Reflections on China’s “The Three-Body Problem” winning the Hugo Award



When Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem was nominated for the Hugo Awards back in April, there was much talk in China regarding the Sad/Rabid Puppies and their agenda. While Chinese sci-fi authors and fans recognise the nature and significance of political correctness and its role in literature, they may or many not appreciate the importance of diversity in reading and writing.

More importantly, while Chinese sci-fi authors and fans were very grateful for the withdrawal of Lines of Departure by Marko Kloos – which led to The Three-Body Problem becoming a finalist in the Best Novel category – they were confident that Liu Cixin, as China’s leading sci-fi author, would carry the country onto the world stage as a formidable force to counter Western/American dominance in the genre. Much discussion about this occurred in the Chinese cyberspace since then. The Chinese ambition was obvious.

Now that The Three-Body Problem did win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, in the Chinese world, as usual, there are sour grapes, blind praises, instant and/or misguided fans, more ambitions of “conquering the world”, and widespread ridicule regarding China’s plan to defeat Hollywood in the making of a film based on the book. Because sci-fi is yet to be recognised as “serious/mainstream” literature in China, there are even suspicions about the literary and aesthetic standards of the West/America for recognising such a work of “sub-culture” as art.

In the English world, however, while there are plenty of discussions of the Puppies and their now notorious distaste on the popularity of authors of other ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations in the sci-fi field, not a single word has been uttered about Liu Cixin as a Chinese author.

Indeed, Liu Cixin is the first Asian, not to mention Chinese, author who received a Hugo Award. More importantly, as Ken Liu, English translator of The Three-Body Problem and himself a renowned sci-fi author in the English world, points out, few translated sci-fi novels enter the U.S. market, let alone win the Hugo Award. Therefore, one wonders why these achievements by The Three-Body Problem have not been widely and seriously explored within the English sci-fi circle.

The issue that demands attention is certainly NOT any author’s ethnic background or in what language they have created their work. Rather, it concerns the literary merits of those sci-fi works being judged for the Hugo Awards and how they are received by readers and critics. In concerns the creation, production, distribution, consumption and criticism of not only sci-fi but other genres of literature in our increasingly globalised world. It concerns how, through translation, we can – and need to – create an impact on the directions of each other’s cultural growth. It concerns the challenges we will face, the lessons we will learn, and the rewards we will receive, when we accept diversity as part of our life.

The fact that Liu Cixin’s ethnic and national identities have been omitted from current discussions of the Hugo Awards and the future of sci-fi in the English world reflects the sort of political correctness the Puppies are worried about. Instead of analysing the obvious strengths and weaknesses of The Three-Body Problem in as many ways as we normally do with a piece of sci-fi written in English by an award-winning author from the U.K., U.S., Canada or any other English-speaking country, we see its potential to become a politically sensitive issue and politely neglect it. Perhaps the Puppies do have a point.


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