How Chinese novelists are reimagining science fiction

The dystopias of Chinese science fiction are resonating in a world facing existential threats.

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One afternoon in June 1999, more than three million Chinese schoolchildren took their seats for the Gaokao, the country’s national college entrance exam. Essay subjects in previous years had been patriotic – “the most touching scene from the Great Leap Forward” (1958) – or prosaic –“trying new things” (1994) – but the final essay question of the millennium was a vision of the future: “what if memories could be transplanted?”

Chen Quifan, who is published in the West as Stanley Chen, says this was the moment that modern Chinese science fiction was born. “Earlier that year,” he explains to me in the offices of his London publisher, “there was a feature on the same topic in the biggest science fiction magazine in China, Science Fiction World. It was a coincidence, but a lot of parents then thought, OK – reading science fiction can help my children go to a good college.”

The magazine’s circulation exploded, as hundreds of thousands of new readers began to explore a genre that had previously been classified as children’s literature. Among those readers were Chen and other aspiring writers who would go on to submit stories to the magazine, and eventually to publish novels. This new generation of sci-fi authors has become hugely popular in China and, increasingly, around the world.

Just as the rapid technological and sociological change of the mid-20th century created the conditions for writers such as Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, James Blish and John Wyndham to explore the possibilities suggested by the space race and nuclear physics, the massive changes experienced by China within the last generation have created new worlds for its writers to explore.

For Western readers, Chinese sci-fi is enticing because it takes what we think know about modern China – the strange combination of ancient history and racing electronic change, the cities that spring up in months, the sheer scale of the country and its vast population – and makes it even bigger. In the opening scenes of Liu Cixin’s The Wandering Earth, engines the size of mountains stop the Earth from spinning, and the planet escapes the solar system while the sun explodes. Western sci-fi begins to look almost parochial next to such massive ideas.

It plays, too, on our fears when we think about China: the paranoid state, and the danger implied by the power and pace of change.

“When I was in high school, only a few people could use a PC,” Chen remembers. “Even fewer could access the internet. But now in China it’s a cash-free society, you can use your cellphone to book any service, everything is going virtual. This process has happened within 20 years. Everyone can feel the anxiety, and the risk, behind that fast move.”

Chinese sci-fi has become a global phenomenon thanks to a trilogy by Liu Cixin, a former software engineer from Yangquan. The first novel, The Three-Body Problem, was published in China in 2008 and in English in 2014. Fans of the series include Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg, and Amazon is reputedly in talks to turn it into what will almost certainly be, at a billion dollars, the most expensive TV show ever made.

The first novel opens in 1967, during a “struggle session” in which an eminent physicist, whose teaching does not comply with the Party’s view of the universe, is beaten to death by four Red Guards. In the crowd, restrained by others, the man’s teenage daughter watches him die. The daughter, also a physicist, is sent to a remote military base, where she makes a discovery that allows her to take her revenge on the human race in the most devastating possible way.

Liu’s trilogy is a response to the best-known conundrum in astrophysics, Fermi’s paradox. The paradox asks why, in a galaxy in which billions of planets are thought to hold the conditions for life, we haven’t heard from anyone. Liu’s answer is that everything is keeping quiet. The dark ocean of the night sky teems with monsters, and civilisations that draw attention to themselves are quickly gobbled up.

This series has, as a result, perhaps the highest body count of any work of fiction – in the third volume, Death’s End, Liu annihilates not only civilisations but the physical dimensions in which they exist. But it is the first book, especially the parts set in the present day, that best sums up the fears of modern China.

In The Three-Body Problem, the existential threat to humanity is something that will be visited upon another generation. In the novel people cope by assuming that it will somehow be fine, or doubting that the future catastrophe will happen at all. In this way the book appears to talk about climate change without ever mentioning it. The destruction of the natural world, too, is integral to the story. For a number of characters, the alien apocalypse is actually desirable, because it will bring an end to the “human tyranny” over nature.

