Traffic on science fiction’s Silk Road has traditionally been distinctly one-way.
For one hundred years, SF was manufactured in the West and shipped East to China. Even as other Chinese exports came to dominate world markets in the 1990s there was little sign this particular trade deficit would ever be reversed. But inside China an SF revolution was brewing. At its vanguard was one extraordinary work. It took the best part of a decade for it to make its way to the West, but when it did, Tech-titans, Presidents and SF fans lined up behind it. Mark Zuckerberg selected it for his Facebook reading club, Barak Obama blurbed it, SF readers voted it the Hugo award for best novel — a first for translated fiction. Its been a New York Timesbestseller in the US, spent 11 weeks on Germany’s Der Speigel bestseller list, won literary awards in Spain and Germany and has sold over 100,000 copies for Head of Zeus.
The book was Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. Taking its title from an intractable scenario in orbital mechanics and containing three intertwining plots, set respectively during the Cultural Revolution, the present day and on a distant world, trapped in a three-sun solar system, Three-Body was initially serialized in the Chinese magazine Science Fiction World in 2006. Published in book form in 2008, it conquered the national bestseller charts, selling over a million copies and now stands at the fore of an extraordinary flowering of Chinese SF that has finally opened up an East-West lane on the SF Silk Road.
The First 90 Years
Chinese SF is roughly the same age as its Western counterpart, but China’s twentieth-century – interesting times – didn’t run in the genre’s favour and its development was anything but smooth.
Translated SF arrived in China in 1900 with the publication of Jules Verne’s Round the World in Eighty Days. The earliest original Chinese science fiction novel, Colony of the Moon by Huangjiang Diaosou, followed shortly thereafter, serialized between 1904 and 1905. The collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 ushered in nearly four chaotic decades of warlord factionalism and Japanese occupation. Perhaps the most famous novel from this period – a Penguin Modern Classic today – is Lao She’s Cat Country, a dystopian satire set on Mars, published in 1932.
There was a more optimistic burst of SF writing after the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949, but it was largely didactic and directed at children. The Cultural Revolution left little room literature of any kind, but by the late 1970s economic reforms had opened the door to commercial literary activity and several specialist SF magazines were launched. The most influential, Science Literature, was founded in 1979 and had gathered an audience of 200,000 subscribers by 1980. But in 1983, the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, decrying the genre’s western capitalist influences, all but wiped SF from the map. Science Literaturekept publishing (the only SF magazine to do so) but its subscribers dropped to just 700.
China’s New Generation… and New New Generation
In 1991, Science Literaturerebranded asScience Fiction World (SFW), taking a definitive step in the genre’s long march to domestic commercial and critical respectability and its successful integration with the international SF community.
With a new editor, Yao Haijun, at the helm SFW launched the careers of Liu Cixin, He Ji and Wang Jinkang – the trio known that came to be known as Chinese SF’s ‘New Generation’. By 2000, subscriptions were over 350,000. In 2003 the magazine was able to launch a publishing house, dedicated to bringing the best of World SF and original Chinese SF to their readers.
DespiteSFW’sgroundwork, mid way through the noughties Chinese SF still carried little literary cache. It was largely ignored by both the literary establishment and the massmarket, or it was simply dismissed as juvenilia. When Liu wrote the first volume of his Three-Body trilogy, he didn’t feel Chinese readers were ready for the more hardcore elements of his SF imagination, so he was careful to base the first two installments in a world he felt his readers would recognize and lead them on from there. The final instalment, filled with multi-dimensional warfare, artificial black holes and mini-universes was the book he wanted to write for himself as a committed SF fan, but both he and his editor – SFW’s Yao Haijun – approached it with a degree of trepidation, worrying it was a non-commercial indulgence. To their surprise it was the volume that made the series.
China’s online community loved Three-Body. Fans composed songs, created fake trailers for the movie they hoped for, adopted social media personalities based on Three-Body characters and wrote fan fiction. Baoshu’s serial Three-Body X, a side-quel to the events depicted in The Dark Forest and Death’s End, started appearing online within a week of the final volume’s original publication and eventually, with Liu’s blessing, was itself traditionally published. All the online noise drove a million book sales, bringing scientists, engineers and government to the trilogy. Cosmologist Li Miao wrote a book called The Physics of Three-Body. China’s national aerospace agency asked Liu to consult for them.
