The next new wave of science fiction will be Chinese

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, tr. Ken Liu

Back in the middle of the 20th century, during the height of the Cold War, Soviet science fiction was an exotic commodity. As Judith Merril wrote about her 1966 anthology of Soviet SF:

[This anthology] contains some startling insights into the philosophical premises of the contemporary imaginative outlook in the U.S.S.R. And it provides a rather shocking reminder of how uneven the exchange has been so far.

For nearly a century, the center of gravity for science fiction has been the U.S and the U.K. But there is much in “the rest of the world” (as one anthology somewhat condescendingly puts it) that English fans never get a chance to read. More than fifty years after Merrils’ anthology, the exchange between U.S and foreign science fiction readers is still uneven, with very little foreign SF being translated. Some of the great works of the Strugatsky brothers remain in print in the U.S. And Stanisław Lem is still the great exception; nearly all of his works are available in English. But by and large non-English science fiction doesn’t really exist for American readers.

It’s a shame, because the successor to the substantial Soviet SF scene is the enormous Chinese one in this sense: Like Soviet SF, Chinese SF is an active, popular thing, moving with its own momentum that is largely independent of the American and British scene. Those of us who don’t read Chinese can now dip into this big tradition with Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, the first volume in a best-selling trilogy, just put out in English by Tor.

Three Body is a first contact novel that weaves together Chinese history and philosophy with modern physics, and it’s one of the best SF novels I’ve read all year. It has it all: culture, philosophy, a strange alien world seen only indirectly, virtual reality, nanotechnology, intergalactic signal transmission, and, of course, the physics of the three body problem. It gets at a core question that every scientist has considered, but has thankfully been able to set aside: what if there were no laws of nature and the universe was fundamentally unpredictable? It also tweaks the classic first contact theme in an interesting way, posing the question, who actually speaks for an alien society? Or for ours?

Cixin Liu is a physicist, and his realistic physics embedded within a fascinating social setting reminded me of the works of Gregory Benford, especially Timescape. It’s going to be a long wait until the next volume comes out in July.

For a nice review, check out the Literary Saloon.

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