Shortly after I published my review of the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy by Liu Cixin, I tweeted a link to it and @ referenced both the author and the two English language translators of the series, Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen. Shortly after that tweet, Ken posted a series of tweets in response.
I’m incredibly grateful that Ken took the time to respond. His tweets are insightful and his critique of my review is helpful. I’ve included them here with his permission. Please read through them.
He’s right—I should know better than to extrapolate too much from a sample of one. Particularly when this one sample was created by a highly imaginative and creative individual.
I think about the hundreds of English language SF authors I’ve read over the three decades-plus I’ve been reading in the genre (and the couple of thousand English language authors I’ve read in my life across all genres and subjects) and each one of them has their own unique voice, their own style, their own ideas. They’re all more than just a product of their culture.
In my eagerness to see cultural significance in every detail of the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past”, I actively deny Liu Cixin (*) credit for his own unique and idiosyncratic creativity. That’s unfair and it diminishes his accomplishment.
Still, I can’t imagine any English language SF author writing a story quite like Liu Cixin’s. There’s a sense of character and a narrative structure that’s different than anything I’ve read in the English language world. Some of those differences must be cultural.
I don’t believe you can fully separate an individual from their culture. Culture defines the world in which each of us was raised, in which we each live. Culture exerts a powerful influence on the kinds of decisions an individual makes.
On the other hand, I also don’t believe that culture is deterministic or proscriptive.
The truth is I don’t know enough about Chinese storytelling traditions or culture—and not nearly enough about Liu Cixin’s individual body of work—to know where that balance lies in these novels. I lack the necessary understanding to analyze his work to the extent that I attempted in my review.
It’s a mistake to over-interpret, to over-ascribe as I did. (Interestingly, I understood this and specifically avoided doing so in my review of Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.)
I’m eager to experience other cultures and traditions. I want to learn what it’s like to live in a different country, to grow up in a different culture than the one which raised me.
I can’t afford to travel. I have no talent for learning other languages. So reading books in translation is the only practical option I have to experience other cultures. In my eagerness, I lean on each book to function as a sort of cultural Rosetta Stone.
But that fundamentally misrepresents what these works are, in-and-of themselves. None of them were written to function as a cultural decoder for foreign readers. Culture is richer, more complex, deeper and more nuanced than that. Worse, it denies the role of the individual in their creation.
It’s also lazy. It requires more work than this to try and understand a culture that’s foreign to me. It takes research. It takes far more reading than I’ve done.
Part of the solution is to read A LOT more. Which is something I’m happy to do.
* In deference to Ken’s tweets, I use the Chinese naming convention for Liu Cixin.