Found in Translation

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
By Liz Gorinsky, Editor

Until fairly recently, most English-speaking science fiction fans knew very little about the Chinese science fiction publishing scene. This is not because that scene doesn’t exist—there is a thriving SF market in China, perhaps best exemplified by the magazine Science Fiction World (科幻世界), which has been publishing monthly for more than forty years. With a peak circulation of 300,000 copies, it’s the world’s most popular SF periodical by a long shot. Since most Anglophones can’t read Chinese, however, China’s science fiction has never been a large part of the cultural conversation on Western shores. In the past few years, some short fiction has begun to make it over, largely thanks to (often volunteer) translation efforts by renowned American SF&F writers such as John Chu and Ken Liu, but this barely scratches the surface of what’s out there.

When the manuscript for The Three-Body Problem, also translated by Ken Liu, landed on my desk, it was my first chance to read a novel-length narrative from China (and a massively successful one, with over two million copies of the trilogy sold there). It broke my brain open in all the best ways. I would have been happy to publish this simply because such great science fiction doesn’t cross an editor’s desk all that often, and this book had it all: Big Ideas, sweeping adventure, an inventive and strange alien society that the reader is left hungry to learn more about. It also has a truly epic scope: the first book covers approximately fifty years of recent history, while the latter two swing out to horizons upwards of five hundred years in the future and well past the far reaches of the galaxy. Finally, Three-Body’s unusual-to-me combination of great SF and insight into the Cultural Revolution and other aspects of Chinese society are sadly almost non-existent in popular culture in America.

While Chinese writers have been reading English SF in translation for the last century and beyond, they’ve also been writing their own, and the works I’ve seen have all had distinct flavors quite unlike what we’re seeing in America today. Sometimes it is particularly poetic prose or the kinds of cultural reference or societal structures in the text. The Three-Body Problem in particular struck me for its willingness to go into great depth about the scientific concepts it relies upon. In the English tradition, this would qualify it as hard SF, in the same camp as great latter-twentieth century writers such as Hal Clement and Arthur C. Clarke. In fact, Three-Body is hard enough that it inspired cosmologist and string theorist Li Mao to write a book about it called The Physics of Three-Body.

While Cixin Liu manages to convey these complex concepts with a great deal of clarity (even to this reader, who hasn’t studied physics since high school), it is a book that demands time and attention to understand both the scientific and social aspects of the story. I had moments of wondering if the “average American” would be up for the challenge. This is still an open question, but it has been heartening that all the reviews we’ve seen so far have been extremely positive. They’ve also recognized and appreciated the fact that there is something about the perspective and the narrative turns in The Three-Body Problem that is utterly unlike what Western readers have come to expect.

Finally, as much as I love this book and series for their inherent charms, Three-Body also gives us access to horizons of another sort that I am thrilled to have more opportunity to explore, particularly the fact that the author and the vast majority of the characters are Chinese. This seems so natural in our diversifying world (and will only become more so as we look into the future), yet it’s a refreshing change of pace from so many SFnal visions that fail to recognize this diversity. And this has been a the rare opportunity to publish a non-Anglophone writer, traditionally difficult terrain given the costs and barriers associated with translation, but something I hope we’ll see much more of in future (especially thanks to initiatives such as Clarkesworld’s great work in the short fiction world). I hope that a great many SF readers will choose to follow us into this bright, bold future and pave the way for more storytelling that is as unique and inspiring as Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem.

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2 thoughts on “Found in Translation

  1. So happy TOR can introduce three body trilogy into America. As a chinese reader, I have long been thinking that Cixin Liu deserves a wider range of readers worldwide since I finished reading the trilogy a few years before. Thank you, Ken Liu and TOR to make it possible!

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