Review of Supernova Era by Liu Cixin

Review of Supernova Era

Russell Alexander Stepp

Liu Cixin. Supernova Era. Trans. Joel Martinsen. Tor, 2019. Paperback. 352 pp. $27.99. ISBN 9781250306036.           

Liu Cixin, already a well-known author of hard science fiction in his native China, exploded onto the scene in the Anglophone world in 2014 following the publication his well-regarded novel, The Three-Body Problem (as the novel’s title has been rendered in English translation). The Three-Body Problem received nominations for both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best science fiction novel, winning the former in 2015, and was the first Asian novel to receive the prestigious award. The critical and commercial success of The Three-Body Problem, and its sequels, The Dark Forest and Death’s End, (the series was given the title Remembrance of Earth’s Past in translation) led to an interest in exploring the whole of Liu’s fiction, and the intervening years have seen the translation and publication of more of the author’s works. Supernova Era is the result of this continuing project.

Supernova Era was originally published in Chinese in 2003, three years prior to the Chinese release of The Three-Body Problem. Joel Martinsen, who also translated Liu’s novel The Dark Forest into English, was the translator of Supernova Era. The novel shows clear signs of belonging to an earlier stage of the author’s development, and a reader who picks up Supernova Era expecting the same brilliance that Liu displays in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series will come away disappointed. The earlier novel does not quite rise to the same standard as the series that launched Liu to international fame. The characters in Supernova Era are somewhat two-dimensional and lack any significant development, and at times the plot feels almost episodic with sudden transitions between major sections within the novel. The prose is also occasionally a bit flat, lacking some of the power of Liu’s later novels.

While Supernova Era may not live up to the excellent standard that Liu set for himself throughout the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, the novel stands on its own and demonstrates one of Liu’s most salient qualities as an author: the ability to propose a simple question and explore how one single change can alter the course of human history or perception. The central conceit of Supernova Era is that a nearby star goes supernova, bombarding Earth with high doses of radiation. In a departure from Liu’s love for hard science fiction and scientific accuracy, he does not dwell much on the biological effects of this radiation other than to say that it only affects older individuals whose DNA is less resilient to change. The result is that, shortly after the supernova is observed, humanity realizes that within a year all those above the age of thirteen will be dead, which naturally has significant ramifications for both the future trajectory of the human species and the civilizations we have spent thousands of years constructing.

The novel unfolds in three main phases, and in each, Liu demonstrates his ability to posit thought-provoking questions about the nature of technology and the human condition. In the first phase, humanity discovers, and must come to grips with the staggering conclusion that the destiny of the world will soon pass to children. This section explores the nature of education and the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next as each nation is forced evaluate and asses each child and train them for a future career in the limited span of one year. In a particularly powerful episode, the Chinese government teaches the children selected to fill future roles as political leaders a powerful lesson in the logistical complexities of running a nation by showing them all the salt that the country consumes in a day – loaded into a series of transport trains. In the second phase, the adults have all perished and the children are forced to grapple with the new order where even small children are thrust into the world of adults, hastily educated and emotionally ill-prepared. This phase of the novel is best highlighted by a heartbreaking episode in which one of the main characters, trained as a pediatric nurse, struggles to care for the last surge of children born before the world’s adults perished. This, and other similar episodes push the novel into the final phase: children rejecting the old world and beginning to imagine what the new world would be. This reimagination is far from utopian and the world’s great powers agree to engage in a gamified version of warfare – potentially deadly but similarly governed by strict rules.

Each section raises poignant questions about education, diplomacy, politics, technology, and the artificial world humanity has constructed for itself. The novel’s consideration of these questions alone makes it worthy of investigation by any serious student of speculative fiction. It is made even more interesting to frequent readers of the genre as it presents a distinctly Chinese perspective on global politics and international relations. In particular, Liu’s depiction of the United States and its cultural values diverges from those found in Western speculative fiction and may be of interest to a new audience now that this novel has been made available in English.

