Dialogue Between James Cameron and Liu Cixin — Science is the Ultimate Foundation for Science Fiction

Upon the success of the first China’s hard sci-fi film the Wandering Earth, the original story writer of this film and renowned sci-fi novelist Liu Cixin met with James Cameron, the top-tiered Hollywood sci-fi master, creator of Avatar and Terminator. The latter also brought with himself the long-awaited sci-fi masterpiece Alita: Battle Angel. Let’s see how the two greatest minds in the sci-fi world from the east and west collide!

Curiosity is the driving force

Q: Science fiction is a comprehensive genre varying from time travel, aliens, space exploration to cyberpunk. Last year, Cameron made a 6-episode documentary, an encyclopedia in scope. What is your genre of fascination?

Liu: We mentioned Arthur C Clarke backstage. It’s his work that guided me onto the path of making science fiction. What interested me most was the setting in his works, some faraway land, worlds so vast and unknown that we can only reach them through our imagination, the distant universe. It’s those works with broad visions and in-depth space and time that sparked my interest.

Q: Does it have anything to do with your engineering background?

Liu: Not really. Engineering is more focused on reality, on craftsmanship. But what fascinates me most about sci-fi creation is the unknown, the future. It is a more transcending and philosophical idea. I actually wanted to study astrophysics, but my scores for the college entrance exam were not high enough. I could only get into an engineering college as the score requirement for the colleges with astrophysics departments are usually very high.

Cameron: My initial training in university was as a physicist. I studied physics and astronomy because I was interested in the unknown and the very late edges of science. I want to understand the law of nature. I actually think the driving force for scientists and science fiction writers is the same thing to some extent, which is curiosity. The difference is, scientists would go and dedicate their lives into finding out the answers, and science fiction writers make up. We don’t have to know the actual thing, but of course, if science fiction writers are good and responsible, they will play by the rules, and those rules are understandable. We may not understand them yet, but they are understandable through the process of sciences. And I think theses are the fundamental differences with fantasies. Fantasies just make every dream that occurs to you. but there are no rules. If you want to break it, you break it. As Arthur C Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We can have things go faster than the speed of light. The thing I admire about your Three body trilogy was that you showed over 1800 pages of how difficult it is to go faster than the speed of light, and how it would take enormous and enormous effort for us to do. But it’s not Star Trek, where you could just go to some other planetary system. You could really feel the problems of space travel, escape from the solar system. It’s tangible.

I’m an enormous fan of his book. If you suddenly saw a sharp spike of sales in the United States, it was the week after I read them and recommend it to everybody.

Love and hate relationship with technology

Q: You invented your own wonderful world like Pandora, but what fascinates us most are other creatures like cyborg Alita, terminators, and farther away the aliens, is there a running theme throughout your work? Why are you so interested in those half human half machine creatures?

Cameron: What attracts us to science fiction is how it’s different comparing to just human. I think Alita is right to ask the question what it means to be human, if we could change our body to a synthetic body, or we could upload our mind into a machine. What does it mean to be human.

The way I see the world right now, is we are living in a science fiction experiment, or living in a science fiction world. Things that were predicted by science fiction have come to pass, we now live in that future. It’s not a future that everybody imagine exactly as it is. It’s really more of an experiment, and I believe we are causing our technology to evolve at a very rapid rate, and that technology is changing as we live. And we are evolving socially, with our technology and nobody knows where it goes, if it’s going to a very different future. It’s all kind of very exciting, but might be a little too exciting.

But the theme I think that runs through all my films is an expression of my own world view, which is a love and hate relationship with technology. Technology can destroy us, can make our lives terrible. It can destroy the world, modern society, the planet. climate change, pollution, nuclear war, a long list of things that science fiction writers love to talk about. Damn if it isn’t seductive, damn if you don’t wanna see what we can build next. When I think of something that needs to be built but doesn’t exist, sometimes I just want to build it, I just want to see if it works. I know that feeling, wanting to make the new thing, new machine, new system. It’s seductive. So it’s a love and hate relationship.

Adaptation of sci-fi films — between novelist and filmmakers

Q: What is a good relationship between literary sources and sci-fi films?

