Alec Ash

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Alec Ash

In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets: Con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese Science Fic­tion in Trans­la­tion edited by Ken Liu Touch­able Un­re­al­ity edited by Neil Clarke

In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets:

Con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese

Science Fic­tion in Trans­la­tion trans­lated from the Chi­nese and edited by Ken Liu.

Tor, 383 pp., $24.99; $16.99 (pa­per)

Touch­able Un­re­al­ity edited by Neil Clarke.

Beijing: China Ma­chine Press, 398 pp., ¥45.00

In 1902, Liang Qichao, a re­formist in­tel­lec­tual of the late Qing dy­nasty, wrote a fu­tur­is­tic story called “A Chron­i­cle of the Fu­ture of New China.” In the un­fin­ished man­u­script, he de­picts Shang­hai host­ing the World Fair in 1962 (“Con­fu­cius year 2513”), on the fifti­eth an­niver­sary of a suc­cess­ful re­form move­ment. By then, he imag­ines, China has de­vel­oped a mul­ti­party sys­tem and dom­i­nates a peace­ful new world or­der in which Western­ers study Chi­nese to im­prove their job prospects. This vi­sion of a mod­ern, tech­no­log­i­cally tri­umphant China would prove pre­scient—ex­cept for the mul­ti­party sys­tem and peace­ful world or­der— in 2010, when the Shang­hai World Expo im­pressed vis­i­tors with its slick graph­ics, high-tech gad­gets, and other em­blems of mod­ern­iza­tion. Liang’s op­ti­mism for China’s re­ju­ve­na­tion was vin­di­cated, only fifty years later than he thought.

Liang’s in­ten­tion was not to pre­dict the fu­ture, how­ever, but to change the present. The mes­sage, if it reached those in power, fell on deaf ears, and the Qing court con­tin­ued to re­ject Western science and democ­racy. With his men­tor, the lib­eral Con­fu­cian scholar Kang Youwei, and un­der the aus­pices of the young Guangxu em­peror, Liang had spear­headed the Hun­dred Days’ Re­form of 1898, which ended with a coup d’état by the six­tythree-year-old em­press dowa­ger Cixi, who stymied fur­ther at­tempts at re­form un­til her death in 1908. Liang and Kang fled to Ja­pan, which was rapidly mod­ern­iz­ing dur­ing the Meiji Restora­tion and im­port­ing ideas and lit­er­a­ture from over­seas. It was here that Liang came across the science fic­tion of Jules Verne, in Ja­panese by way of English from the orig­i­nal French, and trans­lated it into clas­si­cal Chi­nese, start­ing with the anti-slav­ery novel A Cap­tain at Fif­teen.

Lib­eral in­tel­lec­tu­als from China in that era of­ten stud­ied in Ja­pan, as if China could mod­ern­ize by os­mo­sis. In 1901 Kang Youwei pub­lished his own spec­u­la­tive work, The Book of Great Unity, de­lin­eat­ing a fu­ture in which states, rulers, and con­flict have been elim­i­nated (women, less lucky, re­plen­ish the pop­u­la­tion by giv­ing birth while calm­ing mu­sic is played for them). An­other young writer study­ing in Ja­pan was Zhou Shuren, or Lu Xun, some­times de­scribed as the fa­ther of mod­ern ver­nac­u­lar Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture, who trans­lated other Jules Verne nov­els, in­clud­ing Jour­ney to the Cen­ter of the Earth.

These trans­la­tions and orig­i­nal works were meant to fur­ther the cause of Chi­nese re­form, by ed­u­cat­ing the pop­u­lace so that they might re­ject old cus­toms and su­per­sti­tions, such as an­ces­tor wor­ship, and em­brace mod­ern science. In the 1903 pref­ace to his trans­la­tion of Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, Lu Xun wrote:

The typ­i­cal reader is bored by the te­dious­ness of science books and can­not fin­ish them. But when dressed up in the form of fic­tion, the science can seep into read­ers’ minds with­out bor­ing them . . . . As the reader’s heart is touched, the reader gains in­sight and wis­dom with­out tax­ing the mind, knowl­edge that would break down legacy su­per­sti­tions, im­prove their thoughts, and sup­ple­ment our cul­ture. What a pow­er­ful tool is such fic­tion!

“The progress of the Chi­nese peo­ple,” Lu Xun de­clared, fif­teen years be­fore his own first satir­i­cal sto­ries were pub­lished, “be­gins with science fic­tion.”

Through­out the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, Chi­nese science fic­tion au­thors took ad­van­tage of the genre’s pos­si­bil­i­ties for so­cial crit­i­cism. In 1932, Lao She at­tacked the weak­ness and di­vi­sions of Repub­lic-era China in Cat Coun­try, a novel set on the sur­face of Mars, where a cat-like peo­ple are ad­dicted to opi­ate “reverie” leaves and turn to a new ide­ol­ogy called “Ev­ery­body Sharesky­ism”—a thinly veiled stand-in for com­mu­nism. China’s real Sharesky­ists didn’t share Lao She’s sense of hu­mor, and for decades af­ter the found­ing of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic in 1949, sci-fi was ei­ther sup­pressed or molded into Com­mu­nist pro­pa­ganda. (A typ­i­cal work from 1958, “Capric­cio for Com­mu­nism,” de­picts an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions on Tianan­men Square in 1979 as a pa­rade of sci­en­tific and na­tional ac­com­plish­ments.)

The genre bloomed in the late 1970s and early 1980s un­der Deng Xiaop­ing’s early re­forms, with ex­per­i­men­tal works such as Lit­tle Smart Roam­ing the Fu­ture by Ye Yonglie, be­fore it again fell out of fa­vor as a for­eign-in­flu­enced in­dul­gence in the Cam­paign Against Spir­i­tual Pol­lu­tion of 1982. It then suf­fered from the same sup­pres­sion of free ex­pres­sion that af­fected all lit­er­a­ture in China fol­low­ing the killings near Tianan­men Square in 1989.

China to­day meets many of the mea­sures of progress its ear­lier science fic­tion writ­ers imag­ined. The na­tion is stronger and richer than it has been since the Ming dy­nasty. Its pop­u­lace is lit­er­ate and largely ed­u­cated. It is at peace and has the mil­i­tary might to de­fend it­self. Above all, af­ter decades of scle­ro­sis and decades more of chaos, it now has the in­fra­struc­ture and sci­en­tific ca­pa­bil­ity of many de­vel­oped coun­tries. But a new re­nais­sance of Chi­nese science fic­tion, which be­gan in the 1990s and found its stride in the mid-2000s, is ask­ing whether that devel­op­ment is be­nign and eq­ui­table and what so­cial prob­lems it has cre­ated. If the science fic­tion of a cen­tury ago was pre­oc­cu­pied with utopian dreams of progress, this new wave, made up mostly of younger writ­ers, is more con­cerned with the rifts that have been opened in China’s so­cial fab­ric now that such progress has been achieved. The ques­tion then was how China could be­come rich and strong; the ques­tion to­day is what to do now that it is. Ear­lier gen­er­a­tions of Chi­nese sci-fi au­thors had been raised on Soviet works. This one is in­flu­enced in­stead by such Western au­thors as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asi­mov, and by the work of the “New Wave” in the 1960s and 1970s—with au­thors such as Ur­sula K. Le Guin and J.G. Bal­lard— which pi­o­neered “soft” sci-fi, known for its so­cial themes as op­posed to tech­ni­cally ori­ented “hard” sci-fi.

The new sci-fi is now in many re­spects the most bit­ing mode of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary in China. Long de­rided and marginal­ized by China’s lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment, it has slipped past the cen­sors who so strin­gently watch re­al­ist fic­tion. And while much of the genre re­mains es­capist en­ter­tain­ment for the na­tion’s sur­plus of engi­neer­ing stu­dents, its more lit­er­ary prac­ti­tion­ers have re­claimed its place at the van­guard of China’s na­tional in­tro­spec­tion. They are us­ing it as a Tro­jan horse to sneak in truths obliquely, of­fer­ing not feel-good bro­mides but twisted vi­sions of what mod­ern China has be­come.

This new breed of Chi­nese science fic­tion forms the core of two re­cent an­tholo­gies, In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets and Touch­able Un­re­al­ity, which add to the small but grow­ing list of works avail­able in English. Its writ­ers be­long to a gen­er­a­tion that grew up in a resur­gent China still find­ing its place in the world and suf­fer­ing from un­even growth and so­cial frag­men­ta­tion. They are what Han Song—the au­thor of bleak sci-fi fa­bles that his fel­low writer Fei Dao refers to as “Gloomy China”—calls the “torn gen­er­a­tion,” strad­dling the transition that China is still un­der­go­ing from poor to rich and ru­ral to ur­ban. “In this era, when a new breed of hu­man­ity is com­ing into be­ing,” Han writes, “China is be­ing ripped apart at an ac­cel­er­ated pace.”

Liu Cixin and Wang Jiankang are two of the “three gen­er­als” of Chi­nese science fic­tion, along with Han Song, whose day job is cov­er­ing politics for the state-owned news service Xin­hua. All three have been writ­ing since the 1980s. (Some­times a fourth, He Xi, is added, to make it the “four big names.”) The genre re­ceived wider recog­ni­tion in China and abroad with the crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess in the mid-2000s of Liu Cixin’s tril­ogy, Re­mem­brance of Earth’s Past, com­monly known as the Three-Body Tril­ogy. Some four mil­lion copies have been sold, a long-de­layed film is set to fol­low next year, and in Beijing a group of sci-fi writ­ers and I saw a the­atri­cal adap­ta­tion, with float­ing orbs and fu­tur­is­tic spe­cial ef­fects. The books were trans­lated into English start­ing in 2014, and the first vol­ume (The Three-Body Prob­lem) won a 2015 Hugo Award for best science fic­tion novel.

While the plot of the Three-Body Tril­ogy sounds like that of a B-movie— Earth pre­pares for in­va­sion by aliens flee­ing a doomed planet that or­bits three suns—it be­gins not in the fu­ture but in the past. Dur­ing the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, the as­tro­physi­cist Ye Wen­jie wit­nesses her fa­ther be­ing beaten to death by Red Guards. She later broad­casts Earth’s lo­ca­tion to the hos­tile Triso­larans when their sig­nal first comes through, declar­ing hu­man­ity a fail­ure in need of out­side in­ter­ven­tion. Liu Cixin, who spent most of his ca­reer as an en­gi­neer at a power plant, is ul­ti­mately more in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing hu­man­ity’s place in the uni­verse than he is in reck­on­ing with China’s his­tor­i­cal ghosts. Yet this in­dict­ment of a time he is old enough to re­mem­ber would surely not have made it into a work of re­al­ist fic­tion pub­lished in China. Pub­lished in the af­ter­math of Liu Cixin’s suc­cess, In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets is com­piled and trans­lated by Ken Liu, the trans­la­tor of two vol­umes of the Three­Body Tril­ogy. The col­lec­tion fea­tures two sto­ries by Liu Cixin—one adapted from the nov­els, and an­other in which he sat­i­rizes China’s cul­ture of fil­ial piety by in­vent­ing a de­crepit God species that re­quires the sup­port of hu­mans in its old age. Ken Liu is him­self a pro­lific sci-fi

au­thor, cur­rently com­plet­ing a tril­ogy of what he calls “silkpunk” nov­els set in an­cient China. In his in­tro­duc­tion to the an­thol­ogy, he warns us not to in­ter­pret Chi­nese sci-fi too lit­er­ally, lest we “see it through the lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chi­nese politics.” Many of the sto­ries pose ques­tions about the place of tech­nol­ogy and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in mod­ern life, or about the di­vi­sions within so­ci­eties around the world. Yet like their an­ces­tors of a cen­tury ago, oth­ers are also clear and crit­i­cal com­men­taries on the en­vi­ron­ments that pro­duced them.

One such story to re­ceive wide­spread at­ten­tion, and a Hugo Award in 2016, is “Fold­ing Beijing” by Hao Jing­fang. Hao, who is in her early thir­ties, stud­ied physics and eco­nom­ics at Ts­inghua Univer­sity, and now works at a macro­eco­nomics think tank. In her imag­ined pro­jec­tion of Beijing, three it­er­a­tions of the cap­i­tal, oc­cu­pied by three sep­a­rate so­cial strata, have been en­gi­neered to fold in on them­selves like a Ru­bik’s Cube so that the next “space” can un­furl for its ap­por­tioned time above the earth’s sur­face. “First Space” is con­structed for five mil­lion elites, who live in a leafy ur­ban play­ground for ev­ery other twenty-four-hour pe­riod from 6 AM to 6 AM; “Sec­ond Space” houses the 25 mil­lion mem­bers of the lit­er­ally squeezed mid­dle class, who oc­cupy it for the fol­low­ing eigh­teen hours; and the squalor of “Third Space,” ris­ing be­tween 10 PM and 6 AM, is for the re­main­ing 50 mil­lion mi­grant work­ers who process waste and per­form other ser­vices for the priv­i­leged in­hab­i­tants of the city they built.

The story fol­lows Lao Dao, a Third Spacer who smug­gles him­self into the op­u­lence of First Space to de­liver a mes­sage. Its so­cial themes were not lost on its read­ers, whose dis­cus­sions on­line in bul­letin board (tieba) fo­rums and so­cial me­dia threads were later deleted. Shortly to be turned into a movie, “Fold­ing Beijing” be­came eerily rel­e­vant at the end of 2017, when the Beijing govern­ment evicted thou­sands of mi­grant work­ers from the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal in or­der to keep their num­bers within quota, un­der the guise of fire safety. In an­other case of life im­i­tat­ing art, Hao Jing­fang told me that she wrote the story to scru­ti­nize what she called “big city dis­ease,” a term that has now been used by China’s State Coun­cil to jus­tify its pro­gram of lim­it­ing the mi­grant pop­u­la­tion in large ci­ties.

“In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets,” also by Hao Jing­fang and the story that lends its name to the an­thol­ogy, is a ga­lac­tic homage to Italo Calvino. Her nar­ra­tor tells tall tales of far-flung plan­ets to a cap­tive lis­tener. There is Pi­maceh, torn by con­flict­ing and un­trust­wor­thy ver­sions of its his­tory; Yanyanni, where the pop­u­la­tion grows taller ev­ery year un­til the old phys­i­cally can’t bend low enough to com­mu­ni­cate with the young (the gen­er­a­tion gap is a re­cur­ring mo­tif for Hao); Lu­tikawulu, where ge­net­ics re­strict fam­i­lies to evo­lu­tion­ar­ily op­ti­mized roles, mak­ing so­cial mo­bil­ity im­pos­si­ble; and Chin­cato, where the air is so dense that no light can pen­e­trate it and in­hab­i­tants live in dark­ness, con­stantly chat­ter­ing to tell each other where they are.

These de­scrip­tions might seem to re­fer dis­tinctly to as­pects of Chi­nese so­ci­ety, but the nar­ra­tor re­sists her in­ter­locu­tor’s at­tempts to un­der­stand what it all means: The real key isn’t about whether what I say is true, but whether you be­lieve it. From start to end, the di­rec­tion of nar­ra­tive is not guided by the tongue, but by the ear .... The plan­ets I speak of are scat­tered at ev­ery cor­ner of the uni­verse, but some­times col­lect them­selves into the same place as though they have al­ways been to­gether.

Just as Calvino’s fan­tas­ti­cal ci­ties were all dif­fer­ent re­frac­tions of Venice, Hao’s plan­ets are en­tirely dis­tinct from, and noth­ing but, her home­land.

