22 October 2018
The success of The Three-Body Problem novels came as a surprise to the author Liu Cixin, who lives an ordinary life a world away from the eventful plots of his sci-fi books. Photos: HKEJ
The success of The Three-Body Problem novels came as a surprise to the author Liu Cixin, who lives an ordinary life a world away from the eventful plots of his sci-fi books. Photos: HKEJ

A Chinese sci-fi king’s parallel universe

Liu Cixin (劉慈欣) is something of a space oddity. As the author of the science fiction blockbuster The Three-Body Problem (《三體三部曲》) novel trilogy, Liu is lauded for creating a milestone in Chinese sci-fi literature and his work is already the subject of intense academic research and debate.

Yao Haijun (姚海軍), editor-in-chief of the monthly Science Fiction World (《科幻世界》) magazine and Liu’s publisher, says the “work pushes the limits of imagination and itself is a proclamation about how far the Chinese sci-fi community can go in an imagined world.”

Yet back on earth, Liu, China’s most prolific and beloved sci-fi novelist, still makes a living as an engineer in a remote corner of the country that could not be farther from the engaging world of his fiction.

Home base

Liu lives with his engineer wife and middle-school student daughter near the mining city of Yangquan (陽泉) in northwestern Shanxi province. It is not a city in the strictest sense but more of an isolated residential complex. Close to nowhere and nothing new in China, such communities are built to house workers of big companies and usually have their own schools, hospitals, shops and leisure facilities. It’s here that Liu has spent most of his life, leaving only to attend college. It’s also here that middle-school alumni Robin Li Yanhong (李彥宏), founder of search engine giant Baidu, got his start in life.

Liu works at a power plant and his most important duty is to man the control room and be on deck in case of malfunctions. But his duties only keep him busy three to four months out of a year, leaving the rest of the time free. “You basically stand by in your office and can do whatever you like, and in my case, it is reading and writing,” he said.

Liu finished most of his books, including The Three-Body Problem that earned him fortune and fame, under these somewhat novel working conditions. But his life remains largely unchanged: Liu still spends four hours a day reading — two hours during the day plowing through English books and two hours in the evening reading Chinese. English books are hard to come by here so most of the time he reads English stories on the internet.

He also jogs up to 10 kilometers a day in the hope that one day he will be able to go into space himself. “The cost of space travel is still way too prohibitive nowadays, some US$20 million,” he said. But he keeps fit for the moment when the cost will come down to within reach.

Like many Chinese husbands, he does chores like cooking, housekeeping and taking his daughter to school. He smokes and drinks, not to socialize but to serve his writing — without a few sips of alcohol, he can’t fall asleep at night after spending the day conceiving new, ingenious plots.

And for all his literary success, it has little impact on his family. His wife knows about his books, but they barely discuss the content. And his first novel, The Era of Supernova, came out in 1989, but Liu’s father did not know of his son’s talents before he died in 1992. Liu’s mother also doesn’t have any idea about her son’s prestige among the country’s sci-fi literati.

Even within the small literary circle, Liu interactions with other members are rare. He simply doesn’t have enough time. He doesn’t write Weibo posts, nor does he use WeChat. These fragments of information, he says, are just to kill time. The few times that Liu does communicate with the outside world are mostly to talk book publishing.

“I don’t have a car; the place I live is so remote and when I travel I usually have to go over 500 kilometers so a car is useless. And besides, I don’t have time to get a driver’s license”. But Liu still feels that his time is slipping away — he used to watch a movie every day and play computer games regularly, but now he has abandoned all of these for his novels.

In the beginning

Born in 1963, Liu grew up in a time that was both free and dangerous. To deal with all sorts of threats and uncertainties, Liu tried to make shotguns, wounded himself and hurt others. “Danger is something very hard to forget.”

Liu’s interest in sci-fi was most likely first sparked by French novelist Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Sci-fi novels fascinated him when he was young and he tried whatever he could to read as much as possible. “Having read a lot, you will then feel the urge to write something of your own.” Still a student, Liu began to send his works to newspapers and magazines and even the repeated rejections didn’t dampen his enthusiasm.

Then came the political and social upheavals of the 1980s and, for a brief time, Liu stopped imagining in his virtual, futuristic world, turning away from writing novels to playing computer games.

He picked up writing again and The Era of Supernova, penned in 1989, bears the hallmarks of his desire to make a name for himself. But the novel was a nonstarter.

Given this, it’s easy to see why the Three-Body trilogy’s sudden fame was unexpected. The series has gained an extensive readership from outside the sci-fi world and won over literature lovers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and IT tycoons. Some China National Space Administration technicians, inspired by the novels, have even created an internet bulletin board to discuss what China’s space program can learn from Liu’s imaginings.

As an amateur writer, Liu is free from the usual fetters of professional convention. With that, he’s established a whole new outlook on the universe from an authentic Chinese context.

And, all of this was accomplished solely by Liu himself in a lesser-known corner in the wilderness of northwestern China.

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