The Big Idea: Cixin Liu

The name Cixin Liu is largely unfamiliar to English-speaking science fiction readers, but to Chinese science fiction fans, he’s a superstar of the genre, amassing the sort of award tally and name recognition — and sales! — that would be the envy of any writer in the world. Now for the first time his novel The Three-Body Problem is available in English, translated by Ken Liu, himself a multiple award winner in the genre. With the help of Ken, Liu is here now to tell you his acclaimed work, and how it cuts against the grain for Chinese science fiction.


As a longtime scifi fan—I’m probably among China’s first generation of scifi enthusiasts—I’ve always believed in the existence of a large number of intelligent species and civilizations in the universe. If some of these civilizations discovered each other and could communicate with each other, they would form a cosmic society of civilizations. I’ve always wondered about the form of such a cosmic society and the kinds of relationships between its members.

In Chinese science fiction, extraterrestrial civilizations were usually imagined as benevolent and wonderful. This set off the contrarian in me, and I decided to imagine a worst-case scenario.

The only reference point we have in the study of cosmic society is human society. There are many different civilizations on Earth itself, each with its own internal complexities and relating to each other in complicated ways. Politics, economics, culture …  feed into each other in an intractable knot. It’s very difficult to come to any clear conclusions about cosmic society based on this example.

But a soccer match inspired me. It was the first big-stadium match I’d ever been to: a game between the Chinese national team and UC Sampdoria of Italy at the Beijing Workers Stadium. I had just started my job back then, and all I could afford was one of the cheap nosebleed seats all the way in the last row. From that distance, the complicated technical moves the players made on the pitch were filtered away, leaving behind only a shifting matrix of 23 dots—one of the flitting dots being the soccer ball. Even the brightest star of the match, Ruud Gullit, was just another roving spot in my eyes. I regretted not bringing binoculars with me, but I also realized that the elimination of details revealed the clear mathematical structure of the game.

This is just like the stars, I realized.

Interstellar distances hid and made inaccessible the internal complexities of each civilization. In the eyes of observers like us, extraterrestrial civilizations appear as only points of light. The complicated internal structures and forces within each civilization are reduced to a limited set of variables and parameters associated with each dot. This also revealed a clear mathematical structure for cosmic society.

I came up with a set of axioms as the foundation of this approach to cosmic sociology:

  1. Survival is the primary need of civilization.
  2. Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.

Axiom number one should be self-evident, but the second half of axiom number two has not yet been proven by cosmologists. However, as a premise for a science fiction novel, I thought it was logically sound.

I also came up with three conjectures based on the facts as we know them:

First: barriers to communication. It is very difficult for civilizations to communicate with each other and to understand each other across the universe. This is due to 1) the insurmountable time delay imposed on all communications across interstellar distances (at least based on known physical laws); and 2) the vast biological differences between the two sides in any attempt at communications. On Earth, biological organisms are classified into domains, kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, species—the higher you go in the hierarchy, the larger the differences between taxa in the same rank. Humans cannot communicate effectively even with animals in another genus. At the cosmic level, if one takes into account the possibility of non-carbon-based life forms, the differences between them and humans may be greater even than the differences between domains on Earth.

Second: technological explosion. It took humans about a hundred thousand years to advance from stone tools to the age of agriculture, but only two hundred years to go from the steam age to the information age. Explosive advances in technology could occur at any moment in any civilization in the universe. Thus, even a primitive civilization that appears as harmless as a baby or a sprout is full of potential danger.

Third: detection reversibility. This concept is based on the Principle of Reversibility in optics. If one civilization can detect the existence of another in the universe, sooner or later, the second civilization can also detect the existence of the first.

Based on these axioms and conjectures, one can deduce a possible shape for cosmic society, and it is indeed a worst-case scenario, which sits at the foundation of my Three-Body series. The details of the deduction process is set out in the second book in the series, The Dark Forest, and as the title hints, the universe is a dark place where only one kind of relationship is possible between different worlds: as soon as one civilization has detected another, it must do all it can to destroy it. This has nothing to do with the moral conditions of the civilizations involved—as long as one accepts the two axioms, all civilizations must behave in this manner. Chinese readers dubbed this conclusion “The Dark Forest Hypothesis.”

This is also an answer for the Fermi Paradox, a very dark answer. If any civilization exposed itself in the universe, it would soon be destroyed. This is why the universe is so silent.

Of course, this is just a possibility explored in fiction. Faced with the eerie silence of the universe, right now we have no way to prove or disprove this hypothesis.

There is something to the old saw about science fiction being the literature of possibilities. It presents various possibilities for the reader, and sometimes the possibilities that exert the most attraction are also the least likely. But in this wondrous universe, anything that seems impossible also has the potential to be reality. As G.R. Burbidge once said, “If stars did not exist, it would be easy to prove that this is what we expect.”

At the very least, it would be irresponsible to not consider the worst of all possible worlds as one possibility for the reality of our universe.


The Three-Body Problem: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit’s collection of material on the book, including commentary and further excerpts. Translator Ken Liu’s Twitter feed is here.

26 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Cixin Liu

  1. It sounds like a fascinating book. I see that you both have the surname Liu; are you (reasonably close) relatives, or is it just coincidence?

    It looks like Tor has decided to confuse the shelvers by using Chinese name order for the author and Western name order for the translator. It’ll be interesting to see if my local bookstore files it under C or L….

  2. In Chinese science fiction, extraterrestrial civilizations were usually imagined as benevolent and wonderful. This set off the contrarian in me, and I decided to imagine a worst-case scenario.

    Coming from a position of complete ignorance about Chinese SF, I’d like to hear more about this! What are the Chinese stereotypes of alien contact?

  3. I can’t wait to read this, I’ve seen some excerpts and they are exciting. Out of interest, why do you think that so much Chinese sic-fi has focused on benevolent aliens rather than their nastier alternative?

  4. A) Humans can communicate across species as evident with gorillas, dolphins, and many domesticated mammals; and
    B) Matter in the universe is not finite simply because the infinity that describes matter. may not be as large as the infinity that describes space or darkness; and
    C) argue for your limitations and sure enough their yours.

    How interesting it is that a very war-like rationalization “The Dark Forest Hypothesis.” is proposed and made public by the Red Chinese through a popular puppet author just as tensions have ramped up with Japan and the West, personally, I would like the elephants back

  5. @John Blake Arnold
    Humans can communicate across species as evident with gorillas, dolphins, and many domesticated mammals.

    Yep, and what we’ve done to them over the last century is probably a pretty good indicator that the ‘Dark Forest Hypothesis’ has a fair chance of being correct…

  6. I’m glad they updated the cover; mixing Chinese and Western name order on one cover is a recipe for confusion!

  7. Brilliant! Cixin Liu is on my map now, thanks to Mr. Scalzi.
    This is not the time to cite my many publications on the PHYSICS of the Three Body Problem, nor my publications on animal communication. I must read this fascinating man’s work…

  8. I’d like to read some of the “benevolent alien” tradition of Chinese sci/fi, if that’s what this is reacting against. Any suggestions?

  9. Very much interested in having a look at this, thanks for posting!

    (And when in doubt with ethnic Han Chinese names, surnames are one syllable, while personal names can be either one or two syllables. As for whether the author and translator are related, worth noting that Liu’s an extremely common surname.)

  10. Just started on the new King. (Yup, he still has it.) After that some Big SF would be nice – and anything recommended by KS Robinson…

  11. I have been looking forward to this book ever since I read The Wandering Earth. I had it on pre-order at Amazon but didn’t notice that it had already downloaded. Thanks for the reminder, I am off to start reading now.

  12. Waiting for my copy of the first book to be delivered right now! Already looking forward to the sequel.

    @John Blake Arnold
    I think Liu’s basic assumption is that the difficulty of interplanetary communication is in every aspect way bigger than cross-species communication on earth.

  13. Hmmm. I’m not a big fan of space-alien SF in principle, but I’ve certainly had some of these thoughts and agree with the whole whatever you would call the reverse of the anthropic principle. Maybe I will read it after all.

    By the way, is there an original Chinese version of this Big Idea piece anywhere? In Ken Liu’s hard drive, even? It’s probably futile to try to get 親愛的老媽 interested in SF, but worth a try. My father would have 99% probably been interested, but it’s just another thing I won’t ever be able to show him again.

  14. a very war-like rationalization “The Dark Forest Hypothesis.” is proposed and made public by the Red Chinese through a popular puppet author

    Now that’s a fascinating train of thought.

    I’m considering two possibilities:

    A) One of the 1.3 billion people in China wrote a science fiction novel for the same reasons any sci-fi writer writes a novel. It becomes popular and is well-reviewed because it’s good and people like it.

    B) The Chinese government is behind a conspiracy to convince people that militarism and conquest is an inevitable truth to support its own military aggression, and as a part of this plot they employ a writer to write science fiction.

    Which of these possibilities does Occam’s Razor support?

    Then again, people had no difficulty believing that Redshirts won a Hugo due to a liberal feminist conspiracy, so I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that people think this is a conspiracy too.

    Anyways, I’m happy to have discovered this here. I’ll have to check it out.

  15. @Cally No, Cixin Liu and I are not related :-) “Liu” is one of the commonest Chinese surnames.

    @sojournerstrange, I’m sure I can convince Da Liu to post the original Chinese version of this essay. I’ll go do that right now.

  16. I leafed through the text over at a Barnes and Noble, and well, reading the text, first, I’m sorry to say, but the prose is god-awful. It really speaks to either the low quality of Chinese prose in general, that Mr. Liu’s translation is inadequate, or that Chinese is extremely difficult to translate adequately into English, in the sense that while ideas may be communicable, the grace of the text is lost far quicker than in a translation of other languages. Mishima, for instance, holds up pretty well in English, whereas Mo Yan reads like doggerel in English.

    But the interesting thing is that one reading of the text actually suggests a sort of political metaphor with the Trisolarians themselves playing the part of China. Like the Trisolarians, China itself has been brought to heel repeatedly by its own Chaotic Periods, that its own society has quite often been under a harsher discipline than the West, its civilizational growth was somewhat more static than its Western counterpart, and to some extent Chinese intellectual piracy and export growth has stifled innovation in the West. And as with the approach of the Trisolarians, there is a substantial fifth column in the West that looks to China to resolve the contradictions inherent in modernity.

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