But for the moment, the man whose grand theme in life is outer space has his mind on another thing, although it does not emanate from his inner space. Unlike the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who talks about how running transports and feeds his imagination, the Chinese science fiction writer says he thinks of nothing on his daily jaunt. He is simply intent on dragging his body from point A to point B, although he explains that this fitness regime has a much greater point.
He does the run between 7 am and 8 am, 23 hours in the day in which Liu’s mind can leap from planet to planet and universe to universe, and his accounts of these peregrinations have brought him worldwide acclaim, his most well-known work being the trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past (The first two books have been published in English as The Three-Body Problem and Dark Forest.)
But the Hugo Award winner, 52, is not letting writing get in the way of another ambition, to travel into outer space like the characters in his novels. For the moment that adventure is out of reach in more ways than one way, among them being the cost, which is where the jogging comes in: he needs the health and the longevity for when space travel finally becomes affordable.
One giant leap
Current space tourism is a tantalizing, no-frills affair that takes passengers only just beyond the upper atmosphere and gives them a ride there for just a few minutes before dumping them back on Earth. That is all too little for Liu, who reckons he will need to wait for another 30 years－when he is in his 80s－to be able to afford a package that will give him several days in outer space.
That astronauts and cosmonauts are some of the earthlings Liu most looks up to becomes clear when he is asked, “Who do you most hope reads the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy?” He has exercised his imagination to travel to regions and worlds beyond Earth, he says, but they have done that in reality.
By some accounts, he was nonchalant when he won the Hugo Award in August, but he later said he deeply regretted not having attended the awards ceremony because the announcement was made by an astronaut from outer space.
Since The Three-Body Problem won the award, Liu has done dozens of media interviews and is renowned for his patience and politeness, although he can be tetchy if he is asked questions he thinks he has already answered. When talk turns to aliens he becomes animated and earnest.
In one interview he dispensed advice to Chinese sci-fi readers on how they should act in the workplace. Particularly in State-run companies and government departments, “people look unfavorably on impractical childish fantasists”, he said, so they ought to be careful about what they say.
“Do not talk about aliens all the time.”
Liu, who was born in Beijing knows about being in a strange place and about being shunned. At the age of three he was taken to Yangquan, Shanxi province, when his father, who had worked at the China Institute of Coal Research and Design in the capital was forced to go to the small city to work as a miner during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76).
In elementary school, he has said, numerous applications he made for membership of the Young Pioneers of China were rejected. Eventually he left primary school as the only pupil not to wear a red scarf in his class, a “failure” that left a deep mark on him. He felt shamed, he said, but it gave him the inner strength to deal with setbacks.
He often describes himself as an ordinary man living an ordinary life: He was a computer engineer in a coal-fired power station for 25 years until it closed for environmental reasons six years ago. Until then, his science fiction writing was a strictly after-hours activity, even though he had begun to make a name for himself in this realm 10 years earlier.
Preparing for a visit
Several years ago, when a Xinhua News Agency reporter asked him about his ideas for the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15), he said China should prepare for the unexpected arrival of aliens, which became somewhat of a standing joke.
When, in a telephone interview, China Daily reminds him of that comment, he replies: “It’s not a joke. Aliens may arrive at any time. When it happens, everything, social and economic reform, educational problems, international conflicts or poverty, will become much less important, compared with the alien crisis.”
Big countries such as China and international organizations such as the United Nations need to be ready for such an eventuality, he says.
“It does not necessarily involve a lot of money and human resources. But we should prepare, in the fields of politics, military, society and so on. The government should organize some people to do related research and preparations for the long term.”
Unfortunately, he says, “no country seems to have done this kind of thing”.
In the postscript for the English version of The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu, Liu Cixin says: “I’ve always felt that extraterrestrial intelligence will be the greatest source of uncertainty for humanity’s future. Other great shifts, such as and ecological disasters, have a certain progression and built-in adjustment periods, but contact between mankind and aliens can occur at any time. Perhaps in 10,000 years the starry sky that mankind gazes upon will remain empty and silent, but perhaps tomorrow we’ll wake up and find an alien spaceship the size of the Moon parked in orbit. … The appearance of this Other, or mere knowledge of its existence, will impact our civilization in unpredictable ways.”
In the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, he imagines how humans react to the invasion of advanced aliens called Trisolarans from a far-off planet.
Liu graphically describes how the three-dimensional solar system is turned into a two-dimensional entity. “Two dimensions and three dimensions are very basic concepts in maths and physics,” he says, talking of the genesis of his plot.
For him, science provides a much bigger space for the imagination than imagination itself.
He quotes the Bible saying God created the world in seven days, whereas physics argues that it took 10 to the power of 43 years for the universe to expand from a point to 15 billion light years across.
Science mixed with fiction
“Can you imagine the time and space span?” he says. “The concept of one light year and one nanometer creates immense brings vivid images to my mind, inspiring an inexplicable religious-like shock and awe.”
The depiction of the universe in his favorite, 2001: A Space Odyssey, has a similar effect on him, he says.
Speaking to Wu Yan, sci-fi writer and professor at Beijing Normal University, Liu said: “Leading-edge modern science presents a world divorced from common sense. Science fiction needs to be created on the basis of good science. Of course, writers will have more freedom if they can combine a world based on common sense and one separate to that.”