Liu: I feel like science fiction movies, especially high-budget sci-fi films are more suitable for original screenplays, but not adaptations. But in recent years, the proportion of adapted American sci-fi films is getting larger, ones like The Martian, Arrival or Annihilation. As far as I know, the Dune will start filming in March. However, I think China should make more original sci-fi films. The problem is that we lack good sci-fi screenwriters in our country. This is an urgent problem to be dealt with in the development of science fiction movies, but it also takes time to cultivate and encourage more sci-fi screenwriters.

2001 Space Odyssey (source: squarefangho.blogspot.com)

Cameron: The science fiction I’ve done has all been original. Look at the story that’s historically revolutionized in the cinema, two highlights that come into my mind immediately are 2001 Space Odyssey and Star Wars, which are really changing our perception of science fiction, they were original. Historically, we’ve always had a hard time adapting science fiction works, major classic works like Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, or Dune made by top filmmaker David Lynch. Those books are so detailed in its characters that movies just can’t capture. Movie is a very limited art form. It’s two hours, two and a half hours long. A good novel is hundreds of pages. If somebody adapts the three body problem trilogy, there has to be six movies to really do it justice. Or you could only get a tip of the iceberg and don’t get any depth. The best sci-fi movies are original ones, not adapted movies. So I encourage people to make up their own stories.

The three-body problem
The three-body problem (source: cn.nytimes.com)

Liu: During this year’s spring festival, two costly sci-fi films hit the Chinese cinema and reached massive success. This is seen as an astounding beginning of Chinese sci-fi movies. What kind of Chinese sci-fi films would you like to see next?

Cameron: Science fiction spans a variety of sub-genres, from wildly escapist to very dark and dystopian book. There are a hundred stories in your three books, everything about the way society can evolve, the way technology can evolve, understanding the nature of the universe. There is a darkness in the books as well, about the nature of humanity, about what we would do to each other to survive. I’d like to see stories that explore both of the ideas, both optimistic, what grand designs can we create, and also ultimately the monster inside human society, inside the human heart. I have been an optimist, so I’d like to see stories, not necessarily with happy endings, but they have to have characters that are not completely dark characters. I’d like to see a blend of those things.

Your question is now that science fiction is really taking center stage here in Chinese cinema, let’s just see more of it. We see people explore all these different ideas, we shouldn’t tell them what to do. Let’s just have them explore things that they are fascinated by and interested in, the dreams that they want to see put on the big screen. For instance, maybe artificial intelligence is necessary to save the world from us.

Q: There are rumors online that Amazon wants to adapt “Three-body problem” into a 10 or 20 episode series. Any idea if it’s true?

Liu: I’ve heard of it, but I myself don’t know if it’s true. Regarding the film adaptation, I have an interesting story. The Hong Kong Science Fiction Association sent me a sci-fi magazine with a letter from Arthur Clark. Arthur Clark mentioned that he was busy adapting his novel Rendezvous with Rama to a movie. They’re about to start filming. It was written back in the 70’s, but has yet to hit the screen, and there has been constant news of its adaptation. It is normal to take a long time for the adaption of the “Three-body problem”. It is a bit difficult for Chinese filmmakers to adapt in terms of story line and visual effects considering our current experience and abilities in this industry.

Cameron: I really hope you’re not stuck in a “development hell”, but I recommend it you manage your expectations, because the movie industry is bizarre, and downright dumb. You might have created something that’s a little too intelligent for them.

Cameron: What are you doing next?

Liu: As you might have guessed, I’m writing a story next. As a writer, I will divert all my energy into writing new sci-fi movies. As of late, I want to write something different from what I’ve written before. I will try my best not to think about whether it can be adapted into a film or not. It is an inextricable idea that haunts me sometimes when I write. Because it will constrain my writing.

Cameron: I agree with that. If you are really writing for the truth of human consciousness and human future, don’t try to follow commercial ideas. Just let your thoughts take you wherever they go.

