How a fan fiction for Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem became an official novel

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Since the publication of The Three-Body Problem, the first installment of Cixin Liu’s epic science fiction trilogy about making contact with an alien civilization, the series has gone on to earn the Chinese author enormous acclaim and legions of fans worldwide — including President Barack Obama. Next year, Tor Books will publish a new novel set in the same world, titled The Redemption of Time, but it won’t be by Liu. Instead, the book is written by Baoshu, an ardent fan of the series who originally published it online as a novel-length fan fiction story — one that became so popular that the trilogy’s publisher decided to release it as an official novel.

Liu first serialized The Three-Body Problem in China’s biggest science fiction magazine, Science Fiction World, in 2006, and published it as a novel two years later. It was followed by two sequels — The Dark Forest and Death’s End, which came in 2008 and 2010, respectively. In China, it became a massive phenomenon that expanded to the rest of the world in 2014, when the book was published in English for the first time with a translation by Ken Liu, and went on to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel the following year.

[Spoilers ahead for the Three-Body trilogy]

In The Three-Body Problem, a Chinese scientist makes contact with an alien civilization known as the Trisolarans, who live on a planet that orbits the three stars in the Alpha Centauri system. The planet has an unstable orbit, resulting in mass extinctions for the aliens, who now realize that Earth could be a suitable new home for them. They ready plans to invade, deploying sympathetic humans to help, and advanced super computers called sophons that disrupt advanced scientific research and spy on humanity, preventing them from mounting any sort of defense.

It’s easy to see why the series has attracted so much attention. It’s massive in scale, beginning in the 1970s during China’s Cultural Revolution and running all the way to the heat death of the universe. It’s a global story, one in which humanity learns not only that it’s not alone in the universe, but how to fend off a hostile invasion.

Over the course of the three novels, Liu chronicles humanity’s rise and fall as they work to counter the alien invaders: humans field epic fleets of warships in the Solar System and develop technologically advanced cities on Earth and throughout the Solar System, while the narrative takes decade- and century-long jumps in time. While Chinese fans waited for each successive installment, they did what fans the world over do while they’re waiting for the next installment of their favorite story: they began to write their own. Fan fiction based on the Three-Body trilogy sprouted up across the internet, including by one fan, Li Jun, who writes under the name Baoshu. He had discovered science fiction growing up in the 1990s in China, and read everything he could get his hands on, and while in college, began to write his own stories, publishing them online, including a story set in the world of Liu’s Three-Body trilogy.

That story became Three Body X: Aeon of Contemplation, which will be published next year in English by Tor Books as The Redemption of Time, translated by Ken Liu, who was responsible for the English editions of The Three-Body Problem and Death’s End. Tor provided the cover for The Verge to show off for the first time.

Image: Tor Books

In the preface for the US edition of Redemption of Time, Baoshu writes that he had been a fan of Cixin Liu’s for years, and was part of a large internet community dedicated to discussing and dissecting his stories and novels as they came out. After The Three-Body Problem was first published in Chinese in 2008, he “devoured each installment and hungered for the next, utterly entranced.” When the final book in the trilogy, Death’s End, came out in 2010, Baoshu couldn’t get a copy of his own because he was studying abroad in Europe. A friend of his ended up emailing him pictures of each page of the book, allowing him to finally read it.

Once he finished, he joined legions of fans of the novel to debate what had transpired in the book, picking over the various characters, storylines, and plot holes. He was particularly interested in a character named Yun Tianming, who is initially presumed lost in Death’s End and then reappears at a crucial moment. Baoshu had written Three-Body fan fiction before, and decided to make a new story that filled in the gap between Yun Tianming’s disappearance and reappearance.

According to his publisher, he spent the next three weeks writing a novel of his own, and posted it to a dedicated Three-Body internet community, where it immediately became a hit. The book spread across the internet, helping to answer vital questions that still burned in the minds of fans: What did the Trisolarans look like? What does life in a four-dimensional universe look like? “What I wrote was exactly what tens of thousands of readers needed at that moment,” writes Baoshu in his preface.

Baoshu’s story also reached those readers a time when there was an intense appetite for all things Three-Body. Based on its enormous online popularity, Chongqing Press — which published the original three novels — reached out to Baoshu. The author says that he asked Liu for his permission — which he granted — to publish the story, which ultimately came out in 2011 in China. Next year, it will finally make its way to the English-speaking world as well. Since its publication in China, he’s gone on to write his own standalone novels and short stories, some of which have appeared in English in Clarkesworld Magazine.

Dr. Mingwei Song of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, one of the foremost academics studying Chinese science fiction, described The Redemption of Time to The Verge as “more playful than the original trilogy,” and that Baoshu “is very interested in exploring the nature of time, what time does to consciousness, and how time shapes our experiences,” saying that it’s a major strength for the book. English speakers will have to wait until July 16th, 2019 to get their hands on a copy, but if the book’s popularity in China is any indication, it will be well worth the wait.