The Harry Potter of China wins English language sci-fi award

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Liu Cixin's science fiction novels are wildly popular in China, and now winning favor in the English-speaking world. 

The Hubble Heritage Team

Move over Isaac Asimov. You, too, Kurt Vonnegut. Liu Cixin has become the first Chinese writer to win the Hugo Award, given to writer of the year's best science fiction novel.

Not only that: This year, amid controversy over a lack of diversity in the awards and science fiction at large, Liu became the first writer to win with a work not originally written in English.

China has not historically been seen as a source of science fiction prowess. But Liu's novel The Three-Body Problem is the first in a trilogy that has become wildly popular in China. Each book in the series has sold about 500,000 copies. There are fan fiction works, songs and faux movie trailers adoringly littered all over the Chinese Internet. One physicist, Li Miao, wrote a spin-off explainer book called The Physics of Three Body.

The novel is set during the Cultural Revolution, and tells of an alien invasion that divides the human populace. "I wrote about the worst of all possible universes in Three Body, out of hope that we can strive for the best of all possible Earths," Cixin wrote for science fiction website Tor.

The books have gained popularity among the usual sci fi audience of teens, but is also heavily discussed on Internet forums frequented by IT and Internet workers, who feel the book is a metaphor for competitive Chinese tech companies. "China is on the path of rapid modernization and progress, kind of like the US during the golden age of science fiction in the '30s to the '60s," Liu told The New York Times. "The future in the people's eyes is full of attractions, temptations and hope. But at the same time, it is also full of threats and challenges. That makes for very fertile soil."

"The Three-Body Problem brought science fiction to the center of the literary scene, and it became the most exciting thing happening to Chinese literature," Mingwei Song, who studies modern Chinese literature, said in an interview.

Early Chinese science fiction was born at the end of the Qing dynasty, around 1902 to 1912. Japanese sci fi had an influence on these first works, as did English writers such as The War of the Worlds author H.G. Wells. These early works often offered a view of the "Chinese Dream" — a China that was new, prosperous, technologically sophisticated and utopian.

This first wave began to recede in the mid-1910s. Some works were published in the following years, but the genre essentially dissapeared in China until 1978, at the end of the cultural revolution. "Around 1978 the genre came back with more sophitication, a dystopian touch," explained Song.

This second wave lasted for only about six years, but it was huge. Science fiction novels sold millions of copies until about 1984 — I know, 1984 — when the Chinese government became concerned with the genre and it was often censored as a source of "spiritual pollution."

"I think because it involves uncertainty ... that's what the Communist party didn't quite like," Song said.

A decade later, Liu Cixin began publishing short stories that made the genre appealing to a new generation of readers. At first Liu's works flourished online, before being published as novels. When the first volume of The Three-Body Problem was published it was unknown outside of the niche of science fiction fandom. But when the third book came out in 2010 it absolutely blew up, and the trilogy became a national sensation. Suddenly science fiction was recognized as a major genre in China.

Today there is a third wave of younger writers who were born at the end of the cultural revolution, a decade or two after Liu. Song calls this third wave the new wave: "It's about broadening people's views, the sublime, the multitude of dreaming, it's pushing for new possibilities."

What makes it such a hit? "It's not just about China, it's not just about China's past. It's about something very big," said Song. "It's about the survival of humanity. How to put it? It has a lot of Chinese elements but deep down it's about some universal fate of humanity when facing catastrophe. It touches on the deepest concerns of humanity."

Winning the Hugo would seem to indicate there is a universality to the story. "In China, success of The Three-Body Problem is something like Harry Potter here — it's a once in a lifetime kind of thing," said Ken Liu, an American author who translated the book into English. "But The Three-Body Problem is doing really well here, it's won the Hugo, and it's very doing well sales wise. I wouldn't claim it's The Song of Ice and Fire or something like that. But it's doing better than most science fiction debuts. It's achieved success certainly beyond my wildest dreams for a translation."