While Supernova Era falls short of the excellent standard set by Liu himself in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, the novel warrants study and contemplation beyond its value as a window into Liu Cixin’s development as a writer. Supernova Era posits a remarkably simple change to our current world – with a reasonable scientific explanation – and allows the reader to observe how human nature plays out in the world that is science fiction. Ultimately, Supernova Era asks significant questions about some of the core constructs of modern society, government, economics, education, and the role of the family, all while providing an engaging work of speculative fiction.  

A Discussion between Two French Translators of Chinese Science Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)

A Discussion between Two French Translators of Chinese Science Fiction

Loïc Aloisio
Aix-Marseille University / France

Gwennaël Gaffric
Jean Moulin Lyon 3 University / France

Loïc Aloisio: The English translation of The Three-Body Problem by Ken Liu, which has been awarded the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, has given sudden visibility to Chinese SF. As we can see, a lot of Chinese SF authors have already been translated into English. In France, however, the situation is quite different, since it appears that only twelve authors have been translated, for a total of thirty-four translations (against more than two hundred in English). Moreover, among them are two authors (namely Lao She and Ye Yonglie) who are not part of what Song Mingwei called the “new wave” of Chinese SF (Song, 2015), and whose works have been translated a long time ago (in 1981 and 1986 respectively). If we take 2015 as a landmark year, the number of translations reduces to thirty (Aloisio, 2016). How do you explain that? As the translator of the Three-Body trilogy in French, do you have some understanding of the public response to Chinese SF?

Gwennaël Gaffric: This phenomenon may seem paradoxical in several respects. Liu’s Three-Body trilogy has been one of science fiction’s most acclaimed series in France in recent years, as it has reaped both commercial and critical success. It has reached readers well beyond the usual SF (or Chinese literature) readership and has generated many reviews and columns of literary criticism in most of the major general and specialized French media.

However, the success of a work does not always reflect on its surrounding ecosystem. I remember Liu Cixin often repeating that the success of his trilogy in China never really led to an explosion in sales of his other works. Likewise, the success of the trilogy has not resulted in an exponential number of translations of Chinese SF in France.

We can put forward several explanations: some are specific to the French publishing world, and others specific to the French sociopolitical context vis-à-vis China.

First, the situation in France can’t be compared to the United States, where the impact of the publication of the translation of The Three-Body Problem was more important: in the US, SF literature in English translation represents a minimal portion of the total production, and it was a great event that a translated novel won the Hugo Award. There is also a great appetite for what we imagined of China—as such, in the reception of the trilogy in the US, you can note that many media try to see through Liu Cixin’s works a “Chinese” way of seeing the future. As I have already discussed elsewhere (Gaffric, 2019a), there is an Orientalist confusion between the content of the work and the origin of its author—which one imagines holding a point of view essentially Chinese, that would be representative of his “culture.”

SF literature in translation is much more present in the French editorial landscape, with an overwhelming majority of translations from English (but also Russian, Italian, German works…). So, there may be less circumstantial attraction. For instance, I was able to see that many US readers had never heard of the Cultural Revolution while French readers are generally more familiar with this historic episode, with which Liu Cixin begins his novel. In general, Chinese literature is also more available on the shelves of French bookstores, and the Cultural Revolution is a fairly frequent theme (among authors of Liu’s generation, such as Yu Hua, Mo Yan, Yan Lianke, Chi Li or Su Tong, are authors massively translated into French). So if you want to read about the Cultural Revolution, the choice is larger.

I also know that there is a certain number of partnerships between magazines and/or publishing houses that have been created in Italy and in the United States (like with Clarkesworld Magazine), maybe in other countries, to promote contemporary Chinese SF works in translation. In France, this process is slower, and sometimes comes up against reluctance from publishers and magazines who wish to maintain control and independence over the choice of the texts they want to publish.

We could also see that in the case of the translation of Liu’s trilogy, many translations were made from English, and/or according to the editorial standards of the English version (with the same cover, the same paratextual elements …). In France, editors prefer to work with translators translating directly from Chinese, but to my knowledge, there are not so many SF readers among Chinese-French translators—you and I are exceptions—while there are more Chinese-English translators familiar with this genre—and also Chinese American translators who are themselves SF writers!

It is also important to remember that the publishing world (but it is true everywhere in the world) is in crisis, and investing in translations of long series or collections of short stories can be risky—as short stories don’t sell well in France.

