Beyond Narcissism: What Science Fiction Can Offer Literature
Translated by Holger Nahm and Gabriel Ascher
1. Never did it occur to me that I would ever be this closely associated with the world of literature, especially as I to this day feel no particular fondness for it. Many roads lead into the courtyard of science fiction: some spring from the love of literature, others from the passion for science. I took the latter path.1
Nowadays, humans can circle the globe in less than an hour, yet the light of the farthest visible galaxies has traveled for fifteen billion years before reaching us. If one were to see all of time—from the birth of the universe to now—as a single year, humanity would emerge in the very last second. But in all my limited experience with literature, I constantly hear a whisper in my ear, telling me that only this speck of a world and that tiny flash of a moment since humanity’s appearance is worth experiencing and representing. The entire vastness of all other space and time is not even worth a glance. After all, it is devoid of humans and of humanity, and literature is the epicenter of the humanities. In the world of literature, humanity exceeds all other attractions and the Sun and all other stars revolve around us. If the universe is the Sahara, then all that makes the Earth a grain of gold within it is that particular bacteria called humanity that clings to its surface. It means nothing to the whole of the desert. In literature, however, the Sun exists for no other reason than to illuminate the pure, unadulterated countryside, the Moon has no other reason to shine than to cast the shadows of seaside lovers—and the Milky Way need hardly exist at all. Because of this, literature has always given me the impression of indulging an intense anthropocentric narcissism. Of course, within a four-light-year radius we are the only intelligent life form (we are sure of that, at least at the moment), which grants humanity some cause for narcissism. Even so, some people want to experience more than this. They do not want their minds to be limited solely to this cosmic speck of dust and so are doing all they can to transcend this narcissism. In the field of literature, the most conscious effort in this regard is being made in the field of science fiction.
2. From the time I first began to change from a science-fiction fan into a science-fiction author, the most dominant peculiarity of my creative impetus was this: I was not interested in human society, only in the genre’s strange beauty and power that thrills the imagination. For an author in the realm of traditional literature, such thoughts would be inconceivable or even heretical, but that is how my creative journey began. The first part of my career I call my “pure science fiction” stage. To describe my central creative goal at the time, I would like to quote a sentence from an article I wrote during that period: “The success of a science fiction novel is decided in great part by the degree of strange beauty and power to thrill conjured within; this is probably what fans of the genre are searching for most.”
Throughout human history, every culture has used its boldest and most magnificent fantasies to construct its own creation myth, but none has ever been as majestic and thrilling as our modern cosmological understanding of the Big Bang. In the same way, any story about God or [the goddess] Nuwa can never compare to the twists and turns and romance of the endless process of evolution. Or take the general theory of relativity, that poem of time and space, or the spirit-like microcosmic world of quantum physics—indeed, all aspects of the world as viewed by science not only exceed anything we have imagined, but also exceed anything we are capable of imagining.
Science is the source of science fiction. But the beauty of science is expressed in a totally different way from the beauty of traditional literature. Instead, the beauty of science is locked within cold formulas, requiring the average person to spend an enormous amount of effort before he or she can spy even one ray of its brilliance. Science-fiction novels are thus a bridge to this beauty, freeing it from formulas and displaying it for all to see.
My ideas about science fiction at that time are expressed in two short novels, Weiguan Jintou [The Microcosmic Extreme, 1999] and Tansuo [Condensation, 1999]. The first explores humanity’s work with elementary particles on a cosmic scale; the second describes a situation in which the universe stops expanding and begins to contract, causing time to flow backwards. These are two works of pure hard sf, built entirely around their science-fictional premises. In fact, they can be said to contain nothing else.
The two other important works I wrote during this period are Mengzhihai [Sea of Dreams, 2003] and Shiyun [The Poetry Cloud, 2003]. These two mid-length novels describe worlds that are full of lyricism and beauty, and I believe they best reflect the deepest characteristics of my writing. In them I cast off all the bonds of the real, leaving only artistry, wild games, and revelry on a universal scale.
But one cannot create this sort of work for long. In fact, I have always recognized that science fiction is a form of popular literature, so my own ideas about the genre must be balanced to a certain extent with the tastes of my readers. Even as I was writing the above-mentioned works in the manner of pure science fiction, I was already working hard to adapt my style and in the process produced the two short novels Jingge [Whalesong, 1999] and Daishang Tade Yanjing [With Her Eyes, 2004]. In hindsight, however, these two were nothing more than a forced compromise with the dictates of the market, Jingge in particular. They are works of popular literature through and through, with plot as the force driving everything else, and in the years since I have not written anything similar.
3. One winter night in 1980, an English resident of Sri Lanka changed my entire life. That Englishman was Arthur C. Clarke, one of the three greats of western science fiction. I had just read his 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Before reading that book, I had on countless occasions imagined a type of literature that would reveal the vastness and profundity of the universe to me, that would allow me to experience the shivers brought on by the countless possibilities of worlds beyond number. In the barren lands of the realism of that time, fiction like that seemed so far from the literature I knew that I was unable to fathom that it could possibly exist. When I first opened that book, however, I discovered that what I had dreamed of had already been written. Other than shocking and moving me in ways that are difficult to express adequately, Clarke’s work also left me feeling that this book had subverted and expanded the concepts of mainstream literature.
First, it revealed a completely novel concept: macro-detail. Macro-detail is something that is hardly ever seen in mainstream literature. Imagine, for example, that Tolstoy had provided the following description in War and Peace (1869):
Napoleon led a French army of six-hundred thousand men to invade Russia, gradually penetrating into its vast lands and soon coming to occupy the deserted city of Moscow. After waiting for a surrender that did not come, Napoleon ordered his army to retreat, but as the harsh cold of the Russian winter came upon them, a large part of the withdrawing French army froze to death or died of starvation. When Napoleon finally returned to France, he brought with him less than thirty thousand men.
In fact, there are many passages like this in Tolstoy’s monumental work, yet he separated descriptions of this kind from the main body of the novel, confining them to their own independent sections. He was not alone in this. Herman Wouk also attached historical accounts of World War II to the main body of his novel, The Winds of War (1971), as stand-alone appendages. Summed up as “Global Waterloo” and read on their own, they could make a good popular history of the Second World War. Both Tolsoy and Wouk, separated by a century, chose simply and directly to tell their readers: these are historical events, they are not an organic element of my work and not truly part of my literary creation. Indeed, macro-descriptions of historical events cannot form the main body of a mainstream literary work, for then the novel ceases being fiction and becomes a work of history. There are, of course, many novels that unfold against a historical panorama, including both Yao Xueyin’s Li Zicheng and Howard Fast’s Spartacus (1951), but the main body of these works is made up of the detailed description of historical figures, reflecting the larger picture of history with a multitude of details.2 Even these works cannot use macro-descriptions of historical processes to form the main body of their text; that is the work of historians, not novelists.
In science fiction, on the other hand, macro-portrayals of history can be the focus of an entire work. Unlike mainstream novels, such works can still remain fiction. They are literary creations, the history they describe having been conceived by the author, springing from the world of the author’s imagination. We might say that mainstream literature describes a world created by God, while science fiction takes on the role of God, creating worlds and then describing them.
In sf literature, the treatment of details has undergone tremendous changes. I can imagine a short story—I will call it “Singularity Fireworks”—which describes a group of super-consciousnesses for whom Big Bang-esque explosions are nothing more than an amusing evening of fireworks. And, in fact, every explosion is a Big Bang that gives birth to a universe. The following describes our universe being born this way:
“What a good one! What a good one!” Entity One exclaimed as the firework exploded in emptiness.
“A least better than the last few,” Entity Two agreed nonchalantly. “The laws of its physics forming after its expansion are equally distributed and the elementary particles percolating from its pure energy look good as well.”
The firework’s explosion vanished as its ashes slowly descended.
“Wait a minute! Something more is happening there!” Entity One called out, just as Entity Two was about to light another singularity firework. Handing Entity Two a telescope it continued, “Look in the dust, the cooling matter is forming many tiny, low-entropy aggregations that seem interesting.”
“Huh,” Entity Two raised the telescope. “They can reproduce themselves and microscopic consciousnesses are emerging.” It paused, “Wait, wait, some of them have even managed to infer that they have come from an exploding firework, how fascinating ...
