Year of Reading Foreign: Lens of the Future

The best and worst of science fiction fandom was on display at this year’s Hugo Awards.

In protest of what they perceived as a trend — winners being chosen based on their ethnicity or liberal viewpoint rather than their talent — two different right-wing groups, the Rabid Puppies and the Sad Puppies, tried to stack the nominations in their favor.

George R.R. Martin described the result as “the weakest Hugo ballot in recent memory, thanks to the Puppy slates.” The toxic atmosphere prompted several nominees and a presenter to withdraw from the awards. Yet Martin called for “every true fan” to vote, saying “Let this be fandom’s finest hour.”

And they sure did vote, choosing “No Award” over entries backed by the Rabid Puppies and the Sad Puppies. A record five categories went without a winner. “This equals the total numbers of the times that WSFS members have presented ‘No Award’ in the entire history of the Hugo Awards,” the awards website states.

On the same night, the first-ever Chinese writer won in the Best Novel category: Cixin Liu’s “The Three-Body Problem,” translated by Ken Liu. The novel, the first in a trilogy, was originally published in China in 2006 and went on to be a bestseller in that nation.

“Science fiction is a literature that belongs to all humankind,” v writes in his afterword to American readers. “It portrays events of interest to all of humanity, and thus science fiction should be the literary genre most accessible to readers of different nations.”

And “The Three-Body Problem” is a great piece of science fiction, truly deserving of its Hugo. In the book, a worker at a remote listening station receives a message from an alien race. The message reads:

“Do not answer! Do not answer!! Do not answer!!! … I am a pacifist in this world. I am warning you: Do not answer! Do not answer!! Do not answer!!! As long as you do not answer, this world will not be able to ascertain the source of your transmission. But if you do answer, the source will be located right away. Your world will be invaded. You world will be conquered! Do not answer! Do not answer!! Do not answer!!!”

The worker, whose life and family have been shredded by the Cultural Revolution and who has lost all faith in humanity, answers of course.

As more and more people learn that aliens are coming to invade us (It will take them a couple centuries to get here), Earth divides into factions and the war begins before the aliens even arrive.

But does its Chinese provenance restrict the enjoyment of American readers, their ability to relate to the text, to find the universal in the particular?

Hardly. Going through the Cultural Revolution is hardly a prerequisite for turning against humanity — the second convert is the billionaire son of an American oil CEO.

By far, the most “Chinese” element of the book are the names. At one point, characters are surprised to learn that Yang Dong is a woman. American readers may be confused by this comment. Do they assume she wasn’t a woman because of her name or because of her groundbreaking work in physics? Do Chinese names have gendered connotations? I don’t know.

Other than a few small things like this, “The Three-Body Problem” could be taking place anywhere in the world with characters of any ethnicity — and frequently does. The Chinese background might shed a different light on the action than an American or European background would have but it doesn’t close the book off into a dusty and unvisited “ethnic” corner of literature. In the end, science is science, aliens are aliens and people are people.

The second installment, “The Dark Forest” is already available in English and the final book, “Death’s End” is due out April 2016.

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