Finally, there are also expectations, even fantasies of publishers, who demand “Chinese” dystopias, but if there is indeed a few Chinese dystopian novels, there are not so many (both because all the Chinese SF writers don’t have a permanent obsession with China and because dystopias are not the easiest subgenre for bypassing censorship in China). Actually, it is not easy to convince French publishers to translate and publish works that don’t fit with their imagination of what “China” is.

LA: You’ve just mentioned the censorship issue in China. It is, indeed, a significant issue which involves not only the authors, but also the academic researchers and the translators. I remember what Han Song told me during an interview. According to him, Chinese SF authors were relatively free before 2015, since the authorities didn’t read them and disregarded the genre. But since Liu Cixin has been awarded the Hugo Award, officials began to have their eyes on the genre, restricting their freedom, whether it be because of the censorship per se, or because of the self-censorship on the part of the authors themselves in fear of reprisals. Some authors even write knowing full well that their works won’t be published in the near future (or ever). Here again, Han Song has on his computer a lot of unpublished stories. Thus, translation can be a way to publish these stories, or even versions of published stories that are closer to what the author originally had in mind. We can already see such examples with “The City of Silence,” of which the English version is quite different from the Chinese one, but is closer to Ma Boyong’s vision. Personally, I had the chance to read (and to translate) for my PhD thesis some unpublished works that Han Song kindly sent me by email, such as the short story “My Fatherland Does Not Dream.” But, once again, it can be a problem for academic researchers to analyze “politically sensitive” texts, as I know from my own experience. My PhD thesis focuses on the study of Han Song’s works, and therefore tackles some political issues, since Han Song pays strict attention to the current emerging issues of Chinese society, and even to China’s history. In short, I shed light, through the analysis of his works, on the fact that Han Song uses SF literature as a way to give a testimony of both the past and the present of China, reacting to the Chinese government’s political use of historical memory and to its strict control on the official historiography. Thus, I show how Han Song includes, in his fictions, references to historical events that are considered to be politically sensitive (such as the Great Leap Forward, the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen massacre and so on), questioning China’s national narrative as well as the legitimacy of the CCP at the head of the government. So, I asked myself: What is my responsibility, as an academic that “exposes” the political (or even dissenting) message that is hidden in the texts, and as a translator that makes sensitive or “unpublishable” works visible? How about you, aren’t you worried that your research or your translation may get the authors in trouble?

GG: This is a crucial question, and one that is rarely explored in literary studies. There is already a significant scientific literature about research ethics in social sciences, such as in anthropology or sociology, that tells you how not to “jeopardize” sources and informants, by anonymizing them, for example. But how do you anonymize the author of a literary work? I am currently planning to write a book on Liu Cixin, and this issue will no doubt haunt me throughout the writing process.

As you mentioned, Chinese SF has not always been the subject of very meticulous censorship. Things have unfortunately tended to change since 2015 (I think we will come back to this), but writers like Chen Qiufan, for instance, don’t hesitate to deal with social and political issues, and still have a good visibility. Apart from Han Song, I am also thinking of Zhang Ran and is short story “Ether” (available in English translation), that could be linked to Ma Boyong’s “The City of Silence” and has a strong political content. It has been published in 2012 in China (but I don’t know if it would still be published today…).

We must then be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that every story is pro or against the Chinese political regime. Of course, censorship is present in China and certainly, the authors sometimes censor themselves (in the sense that censorship has already become an environmental factor), but it would be too restrictive to reduce Chinese science fiction literature to a simple game of cat and mouse with censorship. Perhaps more than any other genre, SF is meant to speak to the world, and sometimes even beyond. To take a very recent example of a short story that has been translated in French and English, we can read Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” as a criticism of Chinese society, or as a denunciation of the way in which, more generally, urban architecture catalyzes social class differences. Moreover, the greatest works are always the most ambiguous ones: as scholars and translators, it is up to us to preserve this ambivalence, whether it is found in the language or in the ideas of the original text.

