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Liu Cixin's "The Three-Body Problem" won science fiction's most prestigious prize, the Hugo Award for Best Novel. (Nikkei Montage/ Source photo by Arisa Moriyama)

Chinese sci-fi blockbuster book hailed by Obama wins new fans in Japan

Author Liu Cixin crosses cultural borders with 'The Three-Body Problem'

MINORU NAKANO, Nikkei senior staff writer | Japan

TOKYO -- The international bestselling Chinese science-fiction novel "The Three-Body Problem" is fast becoming a phenomenon in its Japanese language version after selling over 110,000 copies in its first few months.

The book has already built an enthusiastic audience in the English-speaking world, with luminaries such as former U.S. President Barack Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rating it highly.

Liu Cixin, the 56-year-old author, on his recent first visit to Japan gave an interview to the Nikkei in which he stressed the boundary-crossing nature of science-fiction novels. "SF deals with the problems facing all humanity," he said.

The Three-Body Problem was published in China in 2008 as part one of a trilogy. The series has gone on to sell more than 21 million copies domestically.

The first installment was translated into English by Chinese American writer Ken Liu in 2014 and published to great acclaim. It won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the highest accolade in the SF world, in 2015, making it the first translated version of a book to win the prestigious award.

Now building on that success in Japan under the guidance of editorial supervisor Toya Tachihara, with translation by Nozomi Omori, Sakura Mitsuyoshi and Wan Chai, it has become a hot topic in the country since the Japanese-language edition hit the racks in July.

The Three-Body Problem starts in 1967 in a China in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966 by Mao Zedong, that plunged its society into turmoil as Mao's Red Guards attacked the intellectual class, among others.

Ye Wenjie, one of the story's protagonists, witnessed her physicist father being beaten to death by the Red Guards.

"I just depicted it as the background (to the story)," said Liu. "It is not that I wanted to write about the Cultural Revolution itself. But for my generation, the Cultural Revolution was a major incident. I will not be able to escape from it for the rest of my life."

Liu, who was born in 1963, continued, "In order to show the reality of the Cultural Revolution, even the imagination of George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' (which depicted a dystopia) is not enough."

"I could only think of the Cultural Revolution as something that brought despair to the lives of the protagonists," he added.

Disappointed by humanity, Ye is recruited at a military base and participates in a secret national project to make contact with extraterrestrial life. Liu sees close encounters with alien creatures as a classic but universal theme.

"It is a realistic issue in that they might come tomorrow, even if (humanity) has not met them for 10,000 years. States and international organizations need to think about how to cope with the first contact (with them)," Liu said.

More than 40 years after Ye's participation in the secret national project, a nanomaterial researcher called Wang Miao learns of world-class scientists killing themselves one after another.

Wang then undertakes the job of infiltrating an academic body maneuvering behind the scenes. Wang jumps into the world of a virtual reality game called "Three Body," which plays out on a planet with three suns.

Looking back on his youth, Liu said, "I was a great lover of games." When he was in his 20s, he was addicted to titles such as U.S.-made adventure "Prince of Persia."

"As I did not have games consoles, I always played (games) on my personal computer. I moved away from games because I became busy, but I am still interested in them. But my job is also like a game. I take solace in thinking so, even if I am busy," Liu said.

Liu's first encounter with the SF world came in childhood, when he read the Jules Verne novel "Journey to the Center of the Earth."

The book was translated for the Chinese market in the 1950s. As a child, Liu read it in secret, as it was banned in the Cultural Revolution.

"I thought everything was true (when I read the book), so I was surprised when I was told it was imaginary," he said.

His own book may be a runaway success, but Liu insisted, "Its central purpose is no different to that of other (sci-fi) works," which is "to apply the time and space we cannot go beyond in our daily lives, such as the direct relationship between small humanity and the large universe, to works of literature," he explained.

The social and critical nature of the story can also be seen in elements such as Liu's manner of dealing with the Cultural Revolution.

But Liu said: "I am not interested in satirizing modern society. Readers in western countries and Japan who are accustomed to SF will follow the story even if it jumps straight into the future. But in China, a modern age context is required to lead the story into the future."

Liu acknowledged, "it might be a trend of the times for science-fiction writers to try to depict the dark aspects of science and technology." But he does not subscribe to that view.

"If China, which has a huge population, is to develop further, science and technology is crucial. Probably, the same is true of Japan," he said.

Liu also spoke positively of the technological singularity -- the point at which artificial intelligence exceeds human capabilities. "Although there are many technological hurdles, it has the potential to change the human condition," he said.

Liu wrote science-fiction novels while working as a power plant engineer for many years, but now he is a full-time writer.

Liu welcomed the increase in the number of his readers in various countries, saying, "Since SF deals with problems of all humanity, not individuals, I think it has a boundary-crossing side."

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