The rise of sci-fi in China

Ken Liu has pro­duced an im­pres­sive an­thol­ogy of Chi­nese sci­ence fic­tion. James Kidd roams the in­ter­plan­e­tary land­scapes, en­coun­ter­ing hor­ror, ro­mance, in­trigue and black com­edy

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - James Kidd is a free­lance re­viewer based in Lon­don.

Some­thing ex­traor­di­nary ap­pears to be hap­pen­ing in the world of Chi­nese sci­ence fic­tion. In 2015, Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Prob­lem be­came a global best­seller and the first trans­lated work to win the pres­ti­gious Hugo Award, sci-fi’s equiv­a­lent of the Os­cars. Last year, Hao Jing­fang’s Fold­ing Bei­jing won Best Novelette at the Hu­gos, beat­ing none other than Stephen King to the prize.

One could ar­gue, on the other hand, that Chi­nese sci­ence fic­tion has been ex­traor­di­nary for roughly a cen­tury now, both as pro­pa­ganda and cri­tique, and it’s the world that is fi­nally wak­ing up, much as it did when it dis­cov­ered Scan­di­na­vian crime writ­ing about two decades ago.

In ei­ther case, if any­one is ring­ing the alarm for English-speak­ing au­di­ences, it is Ken Liu. Born in Lanzhou un­til mov­ing to the United States when he was 11, Ken (pic­tured right) is a ris­ing star in the sci­ence fic­tion fir­ma­ment thanks to his self-pro­claimed “Silkpunk” genre, a hy­brid of Chi­nese and western epic forms: think Homer’s Odyssey spliced with Ro­mance of the Three King­doms by Luo Guanzhong.

In re­cent years, Ken has also be­come a trans­la­tor of note, re­spon­si­ble for help­ing to bring both Liu Cixin and Hao to in­ter­na­tional prize-win­ning at­ten­tion.

This ad hoc role as cheer­leader for con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese sci­ence fic­tion has just been re­in­forced by In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets, an an­thol­ogy of re­cent short sto­ries by the new wave. In ad­di­tion to the frankly mind-bend­ing Fold­ing Bei­jing, we have works by Chen Qi­u­fang, Xia Jia, Tang Fei, Ma Boy­ong and Cheng Jingbo. There are also il­lu­mi­nat­ing es­says by both Lius (Ken and Cixin), Xia and Chen. Per­haps the first thing that struck me on fin­ish­ing In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets was the sheer di­ver­sity of voices. While Chen’s open­ing The Year of the Rat wouldn’t look out of place in a hor­ror an­thol­ogy, Liu Cixin’s The Cir­cle reads like a mod­ern up­date of a clas­sic Chi­nese ro­mance: a twist­ing tale of com­pet­ing em­pires, po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions and re­venge, with some strange mar­tial math­e­mat­ics thrown in. Hao’s chatty, pseudo-en­cy­clo­pe­dic al­manac of in­ter­ga­lac­tic civil­i­sa­tions that com­prise In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets owes a debt to Italo Calvino’s play­ful in­ter­plan­e­tary fa­bles, Cos­mi­comics, not to men­tion Dou­glas Adams’s Hitch­hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

In­deed, it proves eas­ier to de­fine the col­lec­tion by what it doesn’t do rather than what it does. Sci-fi com­mon­places are ei­ther rare or qui­etly sub­verted. There are space­ships in Liu Cixin’s witty Tak­ing Care of God (21,530 to be pre­cise), but they merely de­liver the put-upon gods who wash up, cook ter­ri­ble food and play chess with an iras­ci­ble grand­fa­ther. The ro­bots in Xia’s Tong­tong’s Sum­mer are sim­i­larly do­mes­tic, and more Mrs Doubt­fire than Ter­mi­na­tor. With the ex­cep­tion of Cheng’s Grave of the Fire­flies and Hao’s In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets, most works take place in so­ci­eties not un­like our own. The hero of Ma’s The City of Si­lence may live in 2046 (a nod, per­haps, to Wong Kar-wai’s film of the same name), but his life mapped on a highly-reg­u­lated in­ter­net feels eerily sim­i­lar to our own: “Now that the web was al­most equiv­a­lent to daily life, it was nec­es­sary to be ever vig­i­lant” ap­plies as much to us as Ma’s iso­lated, para­noid fu­ture-be­ings.

It is tempt­ing, per­haps too tempt­ing, to treat plots like this as thinly-veiled cri­tiques of con­tem­po­rary China. What else are we sup­posed to do with Fold­ing Bei­jing, which re-imag­ines China’s cap­i­tal as a col­lapsi­ble Ru­bik’s cube that sep­a­rates the rich from the poor, the con­nected from the un­touch­able, the nec­es­sary from the ex­pend­able?

It is hard to ig­nore the ex­am­i­na­tion of China’s deep­en­ing pop­u­la­tion cri­sis in Tong­tong’s Sum­mer: eerie hu­man ro­bots take care of China’s rapidly age­ing pop­u­la­tion, who, thanks to the one-child pol­icy, vastly out­num­ber their har­ried, over-tired chil­dren. Else­where, I glimpsed por­traits of mi­grant work­ers, en­vi­ron­men­tal col­lapse, un­em­ploy­ment and guanxi, China’s sys­tem of po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age.

Then again, just as many sto­ries self-con­sciously re­sist such nar­row in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Grave of the Fire­flies reads like a fan­tasy folk-tale re-imag­ined by Jorge Luis Borges or Calvino. Rosamund is an or­phaned girl ma­rooned in an un­sta­ble post-apoc­a­lyp­tic world filled by ghosts, wizards and a path to an­other world. When she isn’t won­der­ing why the stars are dy­ing, she ut­ters lines that feel both an­cient and mod­ern: “Mankind streamed across the river of time, aim­ing straight for the Door of the Sum­mer.”

What does con­nect many of the works are the ways in which pro­found hu­man emo­tion in­serts it­self into even the most generic nar­ra­tive. The Year of the Rat might read like Aliens crossed with James Her­bert’s Rats, but it evokes pathos in the most un­ex­pected places: the vul­ner­a­ble, misun­der­stood char­ac­ter Pea cradling a baby ro­dent; the screams of rat par­ents as their off­spring are mur­dered; the sight of mil­lions of man-made crea­tures march­ing to their deaths.

Tong­tong’s Last Sum­mer be­gins as a black com­edy, but ends by cre­at­ing a del­i­cately heart-warm­ing al­liance be­tween youth and age.

Most strik­ing of all is Tang’s Call Girl, which sab­o­tages our pre­sump­tions when we re­alise Tang Xiaoyi se­duces only through sto­ries: “The air feels thin; the sun­light seems harsh; a susurra­tion fills his ears. He has trou­ble telling the den­sity of things. This is an­other world.”

Al­most ev­ery work in In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets works sim­i­lar magic, trans­port­ing the reader from the ev­ery­day to an­other world that is, by turns, fright­en­ing, un­set­tling, fa­mil­iar and strange. If this is a snap­shot of Chi­nese sci­ence fic­tion, the com­plete pic­ture is very bright in­deed.

Au­thor Ken Liu. John Tlumacki / Getty Images

In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets ed. Ken Liu Tor Books, Dh92

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