LA: You’re right. Chinese SF is far from being a monolithic bloc, but is rather a mosaic of various subgenres and styles, from Xia Jia’s “porridge-SF” to Chen Qiufan’s cyberpunk and Liu Cixin’s hard SF. Reducing it to a dissident or political committed genre is, indeed, a very simplistic view. Recently, a series of articles have been published alleging that SF is a tool for the Chinese soft power strategy. This is perhaps also a biased view of what Chinese SF really is, even though I can see why some people are wondering that, since every event related to SF that took place in China in the recent years was endorsed and promoted by the government. Nonetheless, every work that tackles current social issues shouldn’t be considered strictly dissenting, and every work that depicts an idealized Chinese society shouldn’t be regarded as a tool for soft power. It is quite interesting, though, to see that people can have various interpretations of the same literary genre, which implies that these works, as you said, are more sophisticated than they seem. Then, in a context where literature is given a role that goes beyond its literary borders, how is the translator supposed to take a position on the translation issue?

GG: As you said in using Han Song’s words, the year 2015 marked a turning point: with the attribution of the Hugo Award to Liu Cixin and the official injunction made to Chinese SF writers to praise the “Chinese dream,” both for China and for the outside.

This is both an opportunity for the authors to be more published and more listened to, but also a tragedy (just remember that Liu Cixin has only written one short story since 2015!), because the more you are observed, the higher is the pressure to write. And this is true in any political context, not only in China.

As a translator, I think you need to be aware that you are a cog in these mechanisms (Gaffric, 2019b), but also to remember that you are not selling your soul either. Just like Chinese SF writers are not going to write propaganda just because they were asked to write some…

LA: Speaking of complexity, there is a frequently asked question regarding translation: What are the challenges of translating SF, especially “Chinese” SF? Personally, I really enjoy translating neologisms and coined words, even though it’s sometimes a real brainteaser, since the Chinese ideographic language and Western alphabetical languages are very different from one another (Aloisio, 2019). What about you? I guess that the translation of the Three-Body trilogy brings its own set of challenges.

GG: There are several challenges that arise when translating Sinophone SF. Some are specific to the translation of Chinese language (tense, gender, linguistic structure, cultural references issues…) and some to the translation of SF (neologisms, scientific coherence…). Both are exciting and I find that the Chinese language, because of its plasticity, lends itself well to the creation of neologisms, and to the deconstruction of language from an imaginary perspective.

As for the scientific aspects, I was lucky during the translation of Liu’s trilogy and his other novels and short stories, to call upon astrophysicist and informatician friends, who helped me a lot. Likewise, I believe that it is important when translating SF to be an SF reader (as it is unthinkable to translate poetry if you are not a reader of poetry), I drew a lot of inspirations in the French SF mega-text (SF written in French, or SF translated into French) for the creation of neologisms, for atmospheres… In each of my translations (be they SF or not), I always have what I call “companion books,” that help me immerse myself in an imagination world and build my language. For Liu Cixin, I have of course read a lot of Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke, but also Russian authors, like Tolstoy.

But translating Liu’s trilogy was not that difficult, beyond the scientific aspect, because the language he used is quite functional (despite very lyrical passages).

This has been more complicated for other authors, particularly Taiwanese and Hong Kongese, such as Dung Kai-cheung, Kao Yi-feng or Lo Yi-chin, who write SF stories, but with a more tortured and sophisticated language.

LA: Speaking of which, as a specialist in Taiwanese literature, and as a translator of both Taiwanese and Hong Kong SF, what differences do you see between them and PRC SF?

GG: Just like Chinese SF, it’s not easy to define what Taiwanese or Hong Kong SF would be, but there are some trends and themes that are indeed specific.

First, one must know that the spheres of influence are not necessarily the same: authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick or Samuel R. Delany have had more impact in Taiwan than they have had in China around the same time. Taiwanese and Hong Kong SF in the 1990s was for example very marked by queer and post-human themes (with writers like Chi Ta-wei, Lucifer Hung or Dung Kai-cheung). Even today, the question of gender and sexuality is much more prominent in Taiwanese and Hong Kongese SF than in China. In recent years, the anxiety resulting from the uncertain future of the two entities has also nourished Taiwanese and Hong Kong SF, with dystopias which also showcase the relationship of the two regions with the Chinese mainland.

Strictly speaking there are no big SF fandoms in Taiwan or Hong Kong (with the exception of Ni Kuang’s fans in Hong Kong, perhaps), even if there are also SF authors who are quite active, like Yeh Yen-tu in Taiwan, or Albert Tam, in Hong Kong.

Compared to China, where SF writers are quite naturally associated with this genre, several Taiwanese and Hong Kong writers more associated with “mainstream” literature are interested in SF, especially in the last decade: Lo Yi -chin, Kao Yi-feng, Egoyan Zheng, Huang Chong-kai or Wu Ming-yi in Taiwan; Dung Kai-cheung, Dorothy Tse, Hon Lai-chu in Hong Kong… who write SF not only for thematic and narrative reasons, but also as a method of literary experimentation. The result is a rather singular relationship to language, both specific to the linguistic variations that exist in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but also to the language proper to each writer, whose territories of literary exploration don’t necessarily derive from SF.

LA: Thank you for these clarifications. To conclude, can you recommend some authors or trends to follow in the Sinophone SF literature?

GG: I think some writers from Hong Kong and Taiwan deserve to be better known outside their borders, like Kao Yi-feng, Dung Kai-cheung or Egoyan Zheng.

As for China, there are more and more translations into English, but too few in French. I think the “short story form,” which is not very popular in the editorial world, is very well mastered by young Chinese SF authors like Chen Qiufan and Xia Jia, whom I particularly like.

Finally, there is one aspect that we have not discussed but which is essential to understand is the production of cyber SF in China. This represents several tens of thousands of works and several hundred million readers.

Literary production on the Web is generally too despised by classic editorial and translation circuits, but there are some very interesting works (even if it is true that they are drowned in a massive industrial-like overproduction).


Aloisio, Loïc. “Inventaire des Traductions des Œuvres de Science-Fiction Chinoises.” [Inventory of Translated Chinese Science Fiction Works], SinoSF, 2016, Accessed 25 June 2020.

Aloisio, Loïc. “Translating Chinese Science Fiction: The Importance of Neologisms, Coined Words and Paradigms,” Journal of Translation Studies vol. 3, no.1, 2019, pp. 97-115.

Gaffric, Gwennaël. “Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Trilogy and the Status of Science Fiction in Contemporary China,” tr. W. Peyton, Science Fiction Studies, vol. 46, no.1, 2019, pp. 21-38.

Gaffric, Gwennaël. “Chinese Dreams: (Self-)Orientalism and Post-Orientalism in the Reception and Translation of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Trilogy,” Journal of Translation Studies, vol. 3, no.1, 2019, pp. 117-137.

Song, Mingwei. “After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction,” China Perspectives 2015, vol. 1, 2015, pp. 7-13.

Review of Wade Roush’s Twelve Tomorrows

Review of Twelve Tomorrows edited by Wade Roush

Dominick Grace

Wade Roush, editor. Twelve Tomorrows. MIT Press, 2018. Paperback, 276 pp, $19.95. ISBN 9780262535427.

Twelve Tomorrows is volume five in a series begun in 2011 with TRSF, and the first to be published in book form rather than as an issue of Technology Review magazine. A more accurate if less streamlined title might be Eleven Tomorrows and One Yesterday, as the book includes only eleven new stories, and a new retrospective on the life and career of Samuel R. Delany. The remit of the series, as explained on the series website is to offer “original stories that explore the role and potential impact of developing technologies in the near, and not-so-near future.” A Delany retrospective might not seem to be the ideal fit for that remit, since Delany’s importance is arguably more for his innovations in style and in social extrapolation, rather than specifically in speculation about scientific innovation, but on the other hand, he is one of SF’s major figures, and more can always be said about him. The eleven stories come from diverse hands, including several well-known SF names (e.g. Elizabeth Bear, Liu Cixin, Paul McAuley, Nnedi Okorafor, and Alastair Reynolds) as well as from upcoming figures and writers not usually associated with SF. The overall quality of the anthology is consistent, but perhaps more narrow in focus than its stated goal would suggest. While it is unsurprising that implications of computer technology innovations should loom large, the anthology would be more diverse and more fully meet its aim of speculation about developing technologies if the stories tackled a more broad range of topics. Roush indicates in his introduction that he generally banned dystopian stories because he likes his “SF with a dose of hopefulness. […] Pessimists don’t invent vaccines or build moon rockets [ix]; however, several of the stories here are more cautionary than celebratory, and a few are outright dystopian. 

