The Three-Science-Fiction-Author Problem: A Conversation
Taiyo Fujii, Japanese science fiction author of Gene Mapper and Orbital Cloud, invited me here. I only met him half a year earlier, at Worldcon in Dublin, but we quickly became friends and our plans took shape a few months later during dinner in Tokyo. The place is Lyon and the occasion is the AI x SF workshop organized by a group of French scholars, held at the city’s university and municipal library. Our objective? An in-depth conversation with Chinese rising star Xia Jia, present at the event, about the state of SF in China, its influence in the rest of the world, and our views on the genre.
We initially planned to hold it in the library’s auditorium, but an impending strike threw a wrench in the works. Instead, we landed in the head librarian’s office with a sizable stack of doughnuts to sustain us. It’s immediately apparent that language will play a key role in our dealings. After all, here are three SF authors from the Eurasian continent, juggling five languages between them.
Taiyo, please tell us a bit about yourself.
Fujii: I’m a Japanese science fiction writer. I started to write in 2011, because the earthquake report (by the Japanese government after the Tōhoku quake, which lead to the Fukushima nuclear disaster) was not scientific. I got angry. That’s when I started to write Gene Mapper, which I self-published. It sold 10,000 copies in three months. I quit my job and became a dedicated writer. The next year I wrote Orbital Cloud, which won the Nihon SF Taisho Award. I then became the chair of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan until 2018.
You wrote Orbital Cloud in one year. Nowadays you also have a five-year-old child at home. How do you still manage to be this productive?
Fujii: The secret is the Japanese publishing system. Writers don’t offer the full book at once, but produce monthly snippets for a serial publication, a magazine. So, I just wrote chapter after chapter for these deadlines, and after a year the novel was finished. The writing fee for those serials works as the advance for the book. The downside to this system is we don’t have agents to look after our interests. Xia, I am very interested to know when you started writing. I didn’t until I was in my early forties.
Jia: I started telling stories when I was very young. In kindergarten, actually. I used to be a very annoying child, because I’d fabulate on the spot for the adults and once I started, it would never end. When I was eight, I collaborated with my best friend to write a fairy tale, which was published in a mainstream literary magazine in my hometown. I started a little earlier than you, but I still haven’t published any novels though!
Is that because there’s no good framework for you to write a novel? Or do you find it difficult to produce a longer story?
Jia: I’m more interested in short stories. It’s a unique skill to be able to organize complicated things into a short. I think I’d need some outside pressure to help me write a long novel. I have some ideas floating around.
The Japanese system might do you some good?
Jia: It’s a very good system! Currently I’m working on an anthology of stories, but my editors were too nice to me and it’s taking me years to finish.
Fujii: Our system works, however there are problems with it. We only have limited slots in magazines, but an abundance of writers. Over 4,000 dedicated authors! That doesn’t mean they can live off of it, only that writing’s their full-time profession. On top of that, publications only accept the work of established writers, giving newcomers and young talent very little options to start. Their only way of breaking through is by winning a novel contest, which is like winning the lottery—it’s so hard.
The situation in the Netherlands is pretty dire right now. Half of all the movies in the cinema are SF, but there’s no literary market for it at all. Part of that is due to how smart the readership is: we have an excellent understanding of English, so there’s little incentive to translate anything into Dutch. That in turn has dried up the well. But that’s too depressing to discuss, so let’s talk about your dream to go to Mars, Xia. One-way ticket?
Jia: Yes, actually, I can accept that. When I was a kid, I read the very influential novel The Descendants Of Mars by Zheng Wenguang, who is known as the “father of Chinese science fiction” because he published the first SF since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. The story was about Chinese people establishing a habitat on Mars to make it the second home for humankind. A classic tale, but because it uses Chinese characters it gave me the dream of going to Mars. And it should be possible in my lifetime! Maybe when I reach the age of sixty or seventy, it might come true. It’s a good reason for me to stay fit and healthy. Maybe save some money.