There can be little doubt that the above passage provides details. It describes the dialogue and perspectives of two entities watching fireworks. These details are, however, very unusual in that they hardly describe the small things. Mainstream literature often cannot describe the lead characters’ first kiss in less than two hundred words; here, however, that length is sufficient to describe the entirety of the universe’s fifteeen-billion-year history, starting with the Big Bang and covering the entire history of life and civilization. It goes even further, unfolding a vision of a supra-cosmos beyond our universe. In contrast to the “micro-details” of mainstream literature, these are “macro-details” that only an sf story could provide.
Returning to Clarke’s 2001: although it is by no means excessively long, the narrative describes the entire process of human evolution, from its very beginnings to its achievement of transcendent cosmic completion. It covers everything from the awakening of sentience in primitive humanity millions of years ago to the human exploration of near-Earth space and the Moon, continuing all the way to a voyage to Saturn and, through a gate beyond time and space, into the depths of the cosmos as humanity is raised from the individual to a completed whole.
Through its macro-details, science fiction allows authors to sweep across time and space, crossing billions of years and tens of billions of light-years with a simple stroke of the pen, leaving the world and the history described in mainstream literature to appear as nothing more than a tiny grain of dust, hardly worth mentioning.
Macro-details were by no means common in the early years of science fiction. But it is through them that science fiction can allow us to feel our way into the depths of the universe and begin to ponder cosmic principles. As such, the widespread appearance of macro-details marked a sign of the genre’s maturity. They are the narrative technique that, for me, best embodies the particularities and advantages of science fiction.
The emergence of macro-details had a profound influence on the structure of sf stories. Science fiction that focuses on macro-details first builds a world according to its self-dictated laws. It then goes on to enrich and define that world. This process is diametrically opposed to that of mainstream literature. In the latter, the superstructure is already built, situating its description outside the purview of literature; instead, mainstream literature describes the details of that structure.
Science fiction is precipitously expanding the descriptive space occupied by literature, giving us the potential more vividly and profoundly to show Earth and humanity from the vantage point of the entire universe. It can also show the several thousand years that make up the traditional world of literature in a new light: watching Romeo beneath Juliet’s window is certainly more interesting when viewed from a telescope in the Perseus Cloud than from a nearby bush.
Eventually human society began to enter my sf worlds, and what was once a forced compromise became something I did of my own accord. Thus began the second stage of my career as a science-fiction writer. During this time, my focus began to shift away from pure science fiction, as I became more interested in writing stories that depict humanity’s relationship with the natural world. This period lasted for quite a while, and includes most of the works I have published to date. I have also always believed that my most successful pieces were written during this time.
The representative works from these years include the short novels Liulang Diqiu [The Wandering Earth, 2008] and Xiangcun Jiaoshi [The Village Schoolteacher, 2001] and the longer ones Qiuzhuang Shandian [Ball Lightning, 2005] and San Ti [Three Body, 2006], the first part of the San Ti [Three Body] series. This was when I began to rethink the core concept of traditional literature as being “character-centric.” In the process, I discovered that the saying “literature is the study of people,” which has been accepted as a kind of inarguable truth, is in fact anything but.
Liulang Diqiu tells the story of the emigration of all the inhabitants of Earth into deep space. In the first instance, it utilizes a macro-view of history to provide the details of its descriptions. The main body of the text is comprised of narration describing the broader framework of its history. This is a narrative scheme unique to speculative fiction which cannot emerge in mainstream literature that describes reality.
Qiuzhuang Shandian portrays a non-human figure—ball lightning—and it makes this figure the story’s core. The novel focuses on describing the interaction between this figure of the natural world and humanity, the traditional figure of literature.
4. The history of human society is the history of humanity’s social development. From Spartacus brandishing his sword in the arena to the French revolutionaries shouting for rights, brotherhood, and equality, humanity’s capabilities have helped to determine its goals. In the realm of science, however, humanity’s status has suffered. Once we were formed by God as the wisest of all creatures and all other things in the universe were tools for our use; now no essential differences separate us from the other animals. Taking an even broader perspective, we become nothing more than irrelevant bacteria on a grain of sand in a remote corner of the universe.
