Another Word: Chinese Science Fiction and Chinese Reality
China is a society undergoing rapid development and transformation, where crises are present along with hopes, and opportunities coexist with challenges. This is a reality reflected in the science fiction produced there.
Chinese readers often interpret science fiction in unexpected ways. Take my Three Body series as an example. The alien-invasion story takes as its premise a “worst-case” scenario for relationships among members of the cosmic society of civilizations, which is called the “Dark Forest” state. In this state, different starfaring civilizations have no choice but to attempt to annihilate each other at the first opportunity.
After publication, the novels became surprisingly popular among those working in China’s Internet industry. They saw the “Dark Forest” state portrayed in the novels as an accurate reflection of the state of brutal competition among China’s Internet companies.
In particular, they point to a type of warfare described in the novels in which one civilization attempts to destroy another by lowering the dimensionality of space itself. Readers say that this “dimension-reduction” method of attack is prevalent in the Chinese Internet industry, where companies often use techniques such as unsustainably low prices or even free, inferior goods to drag other competitors to a “lower plane” of competition, where they can be eliminated because the attackers are more familiar with survival at this lower level of existence.
Authors (myself included) are often befuddled by such interpretations.
The conflicts and crises present in Chinese society are sometimes reflected in science fiction with metaphors both blunt and subtle. For example, Ma Boyong’s “The City of Silence” describes a dystopian society in which words are gradually forbidden by the authorities for political reasons until people are able to communicate in daily life only with an extremely limited list of approved words. Zhang Ran’s “Ether” similarly portrays a society of ubiquitous surveillance in which people resort to the primitive method of writing on each other’s palms with a finger to communicate freely. These two stories are obviously commenting on China’s Internet censorship regime.
Chen Qiufan’s novel, The Waste Tide, on the other hand, works more subtly by portraying a scene that is both familiar and strange: following the invasion of a foreign capital, a symbolic Chinese island is turned into a dumping ground for electronic waste products from the rest of the world. The inhabitants of the island eke out a living among the mountainous heaps of garbage and evolve into bizarre cyborgs.
On the other hand, contemporary Chinese science fiction also evinces an enterprising spirit and optimism. In science fiction written in my country during the last century, the Chinese of the future were, as a whole, rather vaguely portrayed. For readers during that time, China was at the periphery of the world, and the future of the world and the human race would be determined by superpowers like the United States and the Soviet Union, and China would have little influence on it. Science fiction of the time did not have any Chinese superhero capable of changing the world.
However, as the pace of China’s modernization accelerated, Chinese readers began to feel the growing presence of their country in the future of the world. For example, in the Three Body series, most of the characters responsible for saving and destroying the world were Chinese, and readers did not find this implausible.
A typical example of the optimism that China would have a hand in making the future is my story, “Sun of China.” The protagonist of the story is a migrant laborer from the countryside, a “spider-man” who cleans the windows of skyscrapers in the cities.
He belongs to a unique Chinese social class at the bottom of society, struggling to make low wages through backbreaking labor without even the right to settle in the cities they serve. China, meanwhile, has constructed a giant mirror in space, called “Sun of China,” that would help stabilize the climate and increase agricultural output. In order to save money, migrant laborers from the countryside are hired to clean this mirror in space.
The protagonist of the story, due to his experience as a spider-man, gets the job and begins to live a new life in space. Finally, this man from one of the poorest villages in Northwestern China manages to transform the giant reflector into a solar sail that he uses to depart the solar system for the limitless space beyond.
The question of the relationship between China’s science fiction and its reality has always been perplexing. What I’ve written so far is still fairly superficial, and I’ve long tried to get a deeper insight into the issue.
Let me try to point to a phenomenon unique to the Chinese science fiction of the last century: the paucity of subject material. Many of the core subjects of Western science fiction—long space journeys, time travel, alien invasions, apocalyptic catastrophes, the origin and end of the universe, etc.—were simply not present in Chinese science fiction at all because they were too far from the reality of China. The science fiction of the time hewed to everyday reality closely, and one might even describe them as practical.
But at present, Chinese science fiction has lifted off from the ground and entered space, even reaching beyond the solar system to the very edge of the universe. What I’ve described above as reflecting the reality of Chinese society is not the mainstream of science fiction. The most popular works have little to do with the day-to-day reality of people’s lives.
Another popular writer, Baoshu, often sets his fiction in contemporary China, but it is used only as a setting. Even a writer like Wang Jinkang, who believes in a style of science fiction tied to reality, has cast his sight to the end of the universe in his new book, Escape from the Mother Universe.
Chinese science fiction is in the process of shifting its focus to topics that are far from reality, more ethereal and philosophical. After much reflection, I’ve reached a conclusion that is surprising even to myself.
The most profound way that Chinese science fiction reflects Chinese reality is not in the incisive portrayals of and subtle metaphors about Chinese society, but in its trend of moving away from concerns with everyday reality. The manner in which Chinese science fiction is moving further and further away from reality and closer to the future and the stars is a reflection of the deep changes in the thinking patterns of the Chinese people, especially the younger generation. I have no doubt such changes will, in turn, transform China’s present as well as its future.