How do you envision life there? Would it be like Andy Weir’s The Martian?
Jia: It would be a very harsh existence in a colony. We’ll live in domes. But I think that would be ideal for the retiring life.
Let’s send all of our retirees to Mars! They’ll have an interesting lives! Elon Musk tweeted that he wants to send one million people to Mars by 2050.
Jia: I’ll be around seventy by then, perfect! I’m still on track. I’ll take Wenguang’s book along and bury it there with me. So, it’s not about tourism. I wouldn’t just go to Mars for several days and snap some amazing pictures. That’s a waste of energy and resources. We have to devote ourselves to the goal of populating the planet.
Fujii: Once tourism is possible, the first guest should be an SF author.
Xia, I read you directed and starred in your own movie, Parapax.
Jia: That’s a dark secret.
Do you want to talk about it? Because I find this so typical of creative people. They rarely do just one thing: they express their creativity in many different ways. But now I suspect you’re not very happy with Parapax?
Jia: When I was doing my master’s degree in film studies, it was all about the history and cultural impact of films, but I was also interested in how they were made. Some friends were doing similar studies and we talked about the possibility of making a very low-budget film ourselves. The basic idea is about life across multiple alternate universes. I play the same character in three scenarios. At the first level, I play a physics student. At the second, I’m a writer who works on a story about this student. At the third, I’m a screenwriter adapting the story. So, it’s about multi-universes referring back to each other.
There used to be a version online, but it’s no longer available. Mercifully. But your question is actually about creativity, and in this I’m at a disadvantage. I find it hard to keep doing anything for a very long time. Writing SF is unique in that it’s the one thing I never lost interest in. On the other hand, I’m never afraid of doing something new. If I fail, it’s not a big deal, it doesn’t embarrass me.
In my experience, it takes a while before you find your theme. It wasn’t until I was twenty-nine that I finally discovered: “Hey! I’m actually a novelist!” I’d written stories all my life, but they were always applied stories, for comics and games and journalism. It seems so perfectly obvious to me now, but it still took years to figure out.
Fujii: I was forty-one when I started.
Jia: I want so many things in my life. In college, I wanted to become a famous physics professor, winning the Nobel Prize. But I’m very fortunate to get into writing, because of the rise of Chinese SF worldwide. That gave me so many opportunities for jobs and things to do. To build up relationships in the international community. It just . . . became my career. I never planned it out.
So, Liu Cixin’s phenomenal success (The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, etc.) influenced your career quite a bit?
Jia: Yes, but I want to put it in a larger perspective. China is getting more visible to readers worldwide, not just in this one genre. Liu Cixin’s success can be traced back to (Chinese-American author and translator) Ken Liu’s success. The bigger trend is visibility, but of course these are prominent figures within that.
What would you say characterizes Chinese SF?
Jia: It found new life in the 1990s. That’s what we call the fifth wave. Science Fiction World and other magazines started developing the internal market for genre work. It resembled the Golden Age in the US. In fact, the writing often copied the themes from those times. Inevitably, more mature authors began to explore what would make “Chinese SF.” What they hit on as its main characteristic was the tension of China’s modernization—the process of removing itself from being perceived by the West as a third world nation. That’s an outside perspective. China experienced a great deal of pressure to modernize according to Western standards, but through SF we found our own, Chinese way to develop and prosper. Our writers subconsciously absorbed this tension, and it shows in their work.
Chinese authors reinvent what it means to be Chinese, also for the outside world. Do you have an example of that?
Jia: My favorite example comes from 1902, right at the beginning of this process, in the late Qing dynasty.
Fujii: Just after the First Sino-Japanese War.
Jia: The writer was definitely influenced by the war! He was a famous Chinese scholar and politician named Liang Qichao. He created one work of fiction, but only after his reforms failed and he was exiled to Yokohama in Japan. There he read some Japanese SF and political fiction and realized the influence this kind of reading could have on re-forming citizens’ thought. He established a magazine for Chinese fiction. His novel projects into the far future of 1962, when China is a strong power in the world, and then retraces the steps it took to get there. It’s a way of reframing the country in the eyes of the world. That’s an important feature of the way we handle the genre.