On which side of this divide of rise and fall is literature situated? There can be no doubt that mainstream literature takes the former path. Literature focuses on humanity and so it has almost been enshrined as doctrine that a story which does not deal with human nature cannot be accepted as literature. Science fiction, however, takes the latter path: human nature is no longer the heart and soul of this emerging field of fiction.
Most literature has been about the relationship between humans and the natural world, not between individuals. In the myths of ancient cultures, gods took the form of natural phenomena and their stories focussed on understanding the natural world. Literature did not become the study of people and their systems until after the Renaissance.
For this reason, conventional literature has always given me the impression of being very narcissistic. Literature needs to get past this narcissism, and the genre that is working hardest to do so is science fiction. The basic element of science fiction seems to be humanity’s relationship with nature, and as such it is capable of giving literature an opportunity to once more broaden its boundaries.
As science fiction’s brief history shows us, the genre by no means abandons character, but it does severely lower the status of this literary figure in comparison to mainstream literature. The cause for this change is the precipitous expansion of the descriptive space that science fiction offers and, even more importantly, the natural relation of science fiction and science. This relationship provides a more sober understanding of humanity’s place in the universe.
Character in science fiction has for the most part been expanded in two ways. The first is by superimposing the image of an entire species over that of an individual character. Unlike traditional literature, science fiction can describe many civilizations beyond that of humans and it can endow these civilizations and the beings that created them with distinct characteristics. These species can be aliens or distinct human communities in outer space. They can even be machine-beings. We can call this “species portrayal.” Second, the literary image can be an environment or a entire world. The worlds of science fiction can be stars and galaxies, but they can also be parallel universes and, increasingly in recent years, virtual worlds existing only in a computer’s memory. Some of these worlds are inhabited (no matter by what kind of inhabitant). Such a portrayal of a world is in essence the portrayal of a species, as described above, expanded by one level. Some of these worlds are uninhabited and can then be explored by the characters in the story. In this form, more attention is paid to the natural characteristics of these worlds and how they affect those who enter them. The rarest kinds of worlds portrayed in science fiction are those that exist entirely independent of human awareness, never to be discovered. The author describes these worlds from a removed, super-aware position. Works like this are hard to read, but they push the unique characteristics of science fiction to their extreme.
Neither the portrayal of a species nor the portrayal of a world can exist in mainstream literature, because the existence of a literary figure presupposes other figures against which to contrast it. Mainstream literature is limited to describing a single species (humanity) and a single world (Earth); it must therefore always distill its portrayals down to the human. The portrayal of species and worlds is one significant contribution of science fiction to literature. In the first part of the San Ti series, I attempted to combine the portrayal of a setting and a species into a unified literary image. In it, I described an unstable world in a triple-star system, and the species that inhabits it. This extraterrestial world and its alien inhabitants form the unified image that the novel describes. The human world, described by traditional means, is added to this frame of reference and to the unified image. As a result, this work describes two wholly different worlds. The first is the familiar modern world, gray and always bustling with activity. The other is the refined world of science fiction, existing far away, a place we can never reach. The contact and collision of these two worlds and their stark contrast form the main structure of the story. So then, the kite that is science fiction was still flying high during my second stage as an author, but now it was tethered solidly to the ground.
After 2001: A Space Odyssey, I almost immediately began reading Clarke’s other classic work, Rendezvous with Rama (1972). This story marks an innovative step in the literary images portrayed in science fiction. The work describes a gigantic, unmanned alien vessel sweeping through our Solar System and humanity’s brief investigation of it. Clarke describes this gigantic, empty world in vivid and meticulous detail, including descriptions of its internal topography, its oceans of ice gradually melting as it approaches the Sun, the pyramidal mountain ranges at its poles, and so on. Clarke develops this imaginary world with the enthusiasm of a true cosmic creator, ensuring that every detail conforms to the laws of physics and embodies vivid artistry. The characters in Rendezvous with Rama are symbols, just like those in 2001. In fact, it would have little impact on the story if the human explorers of this alien spaceship-world were replaced by robotic, artificially-intelligent probes. Clarke has left the vast and wonderful world of Rama in the hall of the literary images of science fiction. It is a world that remains empty, uninhabited by either aliens or humans.