The anxiety Chen Quifan describes and its connection to the slow-motion apocalypse of the anthropocene era can be found in almost all modern Chinese sci-fi. Chen’s first novel, The Waste Tide, published in 2013 in China – the English translation comes out this spring – was inspired by his discovery of a vast e-waste processing area a short distance from where he grew up in Guandong. Chen tells me he saw “a huge garbage field” in which migrant workers “are using their hands to break down the pieces of electronic devices, putting them on heat to melt the metals, or putting them in acid pools to dissemble the elements.” It is, he says, an environment of “total disaster”.

Rubbish is also at the heart of Hao Jingfang’s story “Folding Beijing”, winner of a prestigious Hugo Award. Its protagonist is one of millions of waste workers permitted to occupy the Chinese capital for eight hours, every other night. For the rest of the time they are sedated, their buildings fold themselves into the ground, and the city reorganises itself for the rich. The only contact the waste workers have with those on the city’s other side is by sorting their trash.

Chen and Hao take a risk in weaving social commentary into their writing, though Chen says his chosen medium gives him a degree of freedom. He points out that the most popular film made about Beijing’s pollution problem, a documentary called Under the Dome, was banned by the state four days after its release early in 2015. “But if I write something in science fiction,” he says, “it’s fiction. It’s an imaginary narrative.”

At the same time, he says, “there’s always a risk”. He worries that “Folding Beijing” could be censored, because “the Beijing government is exiling all the so-called ‘low-end labourers’, who are on very low pay, who live in very crowded conditions. So, when the story won the Hugo, a lot of media reported it as a reflection on the policy. The government won’t be pleased about that. It’s kind of… on the list.”

Another of the stories collected with “Folding Beijing” in the 2017 Invisible Planets anthology is “The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong, a story that the translator Ken Liu explains had to be heavily edited to get past China’s state censors. It’s surprising that it was published at all, as it describes a brutal regime that monitors and controls everything its citizens write or even speak. Its protagonist is a lonely computer programmer, who watches as word after word is erased from the list of permitted speech. But where for Orwell technological totalitarianism was something that might happen in the future, for Ma Boyong it is everyday life.

WeChat, the app used for messaging and payment by almost everyone in China, automatically blocks any message containing any banned word of phrase expressing discontent with the regime, support for religious groups or knowledge of the state’s human rights abuses. Google is reportedly helping China to build a search engine that will report its users if they ask the wrong questions. Nobody, in a country of 1.4 billion people, is allowed to mention Winnie the Pooh – to avoid offence to Xi Jinping (who has been compared to the bear in an online meme).

The stories being written in China feel significant because they are emerging from a real dystopia that becomes stranger and more futuristic by the day. In “Project Dove”, for example, drones that look and fly like birds are used for surveillance. But Project Dove is not fiction – it is an actual government project. The robots are so convincing that real pigeons flock with them.

In another example, factory workers, train drivers and soldiers are made to wear devices on their heads that scan their brainwaves for signs of anger, depression or loss of concentration. The devices are monitored by artificial intelligence programmes that can recommend workers be retrained or reassigned if their emotions are not consistent with productivity goals. Such devices have been in widespread use in China for almost five years.

But for Ken Liu, the Chinese-American author who translated Waste Tide, The Three-Body Problem and the stories in Invisible Planets, it is too simplistic to see Chinese sci-fi writers as imaginative dissidents. “We do the works a disservice,” he writes, “when we focus on geopolitics alone.” Chen Quifan agrees. “There are universal feelings in science fiction, across all different cultural backgrounds,” he says. Chen has readers on several continents who email him to say that his stories about anxiety, social divisions and pollution are as resonant in the American Midwest as they are in Guangdong.

Next year, China will complete testing on the largest radio telescope dish ever built, an aluminium bowl measuring half a kilometre across and deep enough to swallow a whole district of 15-storey buildings. One of its main objectives is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. If humanity does pick up a signal from an alien civilisation, we will probably reply in Mandarin.

It’s exciting and encouraging that our vision of humanity’s future is no longer dominated by American and British writers. And as the world – and, perhaps, the universe – becomes more Chinese, it’s worth reading the futures that writers in China are exploring; not just because they are inventive and entertaining, but because they are probably our future, too. 

Will Dunn edits the New Statesman's regular policy supplement, Spotlight.

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam