Kid-friendly sci-fi

Col­lec­tion of short science-fic­tion sto­ries launched as part of chil­dren’s book se­ries, Yang Yang re­ports.

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Col­lec­tion of short sto­ries un­veiled to spur chil­dren’s imag­i­na­tion

Two of China’s top sci­encefic­tion writ­ers Liu Cixin and Han Song sat down with poet Bei Dao and Pek­ing Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and cul­tural critic Dai Jin­hua for a dis­cus­sion at the re­cent launch in Bei­jing of a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, en­ti­tled Science Fic­tion for Chil­dren. It is the 11th book in the Chi­nese se­ries Books for Chil­dren.

Bei Dao (pen name) is the se­ries’ ed­i­tor, and Liu and Han were in­vited to choose sto­ries for the book.

In re­cent years, science fic­tion has gained pop­u­lar­ity in China, es­pe­cially after Liu won the Hugo Award in 2015.

“The fu­ture has never been so at­trac­tive as it is now. This (the award) pro­vides op­por­tu­nity for science fic­tion (in China), and that is why it is get­ting more at­ten­tion than be­fore,” Liu says, adding that it is also a re­sult of China’s so­cial de­vel­op­ment. Science Fic­tion for Chil­dren con­tains 15 short sto­ries pub­lished from the 1950s, a golden age for the genre, un­til the present, in­clud­ing

Bri­tish au­thor Arthur Clarke’s The Wind from the Sun, Chi­nese au­thor

Tong Enzheng’s Mag­i­cal Flute in the Snow Moun­tain, A Walk in the

Sun by US writer Ge­of­frey Lan­dis, Liu’s The Mi­cro Era, Han’s Cos­mic

Tomb­stone, and Amer­i­can writ­ers Ted Chi­ang’s Tower of Baby­lon and Ken Liu’s Cos­mic Spring.

While they both picked old clas­sics and rep­re­sen­ta­tive pieces by con­tem­po­rary writ­ers, Liu and Han had dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to the new col­lec­tion of short sto­ries for chil­dren.

“I fo­cused more on hard­core tech­nol­ogy, or hard science fic­tion,” Liu says.

Com­par­a­tively, Han’s em­pha­sis was on “the philo­soph­i­cal think­ing and doubts about the hu­man ca­pa­bil­ity to con­quer na­ture”, Dai says.

Liu writes in his pref­ace to the book that op­posed to fairy tales, scifi will grad­u­ally be­come a re­al­ity. As a re­sult, apart from in­spir­ing chil­dren’s imag­i­na­tion and broad­en­ing their view, sci-fi will help to men­tally pre­pare chil­dren for var­i­ous pos- sibil­i­ties of the un­known uni­verse, Liu says.

The book starts with US writer Tom God­win’s The Cold Equa­tions, pub­lished in the 1950s. It tells of a cruel death of an un­der­age girl who il­le­gally hides in a res­cue space­ship to see her brother on a planet far from Earth. In or­der to reach the des­ti­na­tion as quickly as pos­si­ble, the space­ship has a fixed quan­tity of fuel that does not al­low any ex­tra weight — only the pi­lot. Oth­er­wise, the space­ship will crash and the pi­lot and the six peo­ple in­clud­ing the girl’s brother on the planet will all die. As a re­sult the girl must be tossed out of the ve­hi­cle into space as soon as pos­si­ble and she will die im­me­di­ately.

It is a story picked by Han, who came across it when he was a mid­dle school stu­dent.

“It im­pressed me deeply, for it re­vealed the truth of the uni­verse to me for the first time. When it comes to phys­i­cal rules, all peo­ple are equal, and they can­not be bro­ken by any­body,” he says.

“As I grew up, I grad­u­ally re­al­ized the broader mean­ing. Un­der such cir­cum­stances — noth­ing, power or money, can save the girl. It’s what we lack now. Apart from text­books, what is more im­por­tant is that we should tell chil­dren the truth about the uni­verse,” he says.

“Chil­dren can ac­cept death, and some­times they un­der­stand it more pro­foundly than we ex­pect.”

Bei Dao agrees that chil­dren should not be kept away from such no­tions as lone­li­ness, death or frus­tra­tion.

Com­ment­ing on Liu and Han’s works, Dai says they rep­re­sent two dif­fer­ent aes­thetic styles and di­rec­tions in sci-fi writ­ing.

Liu’s fic­tion is more of prac­ti­cal writ­ing based on imag­i­na­tion, but Han writes more to ex­plore the hu­mans’ in­ner world when con­fronted by the un­known uni­verse, the chang­ing re­al­ity or the un­cer­tain fu­ture, Dai says.

“Es­pe­cially about peo­ple’s anx­i­ety about the world that keeps be­ing trans­formed fast by in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, bio­science and vir­tual re­al­ity,” Han says.

Liu has ear­lier ex­pressed his wor­ries about this trend of “in­ward ex­plo­ration” in sci-fi writ­ing.

“Cur­rently sci-fi writ­ers around the world tend to ex­plore hu­mans’ in­ner world rather than outer space like peo­ple did dur­ing the golden pe­riod from the 1930s to the ’70s, when science fic­tion was op­ti­mistic, en­ter­pris­ing and open-spir­ited. Sci-fi’s in­ward-look­ing ten­dency re­flects the sit­u­a­tion of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion. In the 1960s, we landed on the moon but since then we have not moved for­ward much. We don’t go to the moon any­more. In con­trast, the fastest-de­vel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy, in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, is an ‘in­ward’ one.

“Soon the day will come when we will need only to spend our life in a room with­out any dif­fi­culty. With VR, we can ex­pe­ri­ence the world with­out step­ping out­side the door. The whole hu­man cul­ture will be­come more and more in­ward. If stars or space are ex­pe­ri­enced through VR, why should hu­mans take risks to ex­plore them any fur­ther? The new-gen­er­a­tion of sci-fi works mir­ror such a trend.

“As a sci-fi writer, although the fu­ture has many pos­si­bil­i­ties, if it does not in­clude in­ter­stel­lar travel, no mat­ter how pros­per­ous the Earth is, it’s a dark fu­ture to me,” Liu says.

Apart from text­books, what is more im­por­tant is that we should tell chil­dren the truth about the uni­verse.” Han Song, writer


From left: Science-fic­tion writer Liu Cixin, poet Bei Dao and writer Han Song are among the ex­perts talk­ing about sci-fi cre­ations at the re­cent launch in Bei­jing of a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, en­ti­tled Science Fic­tion for Chil­dren.

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