STARBURST: How would you describe your books to an elderly grandmother?
Cixin Liu: A group of invaders came from a nearby star, and this is the story of how humans fought against them.
How would you describe it to a non-science fiction fan?
The fundamental difference between humans and animals is that humans have imagination, so why not read something that makes the most of this? Science fiction involves thinking about things that don’t exist so it enables you to explore your imagination.
How is the movie going?
The Three-Body Problem is in the process of being made into a film in China. It’s in post-production and the CGI is being added now, so it is happening.
There are two different problems this book faces when it comes to creating it in a new medium; one is the sheer complexity of the novel and bringing that to the screen. The second issue is the relative lack of experience of the Chinese science fiction industry in making sci-fi films. But I have been involved in the whole production including scripting. The imagination is coming to life.
Why science fiction? What’s the fascination?
I grew up reading sci-fi works; Jules Verne author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth had a major influence on me. I believe science fiction extends your life by allowing you to use your imagination. It catapults you into things you would never experience in real life. It’s interesting to construct a whole world with your imagination, especially using the principles of science.
Your work was already a hit in China, then years later was a hit with English speaking audiences. What is it like to become an overnight sensation twice?
I started writing as a fan, for the reason of wanting to share my thoughts with like-minded people. It was totally unexpected. So I face all these phenomena, but down to the core I am just a fan, so I am quite surprised. I live in a small town in China away from big cities, so I am not disturbed by fame. It is quite rare that I go on author tours or to events.
How did you respond to the Hugo Award?
Awards are held in high regard by science fiction fans. If I have to choose which to win, I would pick winning a Hugo Award over even the Nobel Prize. I am delighted. It makes me so happy to have won it because it is the award my fans care about. I am facing these things with an ordinary mind, though. I am sharing my works with no purpose other than to share them. I see winning the Hugo Award as a starting point of my writing career, not the end destination.
Will China ever host a Worldcon? Why do you think that it hasn’t done so already?
China did apply for it. A very low number of votes came in, though, so it didn’t happen. There were two occasions where there were science fiction conferences – not Worldcon, but others – so we have had some experience of this type of event. I am optimistic that it will happen someday.
What was mankind’s greatest innovation?
In ancient times, tools and fire were the important inventions. Nowadays, there are three things: computer technology, rocket science (space) and nuclear power including fission and fusion. Right now, only IT is a dominant element of modern life, whilst the others are in the infant stage. They will play a greater role in the future pushing us forward. The greatest thing about innovation is that people can imagine things that don’t exist, and this is the foundation of our civilisation, and of science. So I also want to say imagination.
Why have we not encountered alien civilisations?
There could be a few possibilities. Firstly, the technology is not there yet. Or there are a lot of aliens, but they do not communicate through electromagnetic waves. They could be communicating in different ways, out of reach to us. In Guizhou Province, they have built a device and you can hear electromagnetic waves, even small ones. They could increase the chances of us hearing alien responses. The sensitivity is ten times higher than that of the United States model. But it’s only for receiving, not sending out signals.
The second possibility is that we are the sole civilization in the universe. Or one of very few. That would be shocking. This would be because life has a super-low probability. It’s like if you have a ton of metal scraps and a hurricane comes through, picks them up and turns them into a Mercedes-Benz. The probability is super low. This is human life.
Another theory is one I explored in The Dark Forest is alien species try to suppress life and kill their young. This could be a reason.
What writers have been the greatest influence on your work?
Arthur C. Clarke, who lived in Sri Lanka for most of his life. His novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, in particular. He was a major influence on my work. I think humbly that all my works are imitating and honouring his work. One of the newspapers in the US said I was the Arthur C. Clarke of China, this was a great accolade that meant very much to me.
Other books that have influenced me are War and Peace by Tolstoy and 1984 by George Orwell.
What will be the greatest change to mankind?
There are two things that could be key. One would be AI, and there are two aspects to this.
The shallow aspect of this change will be that between 70 and 80 % of jobs can be replaced. This is already happening. When that happens, it will fundamentally change human society in every way – economically, politically, and culturally. We are afraid to face this change now, but we will have to adapt.
The deeper impact of AI is when they gain their own consciousness. This will have a very big impact on us because we, as a species, have never faced something more intelligent than ourselves.
The second change is genetic engineering. This will change our own biology, extending people’s lives by two or three times the length. That is going to fundamentally change how our society operates.
There could be a possibility that these will combine: AI and genetic modification. We would then evolve our own evolution and become cyber-beings.
If you could preserve one thing in such a way that it would survive until the Sun died, what would it be?
We would all have died when the sun dies, therefore I see this as what do we want to leave behind for those future civilisations that follow us. In Japan, they have built a hard drive with information that will be safe for a hundred million years. I would choose this and something that would decipher this information. I would as put as much information about the Earth in there as possible.
What advice do you have for the teenage version of yourself?
I am an ordinary person, except in one way: I did not let my childhood dream go. My childhood dream was to be a writer, and I held onto it. When you grow up you let these dreams go, many people do. I did not. I followed my dream. When I was young, I wanted to be a scientist and I thought everyone did too. I decided to be an engineer so I could write my science fiction in my free time, and it worked. I can now dive into being a writer. This is a unique aspect of my life that most people I have met did not follow through. So I would tell myself, change nothing.
Cixin Liu’s latest novel The Weight of Memories is available now.