Two years ago, when Wandering Earth was firstly published on the screen in China, people gathered around and flowed to the cinema for watching it. It sounds nothing important, however, that was quite big news in China — no other films can earn such total prestige with so much praise in China, especially on the screen. Some media workers called that Wandering Earth made that year became the Year of Chinese SF on Screen, as Chinese film from its first time had tried such a gorgeous and magnificent scene and make a great success. On Donban, a Chinese version of Rotten Tomato or IMDB, it earned 7.9/10, which is better than 86% SF film and 89% disaster film. However, questioning on this film never ended. At Douban, some low marks were given with further explanation of “hard to see,” “terrible setting,” “terrible scripts,” and “terrible directors and actors.” Some comments wrote that “this is not a SF film,” “a bundle of values and ideologies.”


Here I want to talk about a basic question: why Wandering Earth is a SF genre film, a romanticism film, and a disaster film instead of a fantasy or an adventure. And then I want to talk about why the screen remake of Liu Cixin’s original science fiction Wandering Earth can make Wandering Earth transform from a not-so-well-known Liu Cixin’s work to a representation of his work. That sounds confusing but Liu Cixin became famous because of his long novel The Three-Body Problem, which was considered as a hard core science fiction in China. Relatively, other middle or short novels by Liu Cixin were not so famous — which made some voices say that Wandering Earth cannot represent the highest level of Liu Cixin’s work. In all, the main arguments I want to make in this essay is that: how should Chinese SF develop to its next stage, especially after Netflix got the copyright of filming Liu’s trilogy including Three-Body Problem?


I. Why SF? In Which Form?


It seems that Chinese readers would like to define or conclude SF in a relatively narrow range — a work with concepts of astrophysics or high technologies was not enough, but only works with concepts of aliens, or conversation between other civilizations between the human on the earth and some others can made it a SF genre. For those who insisted that works like Galactic Empire were the only true hard core SF. I think that a better way to explain that is the alignment chart — most of the alignment charts are memes, but clearly introduce the range of specification of different SF works. Here are some memes for it at the form of alignment chart:


Chart one: Example memes of Alignment Chart 

The next few will follow the same sequence of this example chart.


Chart two: SF Alignment Chart from Chinese website

Line one left: Jules Verne; Line one right: H. G. Wells.


Chart three: SF Alignment Chart from Chinese website

Line one right: Physic textbooks; 

Line two left: Brave New World; 

Line three left: A Song of Ice and Fire (as well as Game of Thrones); Line three middle: League of Legends mobile; Line three right: Donald Trump’s twitter.


Chart four: SF Alignment Chart from Chinese website

This one is close to the memes above, however, put Donald Trump’s twitter on the Line three middle position, which is rebel-neutral. For the one above, Donald Trump’s twitter is rebel-rebel.


I believe that there are enough memes for fun. Here are some conclusions for them: Liu’s The Three-Body Problem was put in Line one left, the purist-purist position in Chart three. That means, The Three-Body Problem is a hard core SF as the same as works by Jules Verne. The Wandering Earth may be put at the position of Line one middle or Line two left as purist-neutral or neutral-purist, and the reason for that is that the Wandering Earth has its logic with a certain degree of scientific concepts. 


Wandering Earth constructed its own system of logic: the Sun’s end may approach sooner or later but there was no time left for humans, which means that humans had to act as soon as possible. In the original novel, there are more plots about the earth that had left the original position to its early wandering stage and at that time rebels happened which led to the fall of the united government of humans. The Wandering Earth as a film, only took the first stage and second stage of the wandering earth project from the original work, from the stage of stopping rotation to escape the Sun. As the film had tried its best to reflect the original work but cut through the first part of the original novel, those who had not read the novel may have found puzzling on understanding the settings. Thus, I do not think that those critics toward the setting or the script is true. However, it does show a problem that remains unsolved for those directors: if a viewer who had not read the original novel before cannot understand his or her film, then how to judge that his or her film is good enough to be a representative work?


