On day 2 of Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, I finally got to have a word with one of the “insider” attendees, which provided me with more of an eye-opener than the presenter himself had done. As part of a session on Chinese Science Fiction (SF), Eero Suoranta (University of Helsinki, Finland) presented his Ph.D. Study, The Inadequacy of Enlightenment Rationality in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. This was just after Prof. Mingwei Song had put forth his compelling arguments about making “the invisible” part of the real world.
Suoranta tried his best to convince the audience that in Liu Cixin’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Three-Body Problem,
“…a number of characters experience a crisis of faith when confronted by revelations about the nature of the universe and humankind’s place in it, ranging from the seeming refutation of fundamental physical laws to the confirmation of the existence of an alien civilization…the ending of the novel is ambiguous with regards to whether this reaffirmation ultimately holds any value for humanity: instead of celebrating the victory of science and rational thought over ignorance, the characters are left wrestling with their own insignificance in the novel’s uncaring cosmos, described by Liu Cixin himself as “the worst of all possible universes.”
Questioning the theory
I had bought into Prof. Song’s arguments about weirdness and horrors not being what they seem in Chinese SF, and that they may represent actual current sociopolitical realities, rather than feats of the imagination. So, given Suoranta’s argument, the audience immediately asked him two questions:
1. Does the post-Cultural Revolution generation in China recognize the gloomy representation of that time as “the worst of all possible universes?”
2. If the novel is so clear on the inadequacy of rationality and enlightenment, and the futility of existence, then why does Liu Cixin place so much emphasis on romance and the optimistic interpretation of Chinese fairy tales (an unlikely fantasy element) in the trilogy? (That was my question.)
Suoranta’s responses were that every generation would recognize that period and its associations, and that he did not know anything about the romantic, optimistic elements since he had neither read nor studied the other two books is the trilogy.
Some audience members, particularly those who identified themselves as Chinese, were quick to disagree with him. One, who I think was Joanne Li, an editor of Science Fiction World, a Chinese SF/F magazine based in Chengdu, said that only school children would have formal knowledge of the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent repression and unrest prior to the 1990s. Adult readers may have forgotten or do not care.
After the presentation, Ms. Li approached me and said that the novels cannot be read independently of each other, as Suoranta had done. She said she knows the author and felt that, in the original Chinese, the first in the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, was incomplete and had an unresolved ending. By the last book in the trilogy, Death’s End, Liu had managed to “pull the story together” and have a satisfactory conclusion.
She also said the romantic elements and fairy tales in the final book actually contradicted Suoranta’s theory on the failure of enlightenment in the first novel, as they reinforce the theme of love, humanity and faith conquering all. However, she did say that “they were not good Chinese fairy tales” and did not adhere to the form, but served as a mechanism to move the narrative forward.
Lastly, she said that Ken Liu had done a lot to enhance and improve Liu Cixin’s writing style when he translated it into English, and may have “boosted” the poetical quality of the fairy tales in the novel, thereby giving them more impact.
Which goes to show that reader reception is complicated, and it helps to be part of the original intended demographic, regardless of how good the translation is. Also, always judge a book in context, if it is part of a series. Lastly, there’s always some angle that a critic fails to take into account.