I’m not a novelist, so it’s a different job. Movies and televisions spent the last 30 or 40 years, trying to slowly educate a broader audience about some of the ideas that have been science fiction since the 1930’s or 1940’s. I always feel that there is a generalization behind. It is an interesting situation now that the world has, in many ways, caught up with science fiction, and the literary ideas of science fiction are only now coming into the movies. It’s a weird lag. The world itself has split up. The audiences are now very selective of what they like. They don’t just like dark, dystopian stories. In fact science fiction has died out until movies like Star Wars came along. You couldn’t make any money from science fiction movies in the 70’s. In the late 60’s, there were too many movies about the end of the world, nuclear war and planet of the apes, one after another. Then the genre died out. They were big genres in the 50’s, but you couldn’t make them in the 70’s. And when George Lucas came with Star Wars, science fiction was now the new big thing. So those were cycles of boom and bust. And then there were all other worldly, like Interstellar, basically kind of western mythology, those stories that deal with the hard issues. But now, as I see it, you got the Marvel universe and DC universe, those are science fiction worlds. On the other hand, you’ve got Ex Machina, Arrival, films that are pretty serious.

Hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi

Q: There is hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi. Do you think it’s better for China to start with soft sci-fi? And then come with hard sci-fi stories like three body problem.

Liu: Previously I wasn’t sure about how Chinese audiences would react to these sci-fi films. It has been a mystery and I’m always curious. We found part of the answer this spring festival, and their reaction has been very pleasing. I think the right path would be the prosperity of various genres of sci-fi stories, both traditional hard sci-fi as well as more literal and popular sci-fi. I don’t want Chinese sci-fi creations to be constrained by some certain work or a certain type of genre. Of course, it’s still too early to say, and there is still a long way for us to go.

Cameron: I agree with that completely. I started trying to have a middle space. because I studied both physics, astronomy as well as literature and story-telling. My math wasn’t so good, so I move from studying one to studying the other. So as a filmmaker, I made movies like Avatar. I think of it as more of a soft science fiction kind of story, more of an allegorical kind of story. But I also spent a lot of time figuring out the technology and how the ships fly and why the mountains float. The science behind it is that you want it all to have a rationale. It’s the same thing with Alita. This city is the bottom end of a space elevator, that’s going out 30,000 miles into space. The math and the engineering has been worked out, but we don’t spend a lot of screen time showing that, because audiences get a little bored with math and physics. They are not intimidated by technology, that’s just not what people want to see, they want to see passion, romance and emotions. They want to see relationships. So I’ve always wanted to draw a line in between. Every filmmaker has a different perspective, and different things that interest them. Let’s not put it in a box, science fiction is always out of the box.

Truth and Authenticity in sci-fi films

Q: Recently, there has been a lot of discussions about the truth and authenticity of “The Wandering Earth”. How do you perceive the authenticity and credibility of sci-fi films? What do you think is the most important element in a sci-fi film?

Cameron: I feel a real sense of responsibility to honor the rules of the universe, gravitation, physics and so on. I think Hollywood, or the film industry in general, plays with realities very fast and loose. I like to keep my sciences as accurate as possible, just because that pleases me as a science fiction fan.

We live in a world where things are changing very rapidly about what we consider to be true, and everybody’s got their own truth today, because social media and the internet allows us to find someone that is as delusional as we are. But science tells you not to believe in anything, but only to accept what scientific method tells you. In a world that’s struggling to hold on to what is true and what is false, what is opinion and what is lie, the thing we should look towards is science. There is only methodology to the truth, the scientific method. Everything else is an opinion. Scientific method is that we form an analysis, create a theory, and then we have to falsify that theory. We can never prove a theory to be right, but anything that can’t be falsified is right, like gravitation.

Science fiction has always tracked closely with sciences on literature. Many scientists used to be fans of science fiction, when they were kids. Instead of being storytellers, they became investigators, in finding out the answers. A respect for science is always valued in science fiction, which is why in Avatar we created a character, which is Sigourney Weaver’s character, and she is a scientist.

Avatar (source: baidubaike)

Liu: My answer is not exactly the same as Mr. Cameron’s. I would take a more practical approach. As a science fiction writer, I use science as a mine to extract story resources from. I think science fiction and sci-fi movies must respect science. Good stories usually don’t come out of violations of scientific rules. We try to make ourselves richer in imagination, but let’s say, compare your wildest imagination with cutting-edge science, the latter is always crazier. I know that the craziest and most incredible imagination comes from the result of cutting-edge science. Therefore, we must find story sources from science, which cannot be found elsewhere.