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Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds

In a previous post, I discussed the socio-poltical aspects of scifi stories in terms of The War of the Worlds. The selection of this story is intentional for two reasons. First, there is a timeline of the telling and retellings of this story that can be viewed in parallel to socio-political events. The second reason for selecting this text is because over on The New Yorker website, there is an article titled “Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds” by staff writer Jiayang Fan. The previous post serves as a sort of background introduction for this post.

Regular readers here will note this is not my first post on Cixin Liu. A previous post discussed one of his latest Chinese-to-English translated novels, Ball Lighting. However, here the focus of this post and the related article is on his first major set of English translated works, the Remembrances of Earth’s Past Trilogy.

Fan’s article is based on interviews conducted during his visit the U.S. to receive an award for his works’ impact on American scifi readership. Liu sees Chinese modernization programs creating a “future… ‘full of threats and challenges'” resulting in “very fertile soil” for scifi works.

However, Fan notes at one point that Liu “briskly dismissed the idea that fiction could serve as commentary on history or on current affairs. ‘The whole point is to escape the real world!’ he said.” Later in the article, Fan writes of Liu: “’I’m a writer,’ he told me, with a shrug. ‘I don’t begin with some conceit in mind. I’m just trying to tell a good story.’”

These statements would appear to place Cixin Liu firmly in the camp with the persons who believe scifi should be absent of socio-political issues. And it would be easy to accept author/artist intent at face value. However, Fan’s article discusses the impact that The Three Body Problem has had on and the number of high profile fans of the book who work in scifi, science, and politics.

Further, Fan remarks that “Liu, unlike many Chinese writers popular in the West, is no dissident” and quotes Liu making the statement that “the relationship between politics and science fiction cannot be underestimated.” Here we have Cixin Liu himself acknowledging that scifi cannot be completely separated from socio-political issues it addresses and raises, even if they may perhaps be unintentional statement.

Fan offers a description of scifi that allows for socio-political issues by stating that “Speculative fiction is the art of imagining alternative worlds, and the same political establishment that permits it to be used as propaganda for the existing regime is also likely to recognize its capacity to interrogate the legitimacy of the status quo.”

So, while Cixin Liu may shy away from direct connections between scifi and socio-political issues, he acknowledges that scifi is by necessity about socio-political issues. And, I think it’s because of his ability to make the socio-political issues in China relatable to readers in the U.S., despite his support for, and my refusal to accept, the current political structure in China, that Cixin Liu stands as one of my favorite scifi writers.

The War of the Worlds and Socio-Political SciFi

I’ve always been baffled by the complaints by certain groups in recent years that too much scifi addresses social and political issues. The verbal and voting wars over the scifi Hugo award stands out as one of the biggest fights over socio-political scifi. The complaints baffle me because scifi is always about socio-political issues!

To discuss this, let’s just take one example story, H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds (TWotW). From its original publication to the present, TWotW is always a socio-political (s-p) story.

When Wells first published TWotW, he was making a s-p statement about the British Empire and its imperialism and colonization program. Wells offers a look at imperialism and colonization from the perspective of the conquered, especially during the Victorian Era period of Empire expansion.

A few years go by then TWotW reappears in the form of the Orson Welles radio drama in 1938. The resulting chaos from public reaction demonstrates that once again, TWotW was making a s-p statement. This time, it was addressing the spread of Hitler’s Third Reich across Europe.

TWotW fades from memory for a while until George Pal’s 1953 movie version of TWotW emerges in theaters. This time, TWotW was making a s-p statement about the recent (at the time) Korean War and the larger Cold War taking place between the Soviet Union and the United States.††††

Again TWotW vanishes from the public consciousness until the 1978 album, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of TWotW, appears. Appearing in record stores and on radio stations, this time the s-p statement continues the fears of the Cold War while also addressing the uncertainty of the non-victorious U.S. military after Vietnam.

Public interest in TWotW disappears again until the 1988 tv series brings TWotW into American homes. Once again s-p statements are made in a world where the Cold War is winding down, the Soviet Union appears to be collapsing under its own economic weight, and the U.S. appears to be rising as the new empire of the world.

TWotW once again drops out of sight until Stephen Speilburg’s 2005 movie version of TWotW. And again, the s-p statements are in forefront. Here the fears of terrorism in the post-9/11 world are addressed as well as the clash between parents and their children over the nature of duty and service on the part of children who want to fight the new evil in the world.

The War of the Worlds has once again been sidelined in the minds of the general public. In the current state of the world, I think it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable return of The War of the Worlds and its latest socio-political statements addressing the current chaos of the world. Until then, there’s a whole host of scifi stories making socio-political statements.