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Interview with the Chinese bestselling author Liu Cixin

Cixin Liu interview for Perry Rhodan

His book "Kugelblitz", published by Heyne-Verlag, has also been available in German since mid-May

Interviewer: Christian Wehrschütz, PR reader since 1972

Translator: Alessandro De Toni

Interview time: end of May 2020


Dear Mr. Liu,

CW: You have written an afterword in your book “Ball lightning” and in the first volume of your trilogy with the German title “Die Drei Sonnen” (Trisolaris). In it you tell that you saw a ball lightning yourself at the age of 18; you also write that at the age of 7, you saw the first Chinese satellite (Dongfanghong I) in the sky. How did these two experiences affect your relationship with technology and nature?

CL: The most striking event for me was the latter because it happened during the Cultural Revolution and in those times we had very few information about what was happening in the world. That was definitely an event that broadened my vision of the world.

CW: What made you study at the North China University of Water Conservancy and Electric Power and then work as a computer technician in a power plant?

CL: I didn’t have too much of a choice at that time; back then that was the kind of college I could attend, it was not my ideal choice of studies, I pick it just because of my future life (more/better employment possibilities). My preferred choice would have been basic research, to become a scientist, or something related to aviation or aerospace engineering. The problem was that you needed very good grades to access to those universities and secondly it was that in those times if you study physics for example the most ideal outcome would have been that you would have become a middle school professor or something like that so it was a rather practical choice.

CW: Have you been a good or bad student?

CL: Let’s say average; you also have to keep in mind that I was in small cities so the future outlook was different than it could have been in a big city. You also have to consider that in those times the university acceptance rate was around 4%, compared to the 60% of nowadays, back then being able to go to university - regardless the specialization - was already quite an incredible achievement; and the choice was not that important.

CW: In the afterword to the book "Ball lightning" you write that you were lucky enough to be able to read the two central works of the American science fiction (SF) author Arthur C. Clarke. When did you read these books? Was it difficult to get such literature in China at the time?

CL: The first sci-fi novel I got in touch with were the novels by Jules Verne, which in China were published during the 50s, a period of time when Chinese cultural polices were rather relaxed. But then when I was a kid and a young man, it was the time of the Cultural Revolution, and back then there was no science fiction, the concept of science fiction itself didn’t even exist.

Regarding Clarke and other Western sci-fi authors, I could get them just after the Reform and Opening up, in the late 70s and early 80s, when China was flooded with foreign books and sci-fi novels from abroad. Chinese culture didn’t even have the concept of science fiction, you could say it was considered an ‘import product’, so Chinese sci-fi writers like myself were entirely influenced by Western writers.

CW: What is the fascinating thing about science fiction for you?

CL: Probably my generation was the first one to be consciously passionate about science fiction. I think that what fascinated me the most about sci-fi was that it could expand my living experience by means of imagination, could bring me to a place and time I couldn’t experience otherwise, the main point is that it could expand my life through imagination, to overcome the restrictions of daily life. In fact, I think that for me writing science fiction was an unavoidable necessity: if I could really travel to the space, probably I wouldn’t have written anything, I did it because my space felt narrow and limited.

CW: Arthur C. Clarke obviously shaped you more than Isaac Asimov; I find this remarkable because your trilogy (Trisolaris) reminds me much more of Asimov and his foundation cycle? Is my impression correct? How do you see the two authors?

CL: Between these two writers, I prefer Clarke. I also like Asimov, but Clarke had a stronger influence on my work, because Clarke’s imagination is more colorful and diverse, not such a structured world. Of course, I was someway influenced also by Asimov’s Foundation, but I never had the intention of writing something like it, so rational and structured. Probably the Trisolaris trilogy is much darker, it aims to describe a universe which is more difficult to grasp. By contrast, Clarke’s 2001: Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama played a bigger influence, because in these two novels the universe is more mysterious, more difficult to ascertain, more difficult to imagine.

CW: Many authors have also started as fans in the Perry Rhodan series. When did you decide to become an author?

CL: It was 1999, and back then the market for sci-fi was very small and marginal, it was very difficult even to public full-length novels. You could just write short ones and yet it was not easy to get them published since back then the only outlet for sci-fi in China was the magazine ‘Kehuan Shijie’ (note: literally “Sci-fi World”, which was founded in 1979).

CW: Perry-Rhodan is an updated story of a united humanity; the Perry-Rhodan series has been in existence for more than 50 years; of course, authors also live in their time, which influences their works. In your case and that of your family, the Cultural Revolution may have been a defining event. How much do you process personal experiences in your books, but also events from past and present?