In March 2008 this man, who gave me a fresh perspective on the possibilities and potentials of literature and who brought me along onto to the path of science fiction, died. Following Asimov and Heinlein, the last great master of the Golden Age of science fiction left us. The epitaph engraved on his tombstone reads: “Here Rests Sir Arthur Charles Clarke. He never grew up, but he never stopped growing.” Indeed, while those engaged in mainstream literature age, those in science fiction remain young, together with the classic works they have left behind them.
I was very gratified to see that my ideas were echoed by his own and that, all the way on the other side of the world, I had found a like-minded individual.
5. The most basic task of science fiction is world-building—that is, establishing the fundamental framework, laws, and rules of a story’s imaginary world. In mainstream literature there is no need for world-building; the world it describes already exists. World-building is by no means limited to science fiction, however; it is also an element of fantasy literature—take Middle Earth, for example. But world-building in the two genres is entirely equivalent: sf world-building is usually completed in the context of a single story, while in fantasy the world is often independent of the individual story and used for multiple narratives. In addition, science-fiction world-building must follow the laws of science; it can be strange, but never supernatural. In contrast to fantasy world-building, sf world-building is more concise and rigorous, existing as it does in the shadow of the laws of science.
Asimov lets us realize that science fiction is a content-based form of fiction, not a form-based one. In an sf story, form is a container to carry and serve the content. Works in which the form surpasses the content may be very good stories, but they are not science fiction. As for my own work, there is no denying that, from world-building to writing style, my novels generally abide by this rule. The world in the San Ti series came from a difficult problem in celestial mechanics, which led me to create a planet and race that exist only in the imagination. From this foundation emerged this civilization’s way of life, technological characteristics, and internal motivation for wanting to expand across the galaxy and conquer all whom they encountered. Living in a constant state of life-or-death crisis, the “Three-body people” are clearly distinguishable from the people of earth. They have no time for or interest in art and literature; at the same time, they do not understand lies or tricks.
6. As has been the case with other readers and authors of science fiction, something almost unimaginable occurred to me as I developed an ever deeper attachment to the heart and soul of the genre. My moral concepts and my value system began suddenly to waver, which was a very peculiar experience indeed. At this point, my sf writing has entered its third stage. I call this my social experimentation stage. In it, I am focusing my efforts on depicting the effects of extreme situations on human behavior and social systems.
The easiest way to illustrate this point is through Tom Godwin’s classic short story, “The Cold Equations” (1954). This is a thought experiment that can only come out of a science-fictional mode of thinking: it is the “doomsday experience.” In fact, in its entire history humanity has never encountered such a catastrophe, making the doomsday experience a very precious thing indeed. Just as a person misdiagnosed with cancer will feel after learning the truth, the sf reader may see life in a new light—and humanity’s doomsday experience is something that only science fiction can produce.
This sort of wild social experimentation is the focus of the second part of the San Ti series, Heian Senlin [Dark Forest, 2007]. This novel is set against the backdrop of a disaster that will ultimately end all human civilization. I have attempted to reexamine humanity’s preconceived systems of morality and our values in this context. I have also attempted to describe a morally void universe made up of countless civilizations. In Heian Senlin, the natural world takes a backseat, replaced by the social world. Other civilizations appear as but a point in the distance and from there a fictional cosmic sociology is established. Because of this, Heian Senlin does not describe the relationship of humanity and nature, but the relationship of cosmic civilization and humanity.
There are many sf settings like this that confront the reader with challenges to his or her own values—such as settings with multiple genders, multiple selves, or question of rulership (humanity ruled by a more advanced or mechanical civilization). Diving deeper into these imaginary worlds, we can see that, when faced with the cold laws of the universe, things that had previously been accepted as utterly inviolable can collapse at the first cosmic blow.
7. The portrayal of worlds in science fiction today is very different from earlier classics of the genre. We know that there is no absolute space or time, that the space-time continuum, matter, and motion are but taken from the same lump of cosmic clay. We also know that on the microscopic scale, causality does not exist in the everyday sense, leaving us with quantum probability and throwing causality in the macro-world into doubt. In mainstream literature, however, little has changed; its world remains pre-Newtonian, perhaps even pre-Copernican or pre-Ptolemaic. As stated earlier, in the mental world of literature, the Earth is still the center of the universe.