II. Why Important? Why Representing?


Readers who have read Liu Cixin before may find an interesting point between Liu’s style of story compared of Western traditional SF. I would like to conclude three differences here: 1) firstly, a typical Western novel tends to illustrate a story of a main character, however, Liu tends to tell a story of stories of lots of characters. Within the trilogy of the Three-Body Problem, the major characters kept changing, but connected with each other. Such kind of style made The Three-Body Problem become a group directed story instead of a one-core story. Actually, it is hard for a writer to write long stories for a group of people instead of finishing a relatively short story. A typical Western fiction on groups in the recent years would be represented by A Song of Ice and Fire, which cost its writer Martin more than a decade to finish his series of stories. Compared to that, Liu and his Three-Body Problem could be a miracle of literature with a series of stories that had been finished in a relatively short time. 2) Secondly, Western SF concentrated on individuals. As I had already argued in the first point, that may be the result of the narrating method of a core-directed story, however, Liu’s works still showed their differences. A typical Liu’s work tends to tell a story of humans as a total and the environment that they faced together. Although there might be various individual stories with different attitudes toward that environment, Liu’s works tend to simplify that and tend his concentration on the solving of problems. Liu’s stories before the Three-Body Problem, including the Wandering Earth, reflected that. Inferno, which was written in the same year as the Wandering Earth, as well as The Rural Teacher which was written three years later and The Wages of Humanity which was written five years later, tend to talk about a story of a group of people and their choices on values. 3) Ideology. A typical Western SF, like the War of the World, tends to tell a story of an individual’s choice: how would a father do for the purpose of protecting his daughter. However, Liu is different as he would like to talk about how a group of people who had already made an agreement on a certain level chooses for a purpose of protecting a group of people. That kind of thoughts distinguishes Liu from other Western SF writers, which also made him and his works impressive. 


Wandering Earth was the first visualized version of Liu’s works. Presenting Liu’s work on screen cost more on presenting other writers’ works on screen. Interviewing the director Fan Guo as well as actors reflected that it was really hard for them to make that film — “a single shot of one scene may have, at least, several dozens of versions and the one of them which had been mostly edited was changed in 251 times of different versions.” Such kind of detailed editing on shots and scenes made the Wandering Earth at its largest degree possible to keep the ideas of Liu Cixin. Apparently, not all filmmakers can pay so much attention in a single film. 


III. What is the Next Step for Chinese SF Directors?


Years later screening of the Wandering Earth, SF seems to be forgotten by Chinese readers and filmmakers again. With Folding Beijing’s winning of 2016 Hugo rewards, writers from China had proved that they have the ability to create science fiction with a high quality, however, presenting those works on screen still troubling most filmmakers. Again, although director Fan Guo paid most of his attention to the keeping of the original work, his screen still received misunderstandings and critics. Wandering Earth’s marks dropped from 8.2 to 7.8 on Douban shortly after people’s flocking into the cinema, which means that for most of viewers, Chinese SF remakes on screen are still a stranger. People who have enjoyed Marvel, DC, or Disney in cinema usually can hardly understand how hard can the special shots or CGs be during the making of a SF film, especially for a Chinese film team. 


What is the hardest thing for translating Chinese SF to a Chinese screen? Not only because of SF’s symbol of metaphor but also for the reason of Chinese SF style. As I have talked above, a group-directed original work of a novel is hard to move into a time-limited screen — Wandering Earth only translated 1/3 of its original story on the screen, which led to a viewers’ sense of alienation between themselves and the author. Thus, maybe a single film is not the end of Chinese SF films. Instead, a series of them would be a better answer. By creating a series of films, directors can manually extend their time limits on the screen and show their interpretation of the original works with their complicated metaphors and sophisticated implicit. Thus, a single product of the film of Wandering Earth should not be the end of the Chinese SF film. Maybe, one day we will have a chance to see Wandering Earth 2 or something like that — and only at that time the new epoch for Chinese SF film was opened.