Taiyo, you already explained a lot about Japanese SF in the workshop yesterday. How it was co-opted in the war to serve as propaganda. Afterward it suffered from various spells of censorship. What typifies modern Japanese SF?
Fujii: It’s so varied. I’m writing about an optimistic future where science and technology bring us into a better world, a better life. But others write dystopias. I have a hard time finding a single clear direction in our SF right now. So instead I’d like to lament that we have a huge lack of female writers. There are a great many making manga, but not so much in the literary field.
Why is that?
Fujii: Part of it is that there are so few role models in Japan. Boys read SF and want to start writing it themselves, but the same doesn’t happen with girls. On top of that, we don’t seem to translate much English language SF written by women. Ursula K. Le Guin and Ann Leckie are the exceptions. Oh, and Octavia E. Butler, even though her novel Kindred is translated as “Black literature” instead of SF. So, we don’t have a culture of reading those works. Japanese readers should know they’re missing out on half of all the writing being done.
Jia: In China, we don’t translate some authors either. We have Le Guin and [Margaret] Atwood, but no Butler. Big pity.
Fujii: A good thing about Japanese SF is that we are constantly pushing the boundaries of ideas, always on the frontier. This is because of the huge body of manga being created. Those stories are the mainstream, which forces literary SF to be more avant-garde.
Your own work usually takes place in the very near future, and I’ve also noticed it’s very political. In Orbital Cloud you look at the various space programs of Iran, the US, Japan, China . . . Do you have a political message with your writing?
Fujii: My work is very political. If you take one of my latest publications, Hello, World!, it deals with the freedom of the Internet. It’s about a software engineer who struggles with the Internet becoming less and less free—censorship, governments tightening their grip—and develops a program to escape that. This is based on my real experiences. I programmed a communication app years ago that was adopted by people during the Arab Spring and was rewarded for my efforts by governments spying on me. I’m still very proud of that, though it was a scary situation at times. I hope Hello, World! will be translated into other languages.
Over the past few years I’ve been wondering what the Netherlands have to offer in the SF world. Is there such a thing as “Dutch SF”? I posed that question to many of my writing colleagues and two themes surfaced. The first is trade. Because we’re a tiny country without many natural resources, we exist only because we trade with other nations. And we have, of course, an extensive, ugly colonial history—based on trade. Trade is part of our cultural fabric, and so also of our stories. The second is water management and ecological disaster. It’s possible that 500 years from now, the Netherlands won’t exist anymore.
Jia: You’ll be flooded.
Yes. There’ll be a diaspora of Dutch people around the world. We’ll be nationless. Our government is already making plans to counteract this catastrophe, and technology will play a huge part in that. Maybe we’ll have floating cities, or build gigantic structures in the North Sea to ward off the water, or perhaps we’ll have to give some of our provinces back to the sea. There are very tough choices ahead of us, and our SF is already playing into that.
Very recently a new genre appeared, called “ziltpunk.” Zilt is salt or brine. It’s very optimistic fiction. It shows a post-catastrophe world where the Netherlands are flooded, or we may have retreated underground—there are infinite scenarios. But these stories all share that the people living in them lead interesting lives. It shows that even after the disaster, life will still be worth living. That’s such a strong message, because we worry about that. The scary thing about the catastrophe is that we might have to surrender some of our luxuries and privileges. Ziltpunk says there’s nothing to be afraid of.
I’d like to steer our discussion to the most controversial of topics: what is SF?
Fujii: This is a very difficult discussion, as it depends on one’s definition of it. In Japan, there was a very ugly breakup between the literary SF world and fans, when one high profile author proclaimed that Gundam (a cherished, multi-series franchise featuring towering mechs and space warfare) wasn’t SF. That created a lot of bad blood in the community. Xia, readers have actually asked me whether your work qualifies as SF. I told them it does, because it asks the question of where the human race is going to.
