Writer Liu Cixin explains how his visions for the future collide with reality



The Future of Everything covers the innovation and technology that is transforming the way we live, work and play, with monthly issues on education, money, cities and more. This month is a digital entertainment and culture edition, online from October 1.

Disasters have often struck the worlds created by novelist Liu Cixin, from the threat of alien annihilation in his 2008 book “The Three Bodies Problem” to an explosive sun engulfing the planet in his 2000 novel “The Wandering Earth” . China’s most prominent sci-fi writer has drawn a worldwide following for his epic stories, his fans counting Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama.

Mr. Liu’s “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy, which chronicles humanity’s first encounter with an alien civilization in a tale that spans the 1960s to the end of time, is now being transformed into a Netflix series by “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss.

In China, fans struggling with the country’s dizzying changes are keenly interested in Mr. Liu’s take on science, technology, the cosmos, and the fate of mankind. His work is credited with heralding a renaissance of the genre in the country, and he’s now working with a local tech company on an immersive entertainment experience based on his books.

The 58-year-old was working as a computer engineer at a power plant in northern China’s Shanxi province while he was making his first works. He has written dozens of short stories and several novels, which have won various awards in China. “The Three-Body Problem”, which launched the “Remembrance” trilogy, won the 2015 Hugo Award for excellence in science fiction writing.

Weaving the lives of ordinary people with extraordinary technological advancements, its plots involve characters who come up with a myriad of ways to save humanity: cryogenic hibernation, underground cities, escape of spaceships.

Mr. Liu recently spoke with The Future of Everything about how his work informs his view of the cultural direction of China and the world and how humanity will cope with change.

What prompted you to focus on the future in your job?

When I was a child, changes in society happened slowly. At that time, I wasn’t very interested in the future because I subconsciously felt that there wouldn’t be much difference between reality and what life would be like in the future. After China’s reform and opening up, the development of Chinese society has accelerated considerably.

This experience shaped my conception of the future. I believe that the development of human civilization is an accelerating process. The world will undergo monumental changes in the future: these will change everything, and at the same time, they will be unpredictable, if not unimaginable. I’m very drawn to this kind of future, and that’s also why I became a science fiction writer.

Chinese culture was dominated by realism, where culture mainly represented reality, and a considerable part of it reflected its historical past. My work tries to turn Chinese culture into a forward-looking culture.

In your books, nations often unite against aliens. Do you think this is a realistic representation of what could happen?

In the past, we had the assumption that if humanity faced a collective threat, people would reject their differences, unite, join forces, and together overcome the crisis. Now I realize this could have been too perfect a wish. Looking at the past two years, the pandemic has pushed nations towards more division. The events of the past few years have made me feel the uncertainty of the future and made me realize that we cannot use linear thinking to predict what is to come. Sudden twists and turns we didn’t anticipate could happen at any time.

So if aliens are really coming to Earth, I see two possibilities: one is that we all come together to face their arrival. The other: They will come to Earth and we will become more and more fractured. It’s hard not to admit that the second possibility is probably more plausible. This is the most likely conclusion that can be drawn from what we have seen over the past two years.

In ‘Death’s End’, the last book in the ‘Remembrance’ trilogy, there is a future society driven by female influences. What needs to happen to make this happen?

It is not a question of whether it can happen, it has already happened! In China, South Korea and Japan in the past, movie stars from this region certainly had more “traditional masculine” attributes. But now many of the most famous male stars here are embracing their feminine qualities. What people are looking for in terms of idols and ideals of beauty is changing.

Perhaps in the past there was a need for more “masculine” energy, when living conditions were cruel and violent. But now life is more peaceful – one of the only times you need brute force may be when someone needs help carrying a particularly heavy suitcase up the stairs on a business trip. . So, these “male attributes” might not be as useful in modern society, which in turn changes the way people define beauty. This change seems to be happening very quickly in the East.

What’s the biggest technological change we’ll see in the future?

It will certainly be artificial intelligence. I don’t think AI will overtake humans in the short term, but it will have a profound impact on society. Recently I stayed in a hotel near Beijing and did not encounter any human workers during my stay. From checking in to ordering takeout, there wasn’t a single human interaction, everything was done on apps and with AI-powered robots.

It is more and more common in China. I used to think AI would replace simple, repetitive jobs, but now I think the opposite: it will replace more “senior” positions like doctors, lawyers, teachers, and stock analysts. In contrast, it is the more labor-intensive jobs that will be more difficult to replace. I recently remodeled my house and needed an electrician to rewire the whole living room. I really don’t see a situation where AI can replace this kind of short-term work.

But the effect of AI on people will be huge and an issue we will have to tackle in the very near future. We have passed the agricultural and industrial age and have firmly entered the age of AI.

The interview has been condensed and edited.

Write to Natasha Khan at natasha.khan@wsj.com

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