GLLI (11) - Ken Liu on Chinese Science Fiction

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

Part of: Global Literature in Libraries Initiative

The following post, part of our Global Literature in Libraries Initiative series, is an email interview with Ken Liu, author and translator of science fiction. Apart from his own fiction Ken is best known around here as the translator of volumes I and III of the Three Body Problem, together with Joel Martinsen, and Clarkesworld magazine's in-depth interest in Chinese science fiction. We talked to him about what Chinese sci-fi has to offer -- take a look!**

Can you give us a brief rundown of the development of science fiction in China?

SF has a long history in China. As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, prominent Chinese writers like Lu Xun were translating Western SF (e.g., Jules Verne) into Chinese (often via Japanese). These early translations introduced an unfamiliar genre to Chinese readers and led to some of the earliest examples of original SF written in Chinese.

Later, after the founding of the People's Republic, SF in China went through multiple waves of prominence and decline. When it rose, it was sometimes promoted by the government as a way to teach young people a love of science and technology -- a motivation not terribly different from the goal of some Western SF writers early on. When it was suppressed, it was sometimes deemed a kind of spiritual pollution from the West.

More recently, in the last decade or so, SF is enjoying another renaissance in China, largely with benign neglect from the government. Prominent writers like Liu Cixin (The Three-Body Problem, winner of the Hugo in 2015), Han Song (Red Star Over America), Chen Qiufan (The Waste Tide), Xia Jia ("A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight"), Hao Jingfang ("Folding Beijing," winner of the Hugo in 2016), and others are writing SF that absorbs Western influences while retaining unique Chinese perspectives, and these works are a part of the global SF tradition, engaging and conversing with all SF fandom.

This history glosses over many complications, not the least of which is the degree to which the interrupted development of Chinese SF can or should be seen as a single canon -- though, again, this is not a problem limited to Chinese SF but with all canons in general.

A much more detailed and informative history of Chinese SF is found in Regina Kanyu Wang's article, "A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction"

Are there any aspects of Chinese sci-fi that you feel are uniquely Chinese? Either in style or subject matter?

I've always been very resistant to making generalizations about a large and diverse body of literature like "Chinese SF" or "American SF," largely because it really is hard to make useful generalizations, and also because generalizations have a tendency to shape and guide perception through confirmation bias, which I think is unfair to writers and readers alike.

I do think that because of the tumultuous changes sweeping through the country in the last few decades, China is an extraordinary society in transition, full of complex contradictions that, in some ways, represent a concentrated version of the contradictions seen across the globe. Incredible freedoms and oppression live side by side, as do gleaming wealth and abject poverty, technological progress and regressive fundamentalism, spiritual clarity and collapse of foundation, breathtaking modernity and hollowed out traditions. The sense of contradictions, of being in the 21st century and the 19th simultaneously, is not unfamiliar to the rest of the world, but is perhaps most acute in China and thus surfaces in Chinese SF especially poignantly.

Chen Qiufan, a leading voice in the younger generation of Chinese SF writers, writes about this sense in "The Torn Generation", an essay for

Everyone knows about Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem, and Hao Jingfang's "Folding Beijing" has gotten a fair amount of attention as well. Where might readers who liked these works turn next?

They can start with Invisible Planets, an anthology of contemporary Chinese SF, translated and edited by me. This anthology gathers thirteen stories by seven contemporary Chinese SF writers (including Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang) that attempt to show the diversity of subgenres, styles, subjects, and approaches in Chinese SF. It's a good sampler for some of the most interesting voices in Chinese SF.

Readers can also look forward to Liu Cixin's Ball Lightning, translated by Joel Martinsen, to be published by Tor later this year. Tor will also publish Chen Qiufan's debut novel, The Waste Tide, a post-cyberpunk tech thriller (also translated by me), next year. Finally, Hao Jingfang is shopping her collection and one of her novels with English-language publishers, and I think readers will enjoy them.

How "scientific" is Chinese science fiction? Is there also softer sci-fi? Near-future, speculative fiction, that sort of thing?

For every subgenre of SF familiar to readers in the West, there is probably a corresponding subgenre in China. Certainly Liu Cixin writes in a very "hard" SF tradition that will be familiar to fans of Clarke, but you'll also find Bradbury-esque fables and PKD-like mind-twisters.

Also, remember that while "SF" is a fairly small piece of the Chinese publishing market, plenty of uniquely Chinese genres like chuanyue or chaohuan incorporate elements of SF.

The imaginative power of science fiction is sometimes addressed to the unknown and unforeseen, and sometimes to the immediate world around us. Are both these strains present in Chinese science fiction? Can you give examples of either that you find particularly interesting?

I definitely think both tendencies can be found in Chinese SF.