Jia: Well, it so happens I’m currently writing a paper on this . . . it focuses on Darko Suvin’s definition of SF as cognitive estrangement (briefly: SF should have a “novum,” an absolutely new element that forces the reader to imagine a different way of conceiving our world). Now, there are multiple definitions of SF, most of those from the perspective of the reader community. The main focus of Suvin’s is to create a way to separate the good works from the bad—sometimes referred to as non-SF or fantasy. It tries to expand the definition of “science,” redefining it to include the humanities, the social sciences. Suvin borrowed the concept of estrangement from Brecht, who was writing about the theater, obviously. He said that we need this “estrangement” to remove us from the vantage point of the center and put us in the marginal places. From this point of view, we can reflect on our reality, or the way we perceive it through our ideology, and consider alternative possibilities. He saw us as being trapped in our minds as in a cage.
Isn’t that true for the entire spectrum of speculative fiction, including fantasy and magical realism?
Jia: Ah, that debate came after Suvin, after he wrote about this in the 1970s. He moved from Yugoslavia to Canada and established the academic study of SF. A humanist, he tried to redefine what SF was in America. Before him, it was seen only through the lens of pulp printed in magazines. Suvin saw SF as a very powerful tool to reform people’s thoughts, to make them think about a better future. I think that’s a very important point. He discriminated against fantasy though. At the time, Tolkien dominated the genre with The Lord of the Rings, and Suvin considered it rather conservative. It was all about middle-class values, recreating a beautiful place where people could live in peace. Suvin wanted to embrace a more radical cultural revolution. He emphasized how SF has that power of estrangement, and I agree with him that it’s a positive way forward.
Does technology play any part in this idea?
Jia: Yes. So, first of all, he looked down on pulp. He saw that as window dressing, just using spaceships to tell old stories and call them space operas. Instead, he praised social SF like Ursula K. Le Guin’s. But beyond that, Suvin also wrote that there should be a novum in any good SF story. Something truly new. Time travel, for instance, used to be exciting, but it’s not anymore because it’s been overly explored by now. A novum doesn’t have to be a machine, it can also be a new way of looking at things. I think that SF has had a very European view on the world and on the development of civilizations—spreading outward from Europe into the world. The novum here could be that the Chinese view brings about that estrangement for Western readers.
That would mean that, wherever you live, you’re best served by reading SF from other countries. Then you immediately place yourself at the fringe of your own worldview and achieve estrangement.
Jia: Sounds about right! That’s how I define SF: to cross boundaries, to think differently, to see the unseen, to imagine the unimaginable.
Fujii: That’s a very interesting definition. Thank you for this lecture, Xia. As for my own, it’s very simple. SF has to give answers on the important questions: where did we come from, what are we, and where are we going to? If a work manages to answer these, I think it’s good SF. Most other literary genres are concerned with only asking questions, without providing answers.
Jia: Most of us would agree with that, I think. The search for answers, to known and unspoken questions.
Fujii: In this, many fans focus on the “where are we going to?” aspect, but the “where did we come from?” is just as valid. Beyond that, Suvin’s concept of estrangement is very important in explaining those answers to the readers. In making them understand.
Chinese SF is very popular right now. How will it expand beyond the success of Liu Cixin?
Jia: We need to give young writers opportunities to develop their work. It takes a long time for an author to mature enough to write something truly unique. You can’t just follow the trends; you have to create your own field. There has to be room for that. I’d also like for there to be more diversity in China. Right now, everything is overshadowed by Liu Cixin’s success. It’s important to encourage young writers who might have totally different ways of exploring the genre.
Fujii: I’m going to support young Chinese writers and help spread their work.
Roderick Leeuwenhart is a Dutch SF writer whose stories are often about the bond between Japan and the Netherlands. He wrote a YA trilogy called Pindakaas en Sushi, about a group of otaku friends, and won the 2016 Harland Awards with his SF short "Star Body," which is currently being expanded into a novel.