Novels: Start reading Chinese sci-fi novella 《赡养人类》by Liu Cixin

In the Novels series, I get you started reading the first few paragraphs of classic Chinese fiction. If you like the beginning, you can buy the book and keep reading.

Liu Cixin (刘慈欣) is China’s most famous contemporary science fiction writer, and is most well-known as the author of The Three Body Problem, which won significant critical acclaim worldwide, and spawned a series of movies.

But Liu Cixin has written several other novels and short stories, of which 《赡养人类》Support Human Beings is one. It’s good fiction, if you like spaceships, but more than that, it’s super short – only around 70 pages or so – so if you’d like to try your hand at finishing a whole novel, this is a pretty solid choice. You can pick up the book on Amazon (paperback or kindle). China actually has a great tradition of novella-length fiction in a way that the West seems to lack. Modern authors often put out works longer than a short story but shorter than a full-length novel, which lowers the barrier to entry nicely.

In this post, we’ll read the first part of Chapter One, which introduces one of the main characters: the assassin Smoothbore (滑膛). When we first him, he’s in the process of taking on a new hit.

Some language stuff

First, the proper nouns: We’ve got the assassin Smoothbore (滑膛), a wealthy tech magnate named Zhu Hanyang (朱汉杨), who owns Huaruan Group (华软集团), we’ve got some guy named Yage (齿哥), and we’ve got a mention of the Forbes Fortune 500 list (福布斯财富500排行). There’s also mention of a person only named 哥哥, Big Brother, who’s a central character in the rest of the book, but only comes up for a second in this passage.

玩意儿 wán yì er – Another pretty useful and commonly-used word. When the you add the 儿, 玩意 does not mean “toy”, it becomes the colloquial equivalent to 东西, “thing”. It’s often used derogatorily, like “Ew, what is that thing you’re wearing?”, or dismissively, as in, “Hand me that thing.” In this passage, Smoothbore uses this word to describe some ostentatious jewelry that a flashy rich guy wears, so the use of 玩意儿 adds a note of contempt to the sentence.

Paragraph five highlights the essential difficulty of reading sci-fi in a foreign language: it’s hard to know if you got it right when what is being described is a made-up thing, so you can’t gut-check your understanding against reality. You may have to check the translation here.






[SCI-FI PART]滑膛知道他们在看什么:哥哥飞船又移到南半球上空了,现在可以清晰地看到。上帝文明离开地球已经三年了,那次来自宇宙的大规模造访,使人类对外星文明的心理承受能力增强了许多,况且,上帝文明有铺天盖地的两万多艘飞船,而这次到来的哥哥飞船只有一艘。它的形状也没有上帝文明的飞船那么奇特,只是一个两头圆的柱体,像是宇宙中的一粒感冒胶囊。




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Show English translation »
Business is business, and nothing else. This was the principle by which Smoothbore abided, but this time, the client had left him feeling puzzled.

First of all, the way the client commissioned him was wrong, he wanted to meet face-to-face, and in this business, that was a curious matter. Three years earlier, Smoothbore had heard his drillmaster say more than once, their relationship with their clients was like the relationship between the forehead and the back of the head, never to see one another in this world, and this of course was out of consideration for the interests of both parties. The meeting place surprised Smoothbore even more, it was in the most luxurious presidential hall of the city’s most luxurious five-star hotel, which was the least suitable place in the world for commissioning this type of work. According to what the client let slip, this job had three parts, though that was no big deal, even if it had been a few more [Smoothbore] wouldn’t have minded.

The server pulled open the gold-inlayed door of the presidential hall, and before Smoothbore walked in, he surreptitiously moved his hands inside his jacket, lightly flicking open the snap of the gun holster beneath his left armpit. In truth this was unnecessary, no one would do anything too untoward to him in a place like this.

The hall was magnificent, as if it had no connection to the outside world, the huge crystal chandelier was this world’s sun, and the crimson carpet was this world’s grass. At first glance the place was open and spacious, but Smoothbore quickly found the people [inside], they gathered around the floor-to-ceiling windows in one corner of the hall, pushing aside the thick curtains to look at the sky outside, and Smoothbore swept his gaze around [the room], quickly counting that there were 13 people there. That the clients were many and not just one was also unexpected, as the drillmaster had said, the relationship between themselves and their clients was like the relationship between lovers – though there may be several, at each meeting you only have contact with one.

Smoothbore knew what they were looking at: Big Brother’s spaceship had taken off to move to the southern hemisphere again, and now it could be seen clearly. It had already been three years since the gods left Earth, and that big visit from outer space [lit: the universe] greatly strengthened mankind’s psychological acceptance of alien civilizations, besides, the gods’ civilization had 20,000 spaceships that blanketed the sky, and this time Big Brother only had one. [The spaceship’s] shape also wasn’t as peculiar as the ones the gods had, it was just a big pillar rounded at both ends, like a big cold [medicine] capsule [out there] in the universe.

When they saw Smoothbore enter, those 13 people all left the window, and came back to the big round table in the center of the hall. Smoothbore recognized most of them, and immediately felt that the resplendent hall had become shabby [in comparison to them]. The most interesting person among them was Zhu Hanyang, his Huaruan Group’s “Oriental 3000” operating system had already replaced decrepit WINDOWS the world over. As for everyone else, they were all in the Forbes Fortune 500 Top 50, and their annual profits were probably equal to a middling country’s GDP, so Smoothbore was [standing] in a small forum of world’s wealthy.

These people were completely different from Yage, Smoothbore thought to himself, Yage was nouveau riche, but these guys were from three generations of nobility, and although the timeline [probably] wasn’t really that long, they were nobility indeed, they transformed riches into a reserved moral elevation, just like the diamond ring on Zhu Hanyang’s hand, fine and exquisite, understated on his slender finger, occasionally glinting with a soft, gentle light, but it was worth several of the gaudily-glittering walnut-sized things [that] Yage [wore on his] hand.

But right now, these thirteen noble magnates were collected here to hire an assassin to commit murder, moreover to kill three people, and according to his first contact, that was just the first part [of the job].

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