Some of the most imaginative works of Chinese SF are devoted to questions about the ultimate meaning of existence. Probably the best example of this is Liu Cixin's Three-Body series. Spanning centuries (and ultimately, eons) in time, the trilogy explores ideas such as how to fight a war using physical laws of the universe as weapons; how to navigate a four-dimensional world; how to change the speed of light; how to experience life as a member of one species in a cosmos filled with millions of other species, most of whom are far more intelligent than we; and similar mind-bending topics. President Barack Obama described the series as “wildly imaginative, really interesting,” and I have to agree. Other writers like Wang Jinkang, Cheng Jingbo, Anna Wu, Bao Shu, etc., have also written works that explore the nature of reality, the boundary between fantasy and reality, our experience of time—and ways to imaginatively transform time, and other “out there” subjects.

As the same time, a great deal of Chinese SF is also aimed at the world around us. In fact, I’d say SF excels in particular as a twisted lens through which to examine the present. Han Song, for example, deploys surrealist imagery and a heavily metaphorical, disconnected style to create Kafkaesque worlds in which ridiculous events take place, by turns comical, tragic, or seemingly meaningless. Many read his work as (thinly veiled) critiques of the deformed social realities created by China’s rapid and often brutal modernization, as well as the absurdities of the Chinese state. Similarly, Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide explores the exploitation of migrant workers by international representatives of global capital as well as the traditional power structures of prosperous local clans and government officials. Not that such SF is always dystopian—Xia Jia’s work, for example, often presents hopeful visions of how technology can help resolve social conflicts and ills.

Contemporary award-winning Chinese SF, like its American counterpart, tends to be particularly socially relevant (see, e.g., “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang). It’s worth pointing out that the manner in which Chinese SF does social commentary may not always be obvious to American readers. Critiques embedded in Chinese SF that are expressed using Western frameworks are easy for us to parse, but sometimes the critiques are more subtle and harder to tease out, especially when the criticism is directed at the West's neo-colonialist policies and attitudes, or when the critique invokes traditional Chinese literary tropes and historical allusions. What appears escapist to a Western reader may contain sharp barbs that can be decoded by a Chinese reader.

What are some of the regular outlets for Chinese sci-fi in English? Clarkesworld has obviously put some effort into this, with your help -- can you tell us how that came about? Are there other similar outlets out there?

Clarkesworld, in collaboration with Storycom, a Chinese media company, has done some amazing work in promoting the publication of Chinese SF in translation. Neil Clarke discusses some of the details here.

Clarkesworld is always looking toward expanding the role of translations (not just from China, but from across the world), as is Strange Horizons, which has launched a translation initiative of its own.

Those who are interested in Chinese literature in particular should also check out Pathlight, an English-language journal of contemporary Chinese fiction and poetry published as a partnership between Paper Republic and People's Literature, China's most prestigious literary publisher. The journal has full editorial independence and publishes some of the most provocative and interesting writers in Chinese. They also regularly publish Chinese SF.

Finally, I think readers should check out WuxiaWorld, a web site dedicated to translations of web serials from Chinese. Web serials are, in fact, the most popular form of literature in China right now, and many of them contain SF elements or use SF tropes. The founder of the site, RWX, was once a diplomat, but turned to this passion project full-time, and he and the team at WuxiaWorld have done an incredible job of bringing the world of Chinese web serials to Anglophone readers. I've heard plans that they're going to focus more on SF in the future.

Can you tell us a bit about which authors you personally enjoy the most, and why?

I can name so many ... but for now I'll focus on Chen Qiufan (who also sometimes uses the English name Stanley Chan). I first fell in love with his work when I read "Record of the Cave of Ningchuan," an SF story written in Classical Chinese (this is a feat akin to one of us writing a successful and award-winning SF tale in the language of Chaucer). That should give you some sense of his range and skills. Qiufan is a linguistic virtuoso, and Mandarin, in which he write the majority of his fiction, is only his third language. (He also gives talks in English.) Because he has traveled the world and worked for technology giants like Google and Baidu, he has an extremely cosmopolitan view of the world. Combined with his erudition in Classical Chinese literature and the Western canon, it allows him to compose works that are deep, layered, and densely allusive in a way that reflects our interconnected world. He also writes with a wry, acerbic wit that cuts to the bone of the ills of the contemporary world without giving in to cynicism or despair. In his fiction you can always glimpse a deep compassion and love for our flawed species.

Readers who want to check out his work can either turn to Invisible Planets, look online, or wait for the publication of his novel, The Waste Tide.

Thanks very much!

Thanks Eric. Always such a pleasure to chat with you.

[GLLI - Global Literature in Libraries Initiative]


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