In his book Ce­les­tial Em­pire (2017), the scholar Nathaniel Isaac­son called Chi­nese science fic­tion “a ve­hi­cle for ex­press­ing anx­i­eties and hopes for mod­ern­iza­tion and glob­al­iza­tion.” China’s ur­ban trans­for­ma­tion and ver­tig­i­nous growth have bi­fur­cated so­ci­ety: some live in a rich, priv­i­leged world of com­fort, cash­less pay­ment, fa­cial-recog­ni­tion soft­ware, and high­speed trains; oth­ers suf­fer qui­etly, build­ing that world. Re­al­ist lit­er­a­ture of­ten can’t keep up with the pace of the change that China is un­der­go­ing. Fic­tions set in the fu­ture are not only safer from cen­sor­ship but also es­pe­cially good op­por­tu­ni­ties to com­ment on such a hurtling present.

In Ma Boy­ong’s story “The City of Si­lence,” the year is 2046, and al­most all so­cial in­ter­ac­tion takes place on­line through an ever-di­min­ish­ing “list of healthy words.” In­stead of cen­sor­ing fil­tered key­words, the “Depart­ment of Pro­pa­ganda” re­stricts speech to a per­mit­ted vo­cab­u­lary, so as to pre­vent the cheat—fa­mil­iar to any Chi­nese web user—of writ­ing about “‘polit/cs,’ ‘ूitics,’ ‘pol/itic$,’ and so on.” A tech­ni­cian who gives him­self the pseu­do­nym Wang Er (taken from the dis­si­dent nov­els of Wang Xiaobo) stum­bles across an il­le­gal “Talk­ing Club” shielded from the pricked ear of the regime. The homage to Or­well’s 1984 is made all too ob­vi­ous when each Talk­ing Club ses­sion con­cludes with some­one read­ing aloud from 1984. The scene is saved when Wang Er dis­cov­ers that their acts of ver­bal re­bel­lion are con­sum­mated in sex­ual re­bel­lion: club mem­bers dis­perse into ad­ja­cent rooms and go at it in the name of free­dom. The story was orig­i­nally pub­lished in 2005 in Science Fic­tion World, a pop­u­lar magazine, but was set in New York to ob­fus­cate the point about Chi­nese cen­sor­ship. The au­thor later re­verted the set­ting, in this trans­la­tion, to sim­ply “the Cap­i­tal of the State.”

It is no sur­prise that covert or coded modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion re­cur within a genre that might it­self qual­ify as such. “Ether,” by Zhang Ran, is the first story in the bilin­gual col­lec­tion Touch­able Un­re­al­ity, a Chi­nese co­pro­duc­tion with Clarkesworld magazine that is cur­rently only pub­lished in China (its ti­tle in Chi­nese, which trans­lates to Mir­ror Im­age of the Fu­ture, is more lit­eral and less pre­ten­tious). In Zhang’s story, dis­si­dents rebel against a po­lice state by trac­ing Chi­nese char­ac­ters onto one an­other’s palms, even­tu­ally lead­ing to a peace­ful demon­stra­tion on a central city square where pro­test­ers stand in a cir­cle and hold hands to com­mu­ni­cate silently. In her novel Death Fugue, which also has sci-fi el­e­ments, the young writer Sheng Keyi refers more di­rectly to 1989 with a fic­tional protest in which the fa­mous God­dess of Democ­racy statue is a tower of ex­cre­ment. The pro­test­ers are im­pris­oned in both cases. In “City of Si­lence” words are added to the black­list un­til all lan­guage is for­bid­den.

The new wave of sci-fi is not all bleak—many sto­ries of­fer op­ti­mistic vi­sions of tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tions to China’s prob­lems. And China’s cen­sors seem more keen to co-opt sci-fi than to re­press it. This was made clear in Novem­ber at the eighth Chi­nese Ne­bula Awards, a span­gled, tele­vised event that mim­ics its longer-run­ning Western equiv­a­lent. In his open­ing speech, writ­ten in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the or­ga­niz­ers, the writer Chen Qi­u­fan talked about the im­per­a­tive of Chi­nese science fic­tion to “grasp what Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Xi [Jin­ping] has put for­ward, and ad­vance the es­tab­lish­ment of the power of the in­ter­na­tional spread of the cul­ture of so­cial­ism with Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics, in or­der to tell the China story.” (The ap­pa­ratchik syn­tax is as origami-like in the orig­i­nal.) Var­i­ous of­fi­cials and aca­demics pro­ceeded to show off China’s tech­no­log­i­cal prow­ess, with such ques­tion­able de­lights as an ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence pro­gram that can tell how beautiful you are.