Several are about AI, or variations thereof, again unsurprising at this juncture. One of the few overtly dystopian tales here, McAuley’s “Chine Life,” offers a far future in which AI has mostly supplanted humanity and has split into factions, one of which wants humanity eradicated and the other of which ostensibly wants to help, but literally colonizes the bodies of human beings in order to do so. McAuley here offers a neat sort of twist on invasion/colonization. Somewhat differently, Clifford V. Johnson’s “Resolution” (told in comics format, a welcome innovation, though John’s style is functional) offers something of a variation, imagining a future in which an alien invasion goes unnoticed because the aliens (who are apparently incorporeal) have passed themselves off as the AI the protagonist thought she had developed. Bear’s story, “Okay, Glory,” is about a wealthy recluse whose AI is hacked into believing there has ben a catastrophe in the outside world, so confines him to his impregnable fortress of a house, until he pays the hacker/extortionists $150,000,000. The cautionary tale about the susceptibility of computer tech to hacking is competently enough handled, if not new, but the story suffers from a major plot hole: if one expects to be paid a huge pile of money, one must leave the person they are extorting a way actually to get to the money. Sarah Pinsker’s “Caring Seasons” also involves smart tech (whether actually AI or not is not spelled out) run amok, as it presents a retirement facility in which the medical protocols designed to protect residents instead become the tools that imprison them. J.M. Ledgard’s “Vespers” imagines the first interstellar spaceship, run by an AI that spends the story ruminating about its situation. Almost half the stories here, therefore, are essentially variations on a theme. As such, this group represents a suite of stories that might be considered in tandem in a classroom to discuss how SF deals with AI.

Most of the rest of the stories also play on the implications of computer tech, in one way or another. Ken Liu’s “Byzantine Empathy” presents an intriguing story about attempts to co-opt cryptocurrencies to serve charitable ends—or, conversely, to allow one charitable organization to become the most powerful charitable organization in the world—by melding social media and giving. Liu Cixin’s “Fields of Gold” (which might also be connected to the AI stories) posits that the accidental launch of a woman into space on a doomed voyage may become something that would unite the world in an attempt to reach the stars, but we ultimately learn that the real woman is long dead and replaced by a computer simulation, when the rest of Earth catches up and sends out a ship that can catch up to hers. Reynolds’s “Different Seas” carries remote control to an extreme by positing humanoid helpers that can be inhabited remotely to aid people in crisis. The story includes an ironic twist that is perhaps unnecessary. Malka Older’s “Disaster Tourism” might be seen as a complementary piece, as it involves the use of drones in rescue work, when an inexplicable infection breaks out.

Only the remaining two stories carry us any distance from computer tech, S.L. Huang’s “The Woman Who Destroyed Us,” and Okorafor’s punningly titled “The Heart of the Matter.” The former deals with a medical innovation that allows for the tweaking of brains, which can allow for the cure of mental conditions, or simply for self-improvement. Whether such tech makes one more truly oneself or whether it transforms people into something else—whether this is an advance created by a Frankenstein, or a genuine boon to humanity—is treated with some nuance. The story is neither a stereotypical warning about science daring to tread where it ought not, nor a paean to advancement, though it perhaps skews in the latter direction, as it is narrated from the point of view of a woman who initially views it as the former and hopes to destroy its creator but who comes ultimately to see value in the procedure. “The Heart of the Matter” explores age-old fear of scientific advancement by representing the replacement of a Nigerian President’s heart with an artificial one as something that inspires superstitious fear in some—a fear exploited by a would-be usurper, who takes advantage of credulous equations of new technology with witchcraft.

Overall, then, this is a strong volume that does indeed offer speculations about new and emerging technology. The stories are all solid, if thematically and stylistically for the most part fairly staid (I imagine many readers will have recognized familiar themes and plot points in the brief precis above). The book is possibly useful for a course on SF and tech, or on contemporary trends in SF.