Amazon’s Billion-Dollar Bet on Chinese Science Fiction

The Three Body Problem. Credit: Amazon.

People were surprised to hear that Amazon is willing to spend a billion dollars to secure the rights to a streaming adaptation of Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem. Yes, Amazon is willing and able to pay big dollars for television adaptations—they’re already working on a massive Lord of the Rings prequel series. But a billion dollars? For this series? It won a Hugo, but that’s a lot of money.

Sure, it’s no surprise that Hugo voters loved The Three Body Problem so much. It’s an epic work of modern speculative fiction, one that begins with a personal story of a Chinese scientist struggling to uncover why scientists around the world are turning up as murders or suicides, and concluding with astonishing insights into the nature of space, reality, and scientific progress. Like any good modern Hugo winner, it brings together together cutting-edge science and solid characterization.

But, throughout, it impresses with just how Chinese it truly is. It doesn’t cater to American stereotypes of China. Instead, it features conversations, characterization, history and struggles that are as deeply rooted in China as the “golden era” of print Science Fiction (SF) is rooted in the United States and the United Kingdom.

In the past, that might have been an issue. Now, it may well be The Three Body Problem’s greatest advantage.

Three Body Problem: Resolutely Chinese SF

The best, most lasting SF is the product of a specific time and place. The “Golden Age” of SF is anchored in post-WWII American exuberance, just as its equally-respected “New Wave” of the 60s and 70s explored themes that rocked an America coming to terms with its own internal contradictions. Cyberpunk dramatized the rise of giant corporations and networked computing in the 1980s—as well as U.S. anxieties about then-rising Japan—while modern western SF’s seemingly endless dystopias reflect American fears of its own future.

Price: CDN$ 26.99
Was: CDN$ 34.99

The Three-Body Problem is also of a particular place and time. The main characters have struggles familiar to modern Chinese audiences, rooted in historical conflicts—particularly the excesses of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution—that still haunt China to this day. The book grapples with Communist China’s past tensions between political orthodoxy and scientific progress, as well as its age-old paradox of official ambivalence towards progress despite its towering historical technological achievements.

Liu’s characters personify the conflict between “ivory tower intellectuals” and hard-headed street instincts, with neither being portrayed as obviously superior; anti-modernism and reverence for a pastoral state of nature are treated as both laudable and horrifically dangerous. Even the pervasive and inescapable politics of both Maoist and Modern China are alternately subtle and deadly, with none of the easy answers of many works of American SF. Everyone in the book constantly struggles with their need to assert what’s right and their duty towards the greater good, and are shadowed by (justifiable) paranoia. And Liu has noted (spoilers in link) that the many of the book’s central conflicts are echos of China’s history with outsider imperialism.

Reading The Three Body Problem is a window into a completely different foundation for speculative fiction, and that’s thrilling.

Chinese Box Office Muscle

In other moments, this may make it less likely that Amazon would be willing to option this intensely Chinese series for such an incredible sum. But in this moment, more than any, it makes sense, as we witness the rise of China in both science fiction and science fact.

As a market for SF, China is incredibly important: Chinese markets can spell the difference between disappointment and success. China can absolutely make franchises: Pacific Rim was a disappointment at the American box office, but the combination of the cross-cultural appeal of enormous robots punching monsters and the movie’s surprisingly popular cameo by a trio of Chinese robot pilots made the movie such a hit in China that it managed to earn a sequel.

Meanwhile, though Spielberg’s recent 80’s-flavored VR romp Ready Player One was the first movie in weeks to displace the Black Panther juggernaut and win the American box office, it was its Chinese take that truly impressed. Over 79% of its box office take was overseas, and the lion’s share of that was in China.

Amazon may be banking on this: a ready made audience for top-quality Chinese SF.

The Chinese moment in Tech and Space

The Chinese moment isn’t just about consumption, though: it’s about very real technological development.

China has played a huge role as technology manufacturers for years. But, now, Chinese technological brands are becoming western household names: Lenovo is a strong player in the international laptop and business desktop market, Huawei has become a mainstay in the smartphone market, and Tencent has taken positions in everything from top-performing online games like PUBG to WeChat, a ubiquitous messaging and e-payment platform.

That’s especially true in space. As mentioned on the SpaceQ Podcast back in January, China is going to attempt a feat attempted by no other country: landing its Chang’e-4 lunar probe on the far side of the moon. A couple of weeks ago, Xinhua revealed that the probe will even contain a mini-biosphere, including potato and arabidopsis seeds, silkworm eggs, water, nutrients and air. And other countries, like Sweden and Germany, are happily assisting in the scientific work on the far side.

Couple that with the ongoing push towards a Chinese Large Modular Space Station, and Canadian firms’ new willingness to employ Chinese rockets to launch Canadian satellites—and Chinese ambitions in space are looking a lot like how the Americans and Russians did during their space heydays. China is exuberant about its tech: and the West is starting to buy in.

A worldwide market for Chinese SF

That’s our answer. Yes, Amazon’s making a big bet…but the odds are pretty good.

High-quality Chinese SF has a ready-made domestic audience, one important enough to make or break Hollywood film. And that audience is ready to see high-quality Chinese SF that reflects their national ambitions, just as the Americans were in their “Golden Age”.

But the rest of the world is open to it too; we’ve been playing Chinese games, using Chinese phones, buying Chinese laptops and (now) employing Chinese rockets. We gave the Hugo to a work of Chinese SF; I think we’re ready to pay to see the future from a new perspective.

I know I’m looking forward to it.

MDA

About Craig Bamford

Craig Bamford
Craig is a graduate of Carleton's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, focused on conflict studies. Naturally, this means he writes on the Internet about gaming, tech, and speculative fiction. He lives in Toronto.