Human or Machine?

The boundaries between humans and machines is a recurrent theme in Chinese SF. Prostheses, cyborgs and human clones being grown for body parts each raise troubling questions about our humanity.

Chen Qiufan’s novel “Waste Tide”, won the Gold Award for Best Novel at the 2013 Chinese Nebula Awards. It takes place in Silicone Island in South China, specialised for recycling electronic waste, including prosthetic body parts. Qiufan described how he switched the default gender of his main waste worker character to female. Mimi, whose name means “honey sweet” in the Teresa Teng song, becomes a “cyborg and a goddess” in her struggle with the gangs. The obvious relevance of the ecological plot is lost somewhat in translation and my cultural ignorance. The English of Waste Tide includes “chiaroscuro, topolect, Matthew effect and monomer”. I stumbled hardest with “Saola”, which I found after half an hour to be “a critically endangered Vietnamese deer hunted to extinction for its scent glands.”

Gu Shi’s novella “Chimera” concerns a talented female biologist, who creates a human-pig chimera to save Tony, her son who she left at birth. 100 years later, police officer Luo Ming is investigating a spaceship carrying a giant chimera that keeps being used to cultivate organs for longevity customers, but something has gone wrong. I recall Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Never Let Me Go”, which concerns human clones being raised to provide spare body parts for their original. As they emerge into adulthood, the clones have to donate more and more body parts and leading to their early death. The depersonalisation and identity diffusion of clone stories unsettle me quite a lot, so I have put off reading “Chimera” for now.

“Utopia or dystopia?” is another major theme of Chinese SF. Dr Heather Inwood of Cambridge University contributed to the Edinburgh Uni SF seminar with descriptions of the recent enthusiasm for apocalypse plots. Sometimes plots combine utopian and dystopian elements, such as “A Perfect Apocalypse”. She writes in Chinese-language columns for newspapers, websites and magazines and is well-placed to describe the fan base issue, for example on the Chinese SF in English web-site wuxiaworld.com.