The impact of the Internet on Chinese SF shouldn’t be underestimated. Readers suddenly had access to a wealth of western science fiction, fans had a new medium for discovering and expressing their appreciation of it, and perhaps most importantly, writers had a new way of distributing their work. Many of China’s best-known and most-decorated SF writers did not start their careers within the literary establishment. Commanding little respect or attention from publishers, the government or the general public, SF authors were denied a traditional route to market, so they published on digital bulletin boards and forums, more for feedback rather than wealth or fame. Early drafts were posted and editing crowd-sourced. The forums fostered real success, launching the award-winning careers of Baoshu and Xia Jia. Hao Jingfang first published the Hugo award-winning ’Folding Beijing’ directly on to a popular bulletin board hosted by Tsinghua University.
The rising stars of China’s SF scene – known as the ‘New New Generation’ – are far removed from the popular stereotype of an SF aficionado. They are multi-lingual, highly qualified young men and women holding high-octane jobs. Hao Jingfang has a Ph.D. in Economics, on top of a post-grad in Astrophysics. By day she works as an economic advisor to the Chinese government at China Research Development Foundation, a state-backed think tank in Beijing. Stanley Chen Qiufan worked at Baidu, Google and now Noitom, a motion-capture start up. Xia Jia has China’s first Ph.D. in SF – Fear and Hope in the Age of Globalisation: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction and Its Cultural Politics (1991-2012) – and teaches at Xi’an Jiaotong University. She’s a translator from English into Chinese (she translated Ken Liu’s novella ‘The Man Who Ended History’) as well as an actress, filmmaker, painter and singer. Baoshu, now an award-winning SF author in his own right, has a Masters degree in philosophy from KU Leuven in Belgium.
Liu Cixin’s Hugo for Best Novel in 2015 and Hao Jingfang’s Best Novelette award the following year were mainstream news in China. In the aftermath of ‘Folding Beijing’s’ victory, Audi launched an ad campaign, declaring: ‘Hao Jingfang, China’s first female Hugo Award winner, marching forward with Audi’. The carmaker, seeking to bolster its progressive brand values, latched on to the burgeoning SF scene and selected a writer to play the role that a film or sports star might play in the West. (See the TV advert here: https://youtu.be/9XTF3JHdjU0)
In the China’s film and TV world, SF IP is now about as hot as it gets. Even the government has also come to recognize the importance of the genre. There are apocryphal stories of officials visiting Silicon Valley and identifying an inordinate fondness for SF among leading entrepreneurs as a statically significant contributing factor to their success. True or not, China’s State Council cited a need to improve the country’s scientific literacy in its 2016 science and technology progress plan. Their proposed policies included the establishment of national SF awards and international SF festivals.
On the Silk Road
Despite China’s fervor for homegrown SF, there was still no easy conduit to the West. The overwhelming popularity of the serial fiction platform is unique to China and there is the very considerable language barrier.
China’s highly motivated SF fandom did what it could, setting up Chinese SF advocacy groups like the Future Affairs Administration (FAA) or Storycom and worked hard to attract foreign interest and investment. Clarkesworld Magazine has a Kickstarter-funded agreement Storycom to include a translated Chinese SF story with each issue. Beijing Guomi Digital Technology Company, founded by a collective of authors, translated twelve of Liu Cixin’s short stories into English and published them individually and collectively in eBook and PoD, around the world, but the breakthrough came when Li Yun, Export Director at CEPIEC, China’s second largest Book Importer, took the risk of commissioning English translations of the Three-Body trilogy.
Li picked two committed Chinese SF evangelists, Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen to translate. Given all the people committed to bringing Chinese SF to the West, it is undoubtedly unfair to pin its successful emergence on the shoulders of a single individual, but if you had to do it, your poster boy would be Ken Liu.
Ken was born in China in 1976 and moved to America at the age of 11. He read English at Harvard, studied law at Harvard Law School, worked as a lawyer, a software developer and also found time to write. His literary output – more than 120 short stories and an epic ‘silkpunk’ fantasy series (so far!)– is garlanded with awards. His short story ‘The Paper Menagerie’ (2012), won, uniquely, all three of the top awards in the world of SF and fantasy – the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. The first volume of his fantasy epic won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. He added translation to his crowded resumé when Stanley Chen Qiufan – having just read one of Ken’s short stories – reached out over the Internet and asked him to comment on a translation of one of his own short stories. Ken judged the translation competent but didn’t think it captured the voice of the original. So he produced his own interpretation … and started down the road that led to the publication of Invisible Planets, the very first commercial anthology of Chinese contemporary science fiction in English, and – almost predictably for a man with so many SF awards already in his closet – to a Best Novel Hugo for translating The Three Body Problem. You won’t be surprised to discover that he’s also the translator of Hao Jingfang’s ‘Folding Beijing’.