CL: First of all, my generation had their childhood and early youth through the Cultural Revolution. That was a key period of time in shaping the entire life of a person, so regardless the fact that you could consciously be aware of it nor not, for us obviously the influence of the Cultural Revolution was immense, moreover in your entire life it is very difficult to leave it behind. At the same time, being a writer, the Cultural Revolution is unavoidably played its influence; of course, probably it happens in a tortuous way in my work, but yet, it’s there. Regarding science-fiction and reality, there one point I am completely sure of: there’s no sci-fi works which can totally overlook reality, this is a fact. But I became a sci-fi author after being a sci-fi fan, and for me the ultimate goal of writing sci-fi is merely sci-fi itself, I have no interest at all in using sci-fi as a metaphor or to reflect upon reality by means of that. I write like that (using elements of reality) just because the Chinese readers are more accustomed to have some reference to reality, so I use these elements of reality just as a platform, a background for the storyline, I really don’t want to use sci-fi to reflect upon reality.

CW: At Perry-Rhodan an author collective writes; they receive exposés from the editors, which two authors write as instructions. Do you write your books alone? Do you research everything yourself?

CL: I work completely on my own, because when I started writing sci-fi stories I was an engineer in a factory, I didn’t have anyone around to talk with, nor to help me accomplish any of my work. It is also a matter of personal habit, I think that literary creation is something that has to be done completely alone, I cannot even accept the idea of working with someone else. When I write, I don’t even discuss with anybody about my work and my ideas, I have never done that. I think that your value as a writer lies in the effort you make to get out your very own perspective.

CW: Even if you write science fiction, your works are based on a profound knowledge of technology and physics. Where does this knowledge come from? How do you keep pace with developments in science?

CL: My knowledge about science and technology comes entirely as a personal interest, I have a very deep interest into these topics, and driven by this interest I study the most recent development of science and technology with the same attitude and pleasure I could read a novel, and by doing so, with time, you can learn a lot on these topics.

CW: Do the names you give their protagonists have a deeper meaning? One of the great heroes is Xiao Luo - Luo Ji; in combination, these two characters correspond to the Chinese word for logic.

CL: To be honest I don’t put much effort in choosing my characters’ names. The way I choose them is just based on the idea that I want them to sound like normal Chinese names; it is not a meticulous work. Sometimes I used names of acquaintances and I change the surname or I maybe change one character (note: the many homophones of Chinese language offer the possibility to easily play on names, just by replacing characters with the same sound but different meaning). ‘Cheng Xin’ comes from a friend in real life. I don’t recall how I came up with Luo Ji, probably it sounds a bit special, but I didn’t put any special thought in it. Overall, I don’t spend much efforts and time to think about this. Moreover, Characters’ names in Chinese novel are different than Western ones, because the number of names in the West is limited, but in China you have a much broader choice, almost endless, some names are made up and don’t even exist in reality (note: being the combination of different characters with different meanings), so I try to make them quite realistic.

CW: The central operation in her Trisolaris trilogy is the "Operation Wall Facer"; it probably refers to the legend that Bodhidharma sat against a wall for nine years and meditated until he was enlightened. We also learn a lot about Chinese history and literature in your works; You also refer to the "I Ging". Such references are missing from other science fiction authors. How much are your works rooted in Chinese culture?

CL: My first point is that in my sci-fi work I don’t intend to give it any special Chinese characteristics. In other words, I simply consider them simply sci-fi novels; I don’t write them to be ‘sci-fi novels with Chinese characteristics’.  

Then for me and Chinese sci-fi readers, Chinese history and culture is unavoidably part of our life, but reality is that history and culture is definitely not the core interest of Chinese readers, on the contrary this lies in the sense of the future. At the same time, on the contrary to what many people might believe, sci-fi works with a lot of Chinese history and culture in it turn out to be not welcome at all.  Chinese readers are projected toward the future, not toward the past; they don’t want to look at history. Moreover, they want to look outside, to a vaster world, and this is what I appreciate the most about Chinese readers.

Then for me and Chinese sci-fi readers, Chinese history and culture is unavoidably part of our life, but reality is that history and culture is definitely not the core interest of Chinese readers, on the contrary this lies in the sense of the future. Of course this sense of the future can hide crisis, critical downturns and traps, but yet the future of China is something very attractive. In fact, all of a sudden sci-fi literature is flourishing in China, and this sense of the future is at the root of it.  And in this country which is so projected toward the future, naturally sci-fi can flourish. In the past, you could say that the whole Chinese literature was looking backward, its focus was history and rural life, but now I feel we need more writers to look ahead to China’s future, I think this is much more interesting for the people.

