Chinese Science Fiction

Fiction allows worries and aspirations about the future to be explored, without much constraint by current political configurations. The three-body problem trilogy by Liú Cíxīn has had a huge impact in China. There is now the possibility that a TV series will put it centre-stage in Britain. Meanwhile there has been a dramatic move of women into SF. The unprecedented award of the prestigious U.S. Hugo award in 2015 to Liú was followed by a succession of female Hugo awards. Biological themes, rather than combat with extra-terrestrials have thus become important. Gu Shi wrote her short story “Chimera” around a woman biologist creating a human-pig chimera to save her son. Chen Qiufan rewrote his “Waste Tide” story so that the female lead Mimi becomes part-cyborg to overcome gangs controlling a hazardous waste recycling community and creating ecological disaster.

Science fiction and fantasy take little account of national borders. Pokémon emerged from Japan to start a wave of “Pop Cosmopolitanism”. The US commentator Jenkins coined this phrase and illustrates it by a clerk in a Georgia grocery store using a Japanese name badge and clothes as part her anime “cosplay”. Humans, known as Pokémon Trainers, catch and train “pocket monsters” to battle each other for sport. It is not too violent: in a decisive victory, the opponent faints. Breaking out of its original Nintendo hardware into smartphone software it sold 368 million copies. Pokémon creates a few moral ripples. Saudi Arabia banned it, claiming to find a Star of David, crosses, and triangles they associated with Freemasonry, but a satellite TV station based in the Vatican found it “full of imagination”. Getting run over while distracted is more of a problem.

Translation from Chinese has to overcome a few problems. Personal names can be troublesome, as surnames come first, but Chinese living in the UK may adopt the English convention. I remember Liú! cíxīn by emphasising the family name. Another Liú (刘) is the current goto person for Chinese authors wanting a translation. There is a huge list with his name Ken Liu, Liú Yǔkūn, pronounced “Lyo”, as either translator or author. A review of his 2019 anthology “Broken Stars” is one of the pages on this site. The “wallfacer” in the three-body problem is challenging, but http://www.chinadaily.com.cn sorted it for me: 面壁 (miàn bì) combines the punishment of being told to stand in the corner as a child but also contemplation of one’s existence. Mandarin does not have a past tense but uses the aspect marker “le” to show that something is completed so Chen Qiufan retrained himself to write Waste Tide with a chronology. With a short learning curve, Google translate and Wikipedia will rapidly sort out most misunderstandings. Knowing a few Chinese characters sometime s has big payoff. The graphics used for book covers often look very robotic, but “Dark Forest” reveals itself as the characters 三体, pinyin sān tǐ, ‘three body’. The burgeoning market for Chinese SF in the English language may be found, for example in wuxiaworld.com.

Chinese Science Fiction as World Literature was a zoom seminar hosted by the University of Edinburgh Asian Studies Department on 21st October, in which Ros Wong and I participated for SACU. We learned about themes of pop cosmopolitanism, human-machine fusion, dystopia/ utopia and mutual assured destruction, which are explored in this web-site.