Li Yun’s initiative found Three-Body homes with twelve (and counting) international publishers and established a publisher-friendly rights conduit to the West that has led to Li launching a literary agency dedicated to bringing not just the best of Chinese SF, but the best of Chinese genre fiction to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, agencies that once sold rights West to East are increasingly representing Chinese authors – Hao Jingfang is represented by Andrew Nurnberg Associates, Chen Qiufan is represented by the Grayhawk Agency.
Above: Team HoZsf at Worldcon75. From left: Chen Qiufan, Adrian Tchaikovsky; Nicolas Cheetham, Baoshu, Liu Cixin, Ken Liu.
But what is Chinese SF?
Does Chinese science fiction’s domestic and international success mean that there is something intrinsically special about it? Some special ingredient? Can one take Liu Cixin’s multi-dimensional hard SF, Stanley Chen Qiufan’s ‘torn-generation’ post-cyberpunk, or Hao Jingfang’s economic and sociological speculation and distill some essence of Chinese SF? Should one even try to? After all, is there such a discrete thing as SF written in English? Would it be useful to try and distinguish between US SF and Canadian SF. Between English SF and Scottish SF?
Ken Liu warns that ‘anyone who confidently asserts a definitive characterization of “Chinese science-fiction” is either a) an outsider who doesn’t know what they’re talking about or b) someone who does know something, but is deliberately ignoring the contested nature of the subject’.
But I think we can enquire as to why Chinese SF has proven so successful in the west and what are Western audiences expecting when they read Chinese SF? Is it Chinese SF’s ‘Chinese-ness’ that has made it popular in the West? Or Chinese SF’s ‘SF-ness’?
The big themes of western SF – space exploration, alien contact, genetic engineering, AI, ecological catastrophe – all have their Chinese analogue. And in treating these grand themes the Chinese science fictional imagination appears every bit as exuberantly inventive as its Western counterpart.
So if SF-ness is evenly distributed, is Chinese-ness the magic ingredient? The Chinese cultural experience – from histories, geographies and mythologies on the one hand, to cuisines and everyday customs on the other, is undeniably different. For the Western reader that makes for some pleasingly exotic colour, but more importantly, brings some interesting perspective shifts. The experience of humanity in the Three-Body trilogy is markedly different to the typical experience of frontier-settling, rebel-alliancing, alien-smiting humanity of Western SF. In his introduction to Remembrance of Earth’s Past – a one-volume special edition of the Three-Body trilogy Head of Zeus are producing this autumn – Liu Cixin says ‘At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Western civilization crossed the ocean to bring to the ancient Chinese empire ideas that have cataclysmically transformed its culture and are still shaping contemporary China: modern technology and science, Marxism, market capitalism, and democratic governance. Compared to Westerners, the Chinese may thus have a much more immediate and visceral understanding of how contact with another civilization may transform one’s own. My series may be read as an echo of that national memory.’
If the Western experience has shown that economic boom-times are SF boom-times, you could say that China’s diverse, vibrant, modern SF scene reflects a diverse, vibrant, modern China. But let’s not forget that the technological and social change that took three centuries in the West occurred within two generations in China. Does this lend SF an immediacy and relevance in China that it perhaps doesn’t retain in the West? Chinese SF authors speak with such an earnest passion about the genre’s philosophy and practice that I suspect SF is intrinsically more relevant to contemporary China than it is to the West.
But I think the key to Chinese SF’s international success lies within the nature of SF itself. The simple truth is that science fiction is inherently export-ready. Firstly, as a literature of possibilities it embraces the new and different. Its readers expect to be challenged by alien concepts and carried to far shores and over strange horizons. Secondly, one has to ask why other immensely popular genres within China such as wuxia— martial arts — stories or historical fiction or ghost stories, haven’t enjoyed the same international success as Chinese SF. In taking a concept / departure point and running with it, SF, to a large degree, is self-booting and / or decipherable with the lingua franca of science. For other genres without these requirements, the sheer weight of assumed historical, geographical, mythological references can be untranslatable. In bringing the uninitiated up to speed, the translator’s footnotes would outweigh the text. Thirdly, SF is universal. It’s concerns cut across borders. As Liu Cixin puts it, ‘SF is the most global, the most universal storytelling vessel, with the capability to be understood by all cultures. SF novels are concerned with problems faced by all of humanity. Crises in SF usually threaten humanity as a whole. It is a unique and treasurable trait inherent in the genre – that the human race is perceived as a single entity, undivided.’