How sci-fi from China became a global proposition

For the best part of a century, the science-fiction Silk Road was one-way: manufactured in the West and shipped to China. But inside China an SF revolution was brewing. At its vanguard was one extraordinary work which took a decade to make its way to the West. But when it did, Mark Zuckerberg selected it for his Facebook Reading Club, Barack Obama blurbed it, SF readers propelled it to win the Best Novel Hugo award - a first for translated fiction. It’s been a New York Times bestseller, spent 11 weeks on Germany’s Der Speigel bestseller list, and sold over 100,000 copies for Head of Zeus in the UK. The book is Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem.

Initially serialised in Chinese magazine Science Fiction World in 2006, its triumphant arrival in the West nine or so years later may be the crowning achievement of an extraordinary flowering of Chinese SF, but it is by no means the end of the story. I suspect it is only the beginning.

Chinese SF was in the doldrums as Liu wrote the first volume of his Three-Body trilogy. He didn’t feel China was ready for the more hardcore elements of his SF imagination, so he was careful to base the first two instalments in a world he felt readers would recognise. The final instalment stretched the boundaries - it was truly the book he wanted to write - and both Liu and his publisher worried it was a non-commercial indulgence. But it made the series.

China’s online community loved Three-Body. Fans composed songs, created fake trailers for the movie they hoped for, and wrote fan fiction. Baoshu’s Three-Body X, a “side-quel” to Liu’s books, started appearing online within a week of the final volume’s publication and, with Liu’s blessing, was itself traditionally published.

The impact of the internet on Chinese SF shouldn’t be underestimated. Readers suddenly had access to a wealth of Western SF. Fans had a new medium for discovering and expressing their appreciation. Writers had a new way of distribution. Many of China’s best-known SF writers published first on digital forums, more for feedback than wealth or fame. The forums launched Baoshu and Xia Jia. Hao Jingfang first published her Hugo-winning Folding Beijing on a popular bulletin board.

Despite China’s fervour for homegrown SF, there was no easy conduit to the West. The overwhelming popularity of the serial fiction platform is unique to China and there is the considerable language barrier. China’s highly motivated SF fans did what they could, setting up Chinese SF advocacy groups and working hard to attract foreign interest and investment. The breakthrough came when Li Yun, export director at China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation, took the risk of commissioning English translations of the Three-Body trilogy. Li picked two committed SF evangelists, Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen, to translate. Given the number of people bringing Chinese SF to the West, it is unfair to pin its emergence on the shoulders of an individual. But if you had to, your poster boy would be Ken Liu.

Ken Liu was born in China, emigrated to the US at 11, went to Harvard, and has written 120 short stories and an epic “silkpunk” fantasy series, picking up Hugo, Arthur C Clarke and Nebula awards on the way. He became a translator and, almost predictably for a man with so many SF awards in his trophy case, added a Best Novel Hugo to it for his translation of The Three-Body Problem.

Li Yun’s initiative found the trilogy 12 (and counting) international publishers, and has led to Li launching Cepride, a literary agency dedicated to bringing not just the best of Chinese SF, but the best of Chinese genre fiction to the rest of the world. Agencies that once sold rights West to East are increasingly representing Chinese authors - Hao Jingfang is repped by Andrew Nurnberg Associates.

Why has Chinese SF proven so successful in the West? The big themes of Western SF - space exploration, alien contact, genetic engineering, AI, ecological catastrophe - all have their Chinese analogue. But the key may lie within the nature of SF: the genre is export-ready. As a literature of possibilities, it embraces the new and different. Its readers expect to be challenged by alien concepts and carried to far shores and over strange horizons. As Liu Cixin puts it: “SF is the most global, the most universal storytelling vessel, with the capability to be under- stood by all cultures... Crises in SF usually threaten humanity as a whole. It is a unique and treasurable trait inherent in the genre - that the human race is perceived as a single entity, undivided.”

Nicolas Cheetham is digital publisher and deputy managing director of Head of Zeus, which won Independent Publisher of the Year at the 2017 British Book Awards.