Last week, a team of astronomers at Peking University announced the discovery of a gigantic black hole with a mass equivalent to twelve billion suns. The black hole formed near the beginning of time, just nine hundred million years after the Big Bang. It’s twelve billion light years away, but, because the quasar surrounding it glows four hundred and twenty trillion times brighter than the sun, it’s still visible to telescopes on Earth. “How could we have this massive black hole when the universe was so young?” Xue-Bing Wu, the lead astronomer, asked, in a paper published in Nature. “We don’t currently have a satisfactory theory to explain it.”
Reading about these developments, I thought of Liu Cixin, China’s most popular science-fiction writer. Liu is fifty-one years old and has written thirteen books. Until very recently, he worked as a software engineer at a power plant in Shanxi. In China, he is about as famous as William Gibson in the United States; he’s often compared to Arthur C. Clarke, whom he cites as an influence. His most popular book, “The Three-Body Problem,” has just been translated into English by the American sci-fi writer Ken Liu, and in China it’s being made into a movie, along with its sequels. (If you Google it, beware: there are some big plot twists that you don’t want spoiled.) Liu Cixin’s writing evokes the thrill of exploration and the beauty of scale. “In my imagination,” he told me, in an e-mail translated by Ken Liu, “abstract concepts like the distance marked by a light-year or the diameter of the universe become concrete images that inspire awe.” In his novels, a black hole with the mass of twelve billion suns is the sort of thing that Chinese engineers might build. They’d do it a billion years from now, after China’s spaceships have spread throughout the universe.
American science fiction draws heavily on American culture, of course—the war for independence, the Wild West, film noir, sixties psychedelia—and so humanity’s imagined future often looks a lot like America’s past. For an American reader, one of the pleasures of reading Liu is that his stories draw on entirely different resources. Much of “The Three-Body Problem” is set during the Cultural Revolution. In “The Wages of Humanity,” visitors from space demand the redistribution of Earth’s wealth, and explain that runaway capitalism almost destroyed their civilization. In “Taking Care of Gods,” the hyper-advanced aliens who, billions of years ago, engineered life on Earth descend from their spaceships; they turn out to be little old men with canes and long, white beards. “We hope that you will feel a sense of filial duty towards your creators and take us in,” they say. I doubt that any Western sci-fi writer has so thoroughly explored the theme of filial piety.
But it’s not cultural difference that makes Liu’s writing extraordinary. His stories are fables about human progress—concretely imagined but abstract, even parable-like, in their sweep. Take the novella “Sun of China,” which follows Ah Quan, a young man from a rural village that has been impoverished by drought. In the first three chapters, Ah Quan sets out from the village and finds work in a mine; he travels to a regional city, where he learns to shine shoes, and moves to Beijing, where he works as a skyscraper-scaling window-washer. Then the story takes a turn. We discover that it’s the future: China has constructed a huge mirror in space called the China Sun, and is using it to engineer the climate. Ah Quan gets a job cleaning the reflective surface of the China Sun. It turns out that Stephen Hawking is living in orbit, where the low gravity has helped to prolong his life; Hawking and Ah Quan become friends and go on space walks together. (“It was probably his experience operating an electric wheelchair that allowed him to control the miniature engine of his spacesuit as well as anyone,” Liu writes.) The physicist teaches the worker about the laws of physics and about the vastness of the universe, and Ah Quan’s mind begins to dwell on the question of humanity’s fate: Will we explore the stars, or live and die on Earth? Soon afterward, he is saying goodbye to his parents and setting out on a one-way mission to explore interstellar space. By the end of the story, Ah Quan’s progress is representative of humanity’s. He has traversed an enormous social and material distance, but it pales in comparison to the journey ahead.