Exploring the Frontier: A Conversation with Xia Jia
It’s hard to keep up with Xia Jia: literary scholar, filmmaker, actress, painter, translator, and, oh right, speculative fiction author. She speaks fast, as if she has to cram an unusual number of syllables into each unit of time to keep up with the speed of her thoughts. In the middle of one of our chats she informed me that she had to run because she needed to make it to the taping of a TV show before coming back later to deliver a special lecture on the history of Chinese science fiction to a packed auditorium. In addition, that night she needed to prepare a semester’s worth of PowerPoint slides for classes she teaches at Xi’an Jiaotong University.
I wondered whether she was in possession of Hermione Granger’s Time-Turner.
Xia Jia published her first short story, “The Demon-Enslaving Flask,” in 2004 (English translation by Linda Rui Feng in the November 2012 issue of Renditions), when she was still a college student. The story, a retcon science history in which Maxwell’s demon was a literal demon instead of a thought experiment, catapulted its author into the limelight by winning her a Yinhe (Galaxy) Award for Best New Writer. At the same time, the story, which was published in the “Twilight Zone” section of Science Fiction World, China’s biggest SF magazine, “spawned a series of heated debates about how (and whether) we should blur (or further defend) the boundary between science fiction and other genres,” says Xia Jia.
Exploring the twilight frontier between worlds would become a constant theme in Xia Jia’s career. Trained to be a physicist as an undergraduate, she leapt into film studies and comparative literature for graduate school (her Ph.D. dissertation is titled “Fear and Hope in the Age of Globalization: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction and Its Cultural Politics (1991–2012)”). Her works are imbued with the tension between shifting tradition and revolutionary modernity, core and periphery, the written word and the moving image, rational analysis and intuitive recognition.
A multiple winner of the Yinhe (Galaxy) and Xingyun (Nebula) Awards for Chinese science fiction, Xia Jia is beloved by many fans and praised by fellow writers, but as a woman writer in a male-dominated field whose work defies easy categorization under schemes such as “science fiction / fantasy” or “hard / soft SF,” her stories have also continued to generate controversy.
(Although Xia Jia and I usually communicate in a mixture of Chinese and English, at her request, this interview was conducted in English.)
Welcome, Xia Jia. In the past, you’ve described your fiction as “porridge SF” (稀饭科幻). Can you explain what that means?
Thanks, Ken. Glad to talk with you. I never imagined that one day I would have to tell this story to the English world.
I didn’t invent the term “porridge SF.” Many years ago, after I showed my best friend Yang Qing a short story I wrote in high school composition class, she said, “If we consider Ted Chiang’s ‘Tower of Babylon’ as a masterpiece of soft SF, then I must congratulate you on having created this beautiful piece of ‘porridge SF’!”
Chinese people describe steamed rice as “hard rice” or “soft rice” based on the water content, and porridge is obviously softer even than “soft rice.” Porridge SF thus describes a story mixed with so many non-science elements (e.g. myth, legend or folklore) that it can hardly be classified as “science fiction” anymore, like “Tower of Babylon.”
Since both Yang and I were big Ted Chiang fans, the phrase was intended as a compliment.
After the controversy around whether “The Demon-Enslaving Flask” was really “science fiction,” in 2005 I published my second story “Carmen,” a space opera mixed with a gothic legend of the mysterious dancing girl Carmen. In a postscript, I declared that “no matter how many may refuse to acknowledge the ‘SFnal cloak’ around this story, I will continue to devote myself to this seemingly promising career in ‘porridge SF.’” “Porridge SF” thus became the phrase to describe my style, which is usually regarded as the opposite of hard SF or so-called “core SF,” as exemplified by Liu Cixin’s works.
“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” was the first story by you to appear in English (Clarkesworld, February 2012; originally published in Chinese in Science Fiction World, August 2010). Lois Tilton described it as “literary science fiction . . . where exceptional prose mingles the tropes of SF and fantasy and inform us that such distinctions are not so important.” It seems that the debate over genre boundaries is universal (though the debate also seems to me useless). What are some other ways that critics have described your work?
Besides “porridge SF,” my work is frequently described as typical “girlish soft SF,” which brings me biting comments and attacks from those who believe women are never qualified enough to write “hard SF” but can only make up watered-down love stories (I have noticed that many of those critics are also women).
I really appreciate Tilton’s remark, and I agree with you that the perennial debate over the distinction of hard SF from soft SF is most of the time pointless, which is why I have resisted further elaboration of the definition of “porridge SF.” I mean, it is not a slogan or manifesto, but only an attempt to give a name to something nameless wandering in the twilight zone. Likewise, “female SF” is another phrase I feel is tough to define. It is not my purpose to prove “female SF” can be as hard as “male SF/core SF,” or that “the soft” deserves higher evaluation than “the hard.” All I have been trying to do is to follow my instinct to explore the frontier between “the core” and “the fringe,” the known and the unknown. It is perhaps the most exciting experience that science fiction can bring us.
Speaking of “hard SF,” you actually studied at the School of Physics, Peking University, as an undergraduate (and you’ve helped me to get the science in my stories right). How (if at all) has your training and background in science affected your approach to literary analysis and fiction writing?
The science training has been useful both for my studies and my writing. If I have any question about a science topic, I can search for published papers instead of relying on media reports by journalists. It’s not boring; instead, the work will drive you to know this world better and love it more.
To give you a specific example, recently I gave a lecture on time travel where, using the “butterfly effect,” I explained that we cannot predict the weather or one’s trajectory in life accurately. Every second in our past matters equally.
It has taken all the moments of my life for me to become who I am today. Life is such a beautiful gift that no matter how carefully you measure it out it will seem like a waste. So don’t panic, and there’s time enough for love.
Your story, “Tongtong’s Summer” (Upgraded, edited by Neil Clarke, 2014; Chinese publication in ZUI Fiction, March 2014), offered a positive future of cyborgs and robots in contrast to many of the other stories in the anthology. Is this optimism something new in your recent work? Where does it come from?
That’s an interesting observation. I still remember when I was a little girl, most of the western science fiction stories I read involved dystopias where lives are dark and depressing. People struggle but fail, and come to a totally hopeless, nihilistic end. I used to be fascinated by those visions of the future.
However, I couldn’t help wondering whether there truly is no escape or if we are just unable to imagine it because of some mental constraints. Probably because I was taught from a young age that history is a process of endless struggle, and humanity, as a historical subject, should bring its creative spirit into play.
About “Tongtong’s Summer” in particular: I have aging grandparents who require care and have tried to do some of the nursing work myself. The work was exhausting, but I also found the personal connection in nursing to be a meaningful and irreplaceable element. This inspired me to come up with the remote-controlled elder care aide.
The story is also dedicated to my departed grandfather. A revolutionary hero, he was an energetic man until a brain tumor struck him down. I imagined an alternative future, where Grandpa raged against the bonds placed on him by his disease and changed his own predicament—and the world—from his wheelchair. It is only an imagined solace, of course, but one that has the possibility to be realized someday.
This possibility depends on us, on the courage and love inside every ordinary, mortal individual.
A lot of your work draws on Chinese traditions and customs, showing how they retain their essence in the face of technological and social change. But you’ve also told me that you’re not deeply attached to traditional Chinese culture. Can you reconcile these two sentiments for me?
Honestly, to answer this question you must reconsider “what is traditional Chinese culture” first. Since China has been experiencing great transformations in the process of modernization—“all that is solid melts into air”—one can hardly say such cultural attachment is a natural feeling or a historical construction. I appreciate classical Chinese literature as well as you or any other contemporary reader, but I cannot imagine that on some future day we would dig out certain “traditional wisdom” from ancient books to defend against high-tech space invaders. [KL: hey, that gives me an idea for a story . . .]
Traditions are always changing over time. It is we, the present generation living on the frontier between tradition and modernity, present and future, who struggle for our self-affirmation, not some “tradition” that retains its own self-evident essence.
Readers are sometimes curious about how I’ve changed your stories in the process of translation. Can you talk a bit about that?
I remember in the draft translation of “Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy” (Clarkesworld, September 2014; originally published in Chinese in Science Fiction World, June 2013), you provided a few delicate adjustments, which made me smile. For example, in “New Year’s Eve,” you inserted a few words that the Spring Festival Gala used to be “singing, dancing, a few stupid jokes and it’s over” to explain the program for American readers. And my reaction was “Oh yeah, you know about that!” Similarly in “Matchmaking,” when the manager advised Xiao Li to ask for her mother’s help on those virtual dates, you added an interpretation that “after all, marriage is about two families coming together.” That was very helpful, otherwise American readers might find the whole “mommy counselor” thing totally incomprehensible.
The most obvious change is your recommendation to excise the “Valentine” segment to shorten the story in order to make it easier to sell. Also, you wanted a new title instead of translating it literally as “Old Memories of Spring Festival in 2044.” We argued about this over email and finally reached a consensus: the mini-stories focused on complicated emotions in a changing world, not precise predictions of the future. I really enjoy such discussions. It feels like, well, in your story “The Shape of Thought,” the children of humans and aliens weaving their fingers together and trying to understand this world in a new, strange way.
Can you tell us about the longest film you’ve made so far: Parapax?
Parapax was initially inspired by Alan Brennert’s short story “Echoes,” which depicts a woman’s quantum lives proliferating from her various decisions and possibilities. I shared this idea with my friend Wang Yao, who suggested we try to tell a similar story visually. I wrote the script.
In the film, a young woman majoring in physics wakes up one day to find herself the heroine of a science fiction story. Meanwhile, an author is composing this story in another world where she suddenly meets a mysterious man in black who is a character from her story. In yet a third world, a scriptwriter is talking about science fiction and film with the director.
I had to play all three characters myself because Xia Jia A, B and C are different images of me. Centered on “parallel worlds,” “multiple reality” and “crossover,” the film is also “meta-SF” or “meta-cinema.” The title “Parapax” combines “parallel” and “K-pax” (Gene Brewer’s SF novel and Iain Softley’s film). We loved this name because its pronunciation sounded cool.
You’re involved in so many pursuits: artistic, academic, and literary. How do you balance it all?
I don’t know. Most of time I’m just fascinated by something and let myself be pulled in like an addict.
For example, when Ray Bradbury passed away in June 2014, I felt I had to do something as a tribute to his memory. So I spent two weeks translating seven short stories from The Illustrated Man before I had to stop to get ready for Chicon 7. When I went to the U.S. Embassy to apply for my visa—a rather stressful process in which applicants are often denied—the visa officer asked me: “So you are going to take part in a SF Convention? Who’s your favorite SF writer? Tell me your favorite works.” I answered: “Ray Bradbury! Blahblahblah . . . ” Then he passed me a yellow note: “Cool! Have a nice day!”
I rushed out. Standing in the street and looking up into the sky, I said: “Thanks, Ray!”
So I guess maybe there is no balance in my life, just “let it go!” and beautiful adventures that follow.
Preparing for a great SF course in Xi’an Jiaotong University where I’m teaching. Creating a great SF novel, and a SF film if I’m lucky. Staying healthy and waiting for my opportunity to travel to space (I’m not kidding).
Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote the Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as short story collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also penned the Star Wars novel The Legends of Luke Skywalker.
Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, narrative futures, and the mathematics of origami.