It’s a surprisingly warm October day in London and the Embankment is crowded with tourists. Outside the South Bank Centre, dozens of people are eating and drinking at tables belonging to half a dozen restaurants. It’s also busy inside the building but, fortunately, I’ve entered at the right end of the building and spot the lift straight away. It’s quieter as I step out on the wide expanse of the fifth floor and directly in front of the lift is the Chinese contingent.
In the corner, Cixin Liu sits at a small table where he is being interviewed in Chinese by a woman and a man. A small camera on a tripod is videoing the interview, too. Two or three others from China chat quietly in the background along with a representative from Head of Zeus, Cixin Liu’s UK publisher. Two large sofas cordon the corner off from the rest of the floor where dozens more people are drinking and milling about. A pair of young men are on the sofa, clutching a copy of ‘The Three-Body Problem’, presumably awaiting the chance of an autograph. An English businessman is also on the sofa, working away on a laptop. He glances up occasionally with a bemused expression on his face.
Soon I am introduced to Cixin Liu and the interpreter, a cheerful young woman who seems to have read all of his books and is quite a fan herself. I learned a bit of Mandarin years ago at college, but I can only remember how to say hello, count to ten and order a cup of tea. I opt for saying hello. Cixin Liu answers in English, but the rest of the interview is translated. He’s relaxed and friendly and seems to enjoy some of the questions, chuckling occasionally as he answers.
Gareth D Jones: ‘The Three-Body Problem’ was originally serialised in ‘Science Fiction World’. Did you plan from the start that you were going to write three big books or did it just grow?
Cixin Liu: Originally, when I was sending articles to magazines, I was planning to write a trilogy, but the problem why I started with short stories in magazines was because that year was the thirtieth anniversary of Cultural Revolution in China so, because it might be a bit sensitive politically, I had to do it in a SciFi magazine that’s like in a clique with a small circulation.
GDJ: The cultural revolution was quite a large part of the background in the first volume. Was that something that affected you personally or affected the way you’ve written?
CL: I was born in 1963 and, when cultural revolution was at its height, I was actually quite little. Later, I experienced a later phase of it when things had quietened down, but it did affect me.
GDJ: My favourite character in the books is Da Shi, especially in the second volume, ‘The Dark Forest’. Do you have a favourite character out of the ones you wrote about?
CL: In terms of Da Shi, he’s one of the most liked characters amongst Europeans and American readers. I think it’s because he’s like a caricature of a Chinese person of Beijing police, real well-connected, good with people. But this kind of people are actually really common in China, so we all know someone like that. But for non-Chinese readers, he immediately captures the attention. In terms of favourite character, I don’t think I have a favourite character really because they’re just there to propel the story forward. So it’s where the story is taking them that affects them, so I don’t have a favourite.
GDJ: I like Da Shi because whatever happens, if it’s an amazing invention or a really high, important character, he doesn’t care, he just says what he thinks and he always has an answer for everything.
CL: I don’t think Da Shi is very intelligent or a guy with great vision, he’s just a guy who has other qualities such as toughness and he can deal with danger and critical situations and he’s like a grassroots character. So, I’m a bit surprised that everyone likes Da Shi, but I know a lot of people like him.
GDJ: Several of my stories have been translated into quite a few different languages that I can’t read or understand, so I have to assume they’re fine. With such a big work, how do you assure that what’s written in English represents your work accurately?
CL: I did read the translations, but my English is not perfect so I know what’s going on but not the minute detail. But Ken Liu, who was the translator, is a personal friend so I trust him, and the other guy, Joel Martinsen, I trust completely.
GDJ: In the second volume, ‘The Dark Forest’, it’s quite a pessimistic view of the Galaxy. Do you feel the Galaxy is like that or are you more optimistic about the possibility of meeting alien life at some point?
CL: I think Science Fiction is not predicting the future or choosing or writing the one that’s my favourite future. It’s listing all the possibilities and then I think ‘The Dark Forest’ represents the worst scenario how the universe could be, the darkest way of thinking. I like this kind of possibility because it’s very good for story: you could write a lot of conflicts, so it’s great.
GDJ: One of the other big technologies that appears in the books is the ability to hibernate and go into the future. Would you like to take that chance and travel into the future to see what was happening? How far into the future would you like to wake up?
CL: It’s quite complicated because you need to consider families and relations but, if I don’t need all that consideration, I would definitely do it. In terms of how long: the longer the possible, because I think most people would like to see what the future is like and, as a SciFi writer, my urge is even stronger than normal people, so the longest time possible.
GDJ: There’s a film of ‘The Three-Body Problem’ coming out next year. How much involvement did you have in the film?
CL: The first part of the film should be out next summer, 2017, and the production process is not very smooth because it’s a very difficult film. I’m involved writing the scripts and concept designing for special effects, such as spaceships.
At this point the translator cheekily throws in an extra question: What does the three-body planet species look like?
Cixin Liu laughs: The film crew is here so I can’t answer that.
GDJ: Are we going to see more of your work in English?
CL: I have next two more novels to be translated into English. One is called ‘Ball Lightning’, about development of a quantum weapon and war, and another one called ‘Supernova Era’. Recently, there’s a huge interest of the English-speaking world in Chinese Science Fiction and it’s providing more opportunities for translation and more demand in the market.
GDJ: What else are you working on now? Novels or short stories?
CL: I’m not writing short stories or novellas anymore because the core Science Fiction creativity, the concepts, it’s a bit of a waste to not develop the concept and not spin the story forward. So I’d rather write long novels and I’m writing it but it’s a long process.
GDJ: I shall look forward to seeing them in English, hopefully soon. Thanks very much for your time.
As I leave Cixin Liu stands up and they begin to pack up. I only walk about three paces though and then have to wait for the lift. A few minutes later, back on the Embankment, I realise I forgot to take any photographs.
(c) Cixin Liu & Gareth D. Jones 2016
all rights reserved.