At the same time, my work has been translated in the US and in Europe, and I hope my Western readers appreciate my novels as sci-fi novels, not as Chinese sci-fi novels. Sci-fi is a global literature; I don’t want readers to be attracted because of my novels’ Chinese characteristics.

CW: In your trilogy you are writing about a deep crisis of mankind, called the “deep valley. But in the books I have not found any explanation, what did happen in this period of time.

CL: It refers to a period where Planet Earth invest all its resources to build a defence in order to fight an alien invasion and it overlooks people’s life, due to this there is a huge fear, and this investment is causing a great famine, turning the world into a state of chaos even worse than wartime.

CW: My impression is that your cosmology is revealed in the second volume of the trilogy; the German title is "The Dark Forest". The universe resembles a dark forest where hunters are waiting to destroy each other, the hunters representing cosmic civilizations. Do you personally see aliens as a possible threat? Or as far as we know as the great unknown?

CL: First of all, from the perspective of sci-fi novels, sci-fi literature is about possibilities, is about offering all sort of possible scenarios. The “dark forest” is just one of the messiest one, the darkest one, there are other possibilities, but this the most terrible one.

From the perspective of science, from a more rigorous point of view, we still have no means to speculate about outer civilizations, because we lack elements to infer any outer space wisdom, we haven’t even discover other forms of life outside planet Earth, our only object of reference is human civilization. According to our experience of human civilizations, we know that weak civilizations can’t have a very positive outlook when they encounter stronger ones; this is pretty clear judging by the history of mankind.

For sure if there is another civilization which is more advance in terms of technology, science and so on and so forward, I feel that actually we have to be very cautious. There is a lot of people who has a rather positive and more marry approach to this problem, that they believe that actually if there is a civilization which is more advanced in terms of technology and science and so on, they must have also a level of ethics which is higher than us, so they would not come to harm us. Yet, the basis of this etic system would probably be different, the human life would not be at the core of this ethics, so in any case at least theoretically if there was a civilization which is more advances we should be cautious about that.

There are kind-hearted people who infer that civilization with higher level of technological development must also have a higher moral ground, but, but from a scientific perspective we don’t have any element to prove that. Moreover, when we talk about a higher moral ground we have to consider that we base this idea on the ethics and value system which is specific to mankind, but in the universe there’s not this value system. Therefore facing the possibility of the existence of such alien civilization, especially a technologically more advanced civilization, we should keep a very prudent attitude, I think this would be very responsible.

In the Chinese intellectuals world there are many people like who are always on guard about people around them, very suspicious, who can infer the most horrible things about people around them, about other nations and civilizations, but when it comes to extraterrestrial civilizations, they’re extremely optimistic and full of positive feelings about it. I think it should be the other way around: we should be more open, more trustful towards other nations, build mutual trust with all the nations and civilizations around us, but we should be very prudent when it comes to extraterrestrial ones, I think this is very important.

CW: In your works you quote German authors such as Goethe and Kafka, but also Guo Moruo, who also translated German literature into Chinese. What role does German literature play for you?

CL:  I’ve read a deal of German literature, but the main influence for me came from Russian literature in general and by American sci-fi. I’ve read some German authors, modern and classics, like Goethe, but I’m so knowledgeable about it as I am about American and Russian literature. My favorite Russian author is Lev Tolstoy. Russian literature had a big influence on me, especially authors from the so-called Golden age such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

CW: How good are the translations of your works from your point of view?

CL: Usually works of Chinese literary lose something in the translation, but my works are an exception. Of course, I’ve only read the English translation, and I think that the language is even better in the English translation than in the original version. I would even say that if you are fluent in both languages, you would better read the English version. Unlike the English translator, I’m born an engineer, my language is rather simple. Although I don’t understand German, I believe it is the same case for the German translation, so if you have read the German version of my books, I think you haven’t lost anything.

CW: What are you currently working on?

CL: Yes, I’m always writing, but now it is getting difficult and slow, I need time, because I want to write something different than my past works.

CW: Do you know the Perry Rhodan series?

CL: I knew about Perry Rhodan very early, around the 80s. A few books of the series have been translated in Chinese, but just a very small part. There are some English readers but German are very few, but everyone who writes sci-fi knows this series.  Lately there was a German novel who got quite influential in China, whose name was ‘Qun’, is a sci-fi novel about some oceanic wise creature (note: The Swarm - Der Schwarm by Frank Schätzing).

CW: Thank you very much for the interview.

His book "Ball ligthning", published by Heyne-Verlag, has also been available in German since mid-May

Interviewer: Christian Wehrschütz, PR reader since 1972

Translator: Alessandro De Toni

Interview time: end of May 2020

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