Liu Cixin Didn’t Quit His Day Job – and That’s the Problem

Liu Cixin never let his day job keep him from getting his writing done. Did anyone know that when Jason Heller tweeted this message last week and got a lot of sff writers in an uproar?

Of course, Heller and everyone else is assuming that someone with a day job will actually be working at it. Not in this case.

Bloomberg’s report “Chinese Sci-Fi Writer Sparks Debate on Slack in State Economy” carries news of a revealing 2015 interview with Liu Cixin that’s made a recent splash in Chinese social media:

China’s most prestigious science fiction novelist revealed that a lot of his work was written during work hours at a state-owned power plant, sparking debate about the level of slack in the nation’s vast state sector.

The comments from Liu Cixin, seen as China’s equivalent to Arthur C. Clarke, come from a 2015 interview that began circulating widely on social media recently after the film Wandering Earth, which is based on one of his novellas, took in 2 billion yuan ($300 million) in just a week.

“Everyone was sitting in front of a computer, and nobody knew what anyone else was doing,” Liu said in the interview. “You have to be in the office. But when you’re there, you are free to write.”

Liu worked as a software engineer at a power plant in Shanxi province from the 1980s and identified himself a worker there in interviews until as late as 2014.

However, this week Liu tried to walk back what he said in the interview (Sixth Tone, “Chinese Sci-fi Author Sparks Work Ethics Debate”).

But on Tuesday, the writer told the state-run Global Times that there’s “no time to write while on duty,” while also admitting that on rare occasions he would write on his office computer. “As an engineer at a grassroots power station, there’s constant work. Where is the time to write?” he said.

And officials also jumped in to do damage control, crediting themselves for making changes that are already taking effect:

On Monday, China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission also stepped in to address Liu’s comments on company culture at state-owned enterprises. Liu worked at the power station in Shanxi until 2014, two years after the company’s reforms.

“Mr. Liu, this phenomenon you mentioned — more workers than available work — is exactly why we are deepening reforms,” the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission said via Weibo. “The reforms are good, so the enterprises can focus on their business, and you can focus on writing novels.”

Fans long ago discovered that one worker sitting in front of a computer typing looks like any other, as long as you’re not reading over his shoulder. But they also discovered a second truth which seems to have escaped the Hugo-winning author — that if you brag about what you’re really doing, then you get in big trouble.

[Thanks to JJ for the story.]

14 thoughts on “Liu Cixin Didn’t Quit His Day Job – and That’s the Problem

  1. Writing while you’re supposed to be looking at the controls to the power plant. What could go wrong?

    Someone else who formerly worked at a power plant: Terry Pratchett. And Charles Brown designed the things.

  2. @Andrew: To be fair, it sounds like he wasn’t at the controls, he was a computer programmer. But still.

    Also, it’s cute how Bloomberg News frames this as saying something about state-run businesses in particular. I wonder what percentage of Bloomberg’s employees who sit in front of screens are actually working right now. The general-purpose computer is the biggest goof-off enabler ever invented.

  3. Faulkner claimed he wrote most of As I Lay Dying in six weeks while on duty on the night shift at a coal power plant.

  4. I missed Heller’s astonishingly arrogant and blasé tweet at the time, and I wish I had on this occasion, too. I have plenty of friends who’d dearly desire to have a “day job” in the first place, let alone one they could consider jacking in without fear of immediate homelessness. As for “you can always get another day job”, the extent of the man’s blind ignorance is breathtaking. I assume he writes fantasy, since he clearly knows little about the real world.

  5. @Eli
    A lot of the people I worked with were surfing when they were supposed to be working. Not a government job. (The boss did it too, so they would have to have been really blatant to get disciplined for it.) No, we weren’t supposed to do it. (I limited mine, but still did more than I should have.)

  6. Steve Green: The number of fantasy writers whose response to his take ranged from “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA no.” to “And how do you propose I feed my kids/get the insurance to pay for my medicine/eat?” was legion. He was vastly outnumbered by fantasy writers who pointed out the myriad ways his hot take was approximately Zero Kelvin, and just as survivable.

    Let’s not sneer on fantasy authors in an SFF fandom related community?

  7. Using fantasy as an insult. How cute.


    And no, the “joke” defense is as worthless in this case as in any other case where it’s used to pretend a putdown was “funny.”

  8. I sure hope Liu doesn’t suffer for this. Wishing them all the best in their day job and their wonderful writing career.

  9. Flashing back to The Avengers movie when Tony Stark says, “That man is playing Galaga. He thought we wouldn’t notice, but we did.”

  10. While it doesn’t describe my normal day job, I have covered others on several occasions that involve just sitting around waiting for something to happen that you need to react to. Writing (or reading) a novel while doing that was considered perfectly acceptable as long as you stayed alert. I can well imagine a power station having such jobs.

  11. I once had a day job– many many years ago– which was full time, 40 hours. On Monday morning I would receive a batch of data that I would turn into a weekly report. Making that report was the sum total of my job.

    I was usually done with it on Monday around 2pm.

    I did a LOT of other work with the rest of the time. A huge bulk of the original Maradaine worldbuilding was done there, plus a lot of the early writing that now is trunked.

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