Chen Qi­u­fan’s own science fic­tion, which ap­pears in both an­tholo­gies, con­cen­trates on tech­nol­ogy (he used to work for Google in China, and is now at a vir­tual re­al­ity firm) but dis­plays the same icon­o­clas­tic so­cial com­men­tary char­ac­ter­is­tic of his gen­er­a­tion. In “Com­ing of the Light,” a start-up company seeks a Bud­dhist mas­ter to bless its app, while a gullible clien­tele claims mag­i­cal ef­fects. “The Year of the Rat” solves youth un­em­ploy­ment and mil­i­tarism by putting grad­u­ates to work hunt­ing mu­tant rats. “Smog So­ci­ety” ex­plores the con­nec­tion be­tween air pol­lu­tion and de­pres­sion, while “The Mao Ghost” uses the word for “cat,” a homonym of Chair­man Mao’s sur­name, to sneak in for­bid­den ref­er­ences to the death toll of the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion and the Great Leap For­ward. In his novel The Waste Tide, not yet pub­lished in English, Chen pits cap­i­tal­ism against its vic­tims on an island ded­i­cated to the pro­cess­ing of elec­tronic waste that is mod­eled on the real e-waste town of Guiyu in south­ern China. “This is a fu­ture,” as Han Song de­scribed the book, “that will make a young per­son feel the death of ide­al­ism.” Han Song him­self—win­ner of the 2017 Chi­nese Ne­bula Award—is no less grim. His story “Se­cu­rity Check” in Touch­able Un­re­al­ity par­o­dies China’s ubiq­ui­tous sub­way se­cu­rity scans, a sym­bol of the nanny state, which he imag­ines in­ten­si­fy­ing ad ab­sur­dum; while in “Fin­ished,” an un­feel­ing boss traps a worker in a Kafkaesque ar­gu­ment about why he can­not get paid for his la­bor.

It is with such wry de­flec­tion of the de­press­ing into the sur­real and the re­jec­tion of lofty ideals for a shrug and a wink that much of China’s new science fic­tion di­ag­noses its times. “Faced with the ab­surd re­al­ity of con­tem­po­rary China,” Chen Qi­u­fan ob­serves, “the writer can­not fully ex­plore or ex­press the pos­si­bil­i­ties of ex­treme beauty and ex­treme ug­li­ness with­out re­sort­ing to science fic­tion.” Xia Jia, who con­trib­utes sto­ries to both an­tholo­gies and re­ceived the first Ph.D. for the study of Chi­nese sci-fi, writes in one of the three es­says that close In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets that Chi­nese science fic­tion writ­ers en­com­pass a range of at­ti­tudes:

some are pes­simistic, be­liev­ing that we’re pow­er­less against ir­re­sistible trends; some are hope­ful that hu­man in­ge­nu­ity will ul­ti­mately tri­umph; still oth­ers re­sort to ironic ob­ser­va­tion of the ab­sur­di­ties of life.

In the 1910 story “New China” by Lu Shi’e, the nar­ra­tor awak­ens in 1950 to find China strong, rich, and kind to its peo­ple (“prac­ti­cally so­cial­ism al­ready, and so of course we’re not plagued by Com­mu­nists”). As the na­tion reck­ons with the hu­man price of its ac­cel­er­ated mod­ern­iza­tion, to­day’s science fic­tion is more di­vided about China’s prospects for 2050, the date by which Xi Jin­ping wants it to be­come a “great mod­ern so­cial­ist coun­try.” At the very least, this new gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese sci-fi au­thors ques­tions whether devel­op­ment alone, with­out a hu­mane so­ci­ety and con­sid­er­a­tion for those whose rights have been tram­pled over in the name of that ad­vance, is enough for the fu­ture of the new China.

Liu Cixin, au­thor of The Three-Body Prob­lem, which won the Hugo Award for best science fic­tion novel in 2015

Il­lus­tra­tion by Galen Dara for Hao Jing­fang’s ‘In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets,’ 2013

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