In fact, there have also been efforts in mainstream literature to transcend narcissism. For example, for a while Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges were much talked about in certain circles. Some of their works attempted to describe something other than human to human relations, relating instead stories that reflected on the relationship between humanity and a greater existence. In Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), for example, we see the portrayal of a world, and Borges’s even more extreme “Library of Babel” (1941) basically does without humans altogether, human nature having all but disappeared from its pages. The shadow of this facet of literature can even be seen in Thomas Pynchon’s and Franz Kafka’s writings. In spite of this, one can generally say that literature has not developed in this direction. Some scholars propose the fascinating idea that the irrationality, fragmentation, lack of meaning, and flightiness of modern and postmodern literature is a reaction to quantum theory, but even those who support this appraisal do not fully believe it. Literature and science have remained at a distance from each other. Although mainstream literature can (sometimes quite positively) describe a world changed by science and technology, it tends rather firmly to resist opening itself to the world-views and perspectives made accessible by science. This is true both for Chinese and Western literature.
Arguably, literature is moving toward a deeper form of narcissism; the grand narrative is disappearing and being replaced by ever more introspective and ever more internalized accounts. This development has naturally caused the relationship of humanity with nature to fade from view, but in some cases it has gone so far as to grow impatient even with inter-human interactions, leaving only the mumbled monologue of the intra-personal relationship. And even as it abandons period and popular literature, such literature complains that it in turn is being rejected by them.
The third novel in the San Ti series has, to my pleasant surprise, become a commercial success in China, garnering interest from readers outside of the genre. That this is something that the third part of a series could accomplish was genuinely outside my purview. Sishen Yongsheng [Dead End, 2010] is the most strongly sf-flavored novel in the series or, perhaps more accurately, the novel most attuned to sf fandom. It is a work of classical, fundamental science fiction, centered around technology. In fact, Sishen Yongsheng was considered very unlikely to win over “non-science-fiction” readers by insiders of the genre. That it did nonetheless was a very pleasant surprise indeed.
Science-fiction fandom has always been both self-involved and solitary. We have all along understood ourselves to be living on a lonely island, feeling that we are not understood by the rest of the world, recognizing that in the eyes of others we are perpetual children, phantoms standing on the sidelines of both science and literature. But even within sf, we are an island. Authors and critics alike recognize that our definition of sf is too intolerant and narrow, hindering its acceptance by the mainstream. Even Adam Roberts, a British sf scholar and writer who has participated in this kind of fandom, considers such fans and their intolerant and narrow views of science fiction to be doing more harm than good to the field as a whole. It has lead to a gradual abandonment of the Campbellian sf that we cherish so greatly. Those, like myself, who consider themselves most stubborn fans have had their moments of doubt about these traditional concepts of science fiction, about whether or not this form of fiction has lost its appeal.
It now appears that this is not the case, that science fiction in the classic sense can still be popular and attract readers. The beauty of our world can still be felt in this new era. This reminds me of the words of a philosopher (although I’ve forgotten his name): “One can never be certain that a principle, no matter how outdated, is ever truly dead.”
As an sf fan and a literary layperson, I truly have no intention of handing out blame, but I do want to say the following: humanity and literature both have a right to narcissism; it makes rational sense. I only want to consider: can an extroverted form of literature that reflects the relationship of humanity to the natural universe not exist next to a more introspective and closeted literature? Can literature not be used to reach beyond humanity?
Science-fiction literature has always led a very marginal existence, largely ignored by the critics. I had the opportunity to ask Wolfgang Kubin, a German professor of China Studies: “Have you read Chinese science fiction?” He told me that he does not even read German sf. Science fiction lacks the broad background of academic commentary enjoyed by mainstream literature. We must rely on the appraisal of our readers or, even worse, rely on the judgment of the market. Therefore it is unavoidable that the spark at the heart of science fiction will often be hidden behind the shroud of commercialization.
One can only keep hoping for more general awareness of what science fiction has to offer to literature.
1. Editors’ note: for more information about Liu Cixin, a leading figure in Chinese science fiction, see the entry by Jonathan Clements in the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. John Clute and David Langford.
2. Translator’s note: Li Zicheng is an epic historical novel by Yao Xueyin that portrays the life of the eponymous seventeenth-century Chinese rebel leader.