Chinese science fiction going mainstream

Shanghai International Literary Week heralds the arrival of science fiction as a mainstream genre in China.
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Liu Cixin, author of the Hugo Award-winning "The Three-Body Problem," is widely considered a leading figure in China's science fiction.

Young Chinese science-fiction writers Chen Qiufan, Wang Kanyu and Zhang Ran rushed into scores of sci-fi forums at the recent Shanghai International Literary Week straight from the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki.

It has been a busier two years for many Chinese science-fiction writers like them.

It is the first time the International Literary Week, a highlight of the Shanghai Book Fair which concluded on Tuesday, has set science fiction as its theme.

Previous themes included Shakespeare and literature in translation, and other more mainstream topics.

Two years ago, Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem” won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. It was already a bestseller in China, but the award turned it into a phenomenon – many even called 2015 “the first year of the era of Chinese science fiction,” hoping for a major breakthrough in China.

“We were such a small, unnoticed community before 2015 that all Chinese science-fiction writers fitted in one bus when we organized events,” says Zhang. “We used to joke that Chinese sci-fi will be terminated if that bus gets into an accident.

“Now, it’s probably two buses,” Chen is quick to add.

He describes the current situation as “strange.” The international reputation of “The Three-Body Problem” has helped the genre attract a lot more attention from publishers, the mainstream literary world and readers, as well as investors who have bought many stories hoping to adapt them into films and TV drama.

“But on the other hand, the writers find very limited channels to distribute their works. We have two sci-fi journals; one is new,” Chen says.

“When Liu won the Hugo, I said he was the one and the only one. We have no pyramid of science fiction writers in China," he adds. “What we have is a hammer – Liu is the heavy head and all of the rest form the thin handle.

“It has changed a little since 2015, but we are still a hammer.”

The three young writers were among 60-something Chinese who attended the world conference in Finland two weeks ago, hoping to witness Liu’s “Death’s End,” last of the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy that started with “The Three-Body Problem,” to take home another Hugo and boost the genre once again.

Ti Gong

"The Waste Tide" (left) and "Future Disease" by Chen Qiufan

However, it didn’t happen.

Liu’s epic conclusion of the trilogy was lost to American writer N.K. Jemisin’s “The Obelisk Gate,” which follows a separated mother and daughter through their journey to find each other in a future that suffers catastrophic climate change.

“Undoubtedly, traditional science fiction like mine will continue to decline,” Liu commented after the awards ceremony. “One thing that I am sure of is that Hugo Awards will not have anything to do with me for a long time or even forever.”

Liu and most Chinese science-fiction writers and readers, who grew up reading the grand hard-science fiction of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, still have a more traditional appetite for such stories that concern challenges confronted by human races as a species and attempt to solve.

“Science fiction in China is still mainly a young genre and a genre for the young – with very passionate and exciting writing styles and grand settings for the stories,” says Wang Jinkang, a retired engineer in his 60s and one of the most prolific Chinese science-fiction writers.

“We still think about social responsibility in science fiction and we take into consideration of the destiny of all universal beings, while Western writers now tend to explore internally and depict how individuals struggle with social issues," he explains.

Web science-fiction novelist Sun Junjie, in his 30s, considers such passion and confidence to be a result of China’s rapid development in science and technology.

“It’s similar to the United States in the 1950s, when they were leading the world and considered themselves responsible for problems in the world,” Sun explains. “China has grown so quickly in the past few years, becoming more developed in the most advanced science and technology, so it’s natural for sci-fi writers of my generation to think about big issues.

“And it may well be up to the kids in the next generation, born after 2010, to become world's top sci-fi writers in 20 years,” Sun says.


Questions to science-fiction writers


1. If you are kidnapped by aliens, what will you do or say first?

2. Are you overall optimistic, pessimistic or neutral about the destiny of human beings and our civilization?


Ti Gong

Chen Qiufan, one of China's most prolific young-generation sci-fi writers

Chen, a Guangdong native, has published more than 30 stories in various Chinese and English science-fiction magazines.

His novel “The Waste Tide,” translated by Chinese-American science-fiction writer Ken Liu, depicts a dystopian future and is set to be published next year by science-fiction publisher TOR Books.

“I will take a look at myself and see if all my parts are still there, maybe only the brain is left. Then I will try very hard to learn their language,” Chen says.

“The human species are destined to be extinct. That’s the rule of nature, whether it will be replaced by robots or other species, it will be replaced.

“Nonetheless, our civilization will carry on. Even if we are replaced by artificial intelligence in the future, it will come from our civilization, and that genetic seed will be preserved and further advanced through them. In that sense, I’m optimistic.”

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Paul McAuley, a British scientist and writer

McAuley studied botany and zoology in the university. His debut novel “Four Hundred Billion Stars” was released in 1988 and, like his other novels, was influenced by his scientific background.

One of his latest releases, “The Quiet War,” explores the post-climate change Earth with a heavy focus on the role of biology.

“I read a lot books about aliens when I was a teenager, and in those books, they are usually more advanced than us,” he says.

“One thing I would say about aliens is to go along with whatever they say, because they know better than us. And I hope if I am kidnapped, it will be that kind of aliens. And in the same way I’m hopeful about the future.”

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Richard Morgan, an English sci-fi and fantasy author

Morgan describes his novels as violent science fiction set in dark futuristic worlds.

His debut novel, “Altered Carbon,” released in 2002, is considered a hard-boiled cyberpunk sci-fi that follows a mercenary investigating a murder. Netflix has announced a 10-episode TV adaptation.

“My first words would be ‘do you like stories?’ I believe that will keep me alive. That’s how I deal with my publishers, who are like aliens to me,” he laughs.
“My natural inclination is to be pessimistic. And what drives my writing is mostly rage — rage about the stupidity of humans as a species.

“But at the same time, as a survivor species, we have done incredibly well to get to where we are. I look at humanity a bit like a child who is a genius but gets busted by the police all the time for drugs, etc.

“We are our worst enemies: not aliens, not artificial intelligence, not any other species. So when it comes to a decision of whether I am pessimistic or optimistic, it comes down to ‘do I think we can get a handle on this?’

“I have to say that I feel kind of optimistic about it. It’s not in my nature to feel optimistic, but in reality we are very adaptable as a species. I think we might just get away with it.”

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Sun Junjie, a web novel writer

Sun has been updating “400 Million Years of Taoist Alchemy” on Qidian, one of China’s biggest web novel platforms, for the past two years.

The story combines the popular web novel genre of immortal Taoist alchemists with science fiction and is among the top 10 most-clicked novels in the science-fiction genre on the site.

“I will play calm, smile and ask them, ‘did you eat?’ Overall, I’m more on the optimistic side. We are lucky to be intelligent life on Earth, amid billions of planets in the universe. Why not expect a better future?”

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Wang Jinkang, a veteran Chinese science-fiction writer

A retired petroleum engineer, Wang is one of the most prolific after writing for more than 20 years.

His writing has been described as melancholy with a particular focus on biotechnology and how it influences our society and ethics. His novel “Pathological,” translated and published in English last year, follows a scientist and a terrorist who are both related to a deadly virus called Satan’s Gift.

“I will say ‘nihao’ (hi), whether they understand or not. And I will ask them to notify my family,” he says.

“As for the destiny of the human race, I’m quite optimistic despite the fact that I believe the species will become extinct eventually.

“We will all die but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy being alive. I see what is destined to happen but it doesn’t necessarily make me pessimistic about the present.”


(Stanley Chu contributed to this article.)

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