking up and every rock that is going to hit earth is going through Low Earth Orbit on the way.

The only real explanation was that the plot required it, and that Stephenson was too lazy to come up with a semi plausible reason.

For reference, it takes about 40% more energy to get to Geostationary orbit over a Low Earth Orbit. And of course in the book a billionaire builds his own ship, goes out and snags a comet and brings it back. The comet weighed more than the entire fleet of small ships.

The whole book is just a winnowing process whereby most of Earth could be narrowed down to 7 survivors.

Agreed. I'm sad I didn't abandon it.

"...and other popular stuff (like Scalzi) is just terribly written modern day pulp."

Yep, I've read quite a bit of Scalzi and he writes pulp fiction.

Most sci-fi is pulpy. That is why serious people don't read such childish things. Read a real book.

And serious people always comment on post about sci-fi, because it's important to monitor what the non-serious people are doing and to let them know it's UN-serious behavior.

This is a sore subject for me. I grew up at the end of the golden age. I miss the sense of wonder. I miss epic ideas like Azimov's Foundation. I miss Heinlein's short stories where an ordinary Joe in a extraordinary situation McGivers a solution and moves on as if it were just another day in the future.

For the last few years I've found it hard to discover new, original science fiction. Everything seems to pick a familiar trope and try to ride it for as many books as it can be milked for. Don't know if it's Amazon and the little boxes it categorizes everything into making it hard to find what defys categorization or just writers responding to the market, writing what sells. All I know is that my stable of favorite authors write slowly and are dying off, and I don't know how to find more.

At the same time, it's getting hard to re-read stories from the golden age. Asimov's ideas are still fresh, but his writing style is hard to take. How many times can I re-read Heinlein and his style is showing it's age too. Even Dune seems florid and forced.

One bright light is Ken Liu, who can write beautify stories (The Paper Menagerie) and some how find Heinlein's spirt (Mono no aware). Is it ironic that a Chinese American found the way to link the vigor of Chinese science fiction with the spirit of the Golden Age?

" I miss Heinlein's short stories where an ordinary Joe in a extraordinary situation McGivers a solution and moves on as if it were just another day in the future."

Andy Weir's The Martian falls into that vein. Granted Weir isn't nearly as productive as Heinlein was.

The loss of wonder isn't because sci-fi is dying, it's because you became an adult.

I don't think that's correct. A lot of Golden Age sci-fi was about the triumph of man via the use of science and technology. How much current sci fi is uplifting and positive both towards the human spirit and technology?

I don't think the amount of science fiction has gone down. Instead, we are stuck with an amazing amount of dystopian or pessimistic in tone sci fi.

Even looking at TV/movies we've gone from Star Trek/Star Wars to the modern Battlestar Galactica/Hunger Games. Even the modern incarnations of Star Trek and Star Wars are much more dark and brooding. The Star Trek reboot was initiated with the destruction of Vulcan.

If you search SFF180 on YouTube, that's a channel that does sci-fi and fantasy (but leaning more towards sci-fi) book reviews, mail bags (telling you about what's newly released), etc. Might help.

I wonder if these ideas don’t echo Łem to some extent. As a foreigner, Łem had read American sci-fi in translation, but of course, only the best works got translated. When he found that there was a lot of shlocky stuff out there for each great work, he was disappointed at first. I think that the lens of translation does select out the peak works making every non-native critical of the whole corpus.

There's a vast amount of science fiction being produced in the US every year. Probably greater than any point in history. It's just that proportionately far more of it comes out in the form of TV, movies and video games than it did during the Golden Age.

Here's a list of the top 20 highest grossing movies of all time:

They are overwhelmingly Science Fiction or Fantasy.

There is going to be a Dune movie, again. Yes the old stuff holds up well. It sells.

I think most ideas expressed by a Chinese about comparison to US is not about US, but about China itself. The comparison is just set up as a straw man to prove a point.

Liu did hit something about China's popular culture though. I think of modern China's culture product as young and reckless, probably coming from a lot of suppressed passion under a censorship. Confucius teaching really values maturity, as if life is a race towards one's heavenly mandate. However, modern China's immaturity is something that should be reveled, it is only in this environment that something both modern and inherently Chinese can be born.

As an American sf fan I absolutely take his point. The optimism and dynamism we have largely lost and they have gained are absolutely central to the genre. Dystopias are so lazy.

I think he is right that sci-fi is on a relative decline, but I think that's only because fantasy is finally ascendant, even to the point of being mainstream culture.

Just think of it: Lord of the Rings movies, Chronicles of Narnia movies, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight, Game of Thrones, D&D is becoming a popular thing to watch others play on Twitch (Critical Role and other channels, etc). Fantasy is seeing unprecedented success.

Just imagine being a kid circa 2003-2015, and then picking out a genre of book to read. You're naturally going to gravitate towards fantasy.

But hey, it's all speculative fiction, right?

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