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SF Author Life in the Time of Coronavirus: Featuring Cixin Liu and Baoshu

Recently, the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur interviewed authors Cixin Liu (The Three-Body Problem) and Baoshu (The Redemption of Time) about COVID-19, how their lives have changed during a time of social distancing, and more. Translated selections of these interviews are published below.


“The pandemic and its future … seen by the greatest authors of SF”

A selection from BIBLIOBS:

Q: Can you describe your secluded life right now?

Cixin Liu: Last month I went to the only place on earth that is currently free of COVID-19: Antarctica. It was the Chinese New Year when I left China, and everything was basically normal. I was surprised to find that the virus had reached such severity when I came back. I had to stay home afterwards, of course. But as a writer, I stay at home most of the time, even during normal periods before. So the pandemic didn’t change my life significantly. I live in a small city where there are few infected people, so the quarantine is not very strict. We can still go out as long as we want. At the same time, due to the stagnation of a great number of industries, there is less interference from the outside world, which makes it more possible for me to focus on writing. Staying in this small city, it is a very strange feeling to observe the outside world in the midst of the pandemic on the news every day.

Q: If the pandemic was the theme of a book of yours, how would you write the ending?

Cixin Liu: If I were writing a science fiction about this pandemic, I would have such a bizarre and extreme idea – compared with the past, modern people have more powerful anti-virus technologies, which are far more efficient and powerful than ever before, maybe even beyond our ancestors’ imagination. This can effectively stop the spread of virus and greatly reduce the casualties caused by infectious diseases on the one hand, but it also pushes the virus to undergo more complex evolution to adapt to the new living environment on the other. Could such evolution at some point lead to the emergence of intelligence? Individual viruses are unlikely to create intelligence, but large groups of viruses as a whole may exhibit some kind of self-organizing ability, like ant colonies, bee colonies, and large flocks of birds. Polymers of a variety of bacteria have been found to respond intelligently to changes in the environment, and the same effect is likely to occur with viral polymers.

In fact, the novel coronavirus hitting the whole world today is so adaptable to immune measures that the word “cunning” is used by some to describe it. What science fiction needs to show is how viruses, which are distributed among different people, can communicate in a certain way that allows them to form a large polymer that further generates intelligence. One scientist once described how one day researchers looked at viral communities in the culture medium through a microscope and saw them forming a line: “Take us to meet your boss.” This is a tongue-in-cheek vision. But if the virus does evolve some kind of intelligence, it will be a nightmarish experience for humanity. Of course, this is only the imagination of science fiction, and the chances of it becoming reality are very small. Science fiction loves to describe the small possibilities. However, it should also be seen from real history that the small possibilities were often the ones that turned out to be real.


Q: Can you describe your secluded life right now?

Baoshu: Nothing special, I stayed at home since the end of January. I and my family didn’t get the virus, and my city’s situation is not very severe, relatively. I can watch TV, use internet or read books for fun. But my family are all with me in the same house, sometimes in the same room. And I have to take care of my little daughter from time to time, because she cannot go to the kindergarten. So unlike many writers, I have little time or convenient conditions for writing.

Still I understand that it’s a very difficult time, and my situation is much better than many others. Actually, I had lived in Wuhan for many years until 2015, when I left Wuhan just because of an accidental job offer. I could have still lived there, just like many friends of mine, and been trapped in the centre of this global storm. When I read online that someone died or suffered in Wuhan, I cannot help thinking that they could have been I or my family. It’s a very special and painful feeling. I feel that I have to do something, but I don’t know what I can do, except for some trivial donations.

And this is no doubt a very science fictional, even apocalyptic moment. Sometime I went out to the streets, which not long ago still held thousands of people and hundreds of cars but now is empty and almost all shops are closed. It’s a very shocking scene. I guess I’ll remember these things forever and they will influence me deeply, but I still don’t know in which way.

Q: If the pandemic was the theme of a book of yours, how would you write the ending?

Baoshu: It’s hard to answer. We must understand that stories are not real life. If this is a novel, you can write at the end of this novel the extinction of mankind, or WWIII, for a pandemic might cause everything. But you surely don’t want it to happen in reality. On the other hand, we urgently hope the virus will disappear in a few months for natural reasons, or we invent the vaccine finally and save many lives. But that’s not the kind of SF story you want to read. You want something overwhelming, beyond your imagination.

But perhaps there is something we can both hope and write into the novel. Something that is probably to happen but also very mind-blowing. Some changes that can change our life forever might come into being because of this pandemic. For example, an online education or working system, you can do everything online, without going out. It seems like SF, but it happens now in reality. My wife is a professor in a local college, she now lectures online, while all her students stay at home. This method works, though not perfect. And the online order, payment and delivery system also makes it possible that we get everything we need without going out. These inventions are pivotal for the war with the pandemic. But they also change the ways we interact with each other, and might also change some fundamental social relationships accordingly. If I write a novel about, or inspired by this pandemic, I would like to focus more on these aspects, and discuss their potential influence on society in the future.

For the full article, including interviews with Christopher Priest, Nina Allan, Vladimir Sorokin, Pierre Bordage, Catherine Dufour, and William Gibson, please see here. This article was originally published by BIBLIOBS on 04/11/2020.