The wild nature of a realist
THE MOMENT THAT someone decides to write, if it’s truly miraculous, is often likened to a “flash of inspiration”. Haruki Murakami’s description of such a moment is a classic example, and whether true or not, it has a certain moving patina. He said: I was watching a baseball game when I decided to start writing; the team I support hit a home run and the ball flew fast and high across the sky. I stared at it and thought: I want to be a writer!
When I told this story to Liu Cixin he immediately replied that he had had a flash of inspiration too, only not quite so romantic. “In 1989 I was a computer programmer at the Niangziguan power plant; I was in my early twenties and had just graduated from university. I lived in single dorms and didn’t have a girlfriend. I had nothing to do in the evenings apart from playing cards and mahjong. In one night I lost a month’s wages – 800 yuan. That was the moment I suppose. I thought – I can’t go on like this. I had to find something to fill the evenings. If I couldn’t make money at least I shouldn’t lose any. Then I thought of writing a science-fiction novel.”
He smiled. His expression was complex: a mixture of sincerity and wit, just like the man himself. Liu Cixin’s thick build and perfectly round face create an impression of sincerity and honesty, while he often reveals a kind of worldly wisdom as well. It’s the kind of wisdom that comes from being well-versed in the rules of the game, and becoming expert at the game without ever breaking the rules: it is the wisdom of a realist.
In 2011, Liu Cixin was praised for “single-handedly raising the standard of Chinese science fiction to a world-class level”. In October 2010 he published three parts of the science fiction trilogy Three Body in swift succession – Three Body I: Earth Past, Three Body II: Dark Forest, and Three Body III: Dead End. The trilogy took a period of six months to prepare and three years to write, and a total of 300,000 copies were sold (before the date of completion).
Hailed from the outset by science fiction fans – who call Liu Cixin by the nickname Master Liu – the publication of the trilogy was in itself big news. Heavily influential in the the popular literature market, Liu Cixin and his works have frequently appeared in a variety of newspapers and journals and he has repeatedly topped bestseller lists. His only ever meet-and-greet event, which was held at the Chengdu Book Tower, was closed prematurely because of the excessive number of people who arrived to see him; the bookshelves were stripped bare of Liu Cixin’s novels, including the Three Body trilogy, in a rare scene that has not been repeated in a decade.
Mainstream literature has also taken note of this “rising star”. The editor-in-chief of People’s Literature Li Jingze invited Liu Cixin to write a short story for the magazine, the first time in over 20 years that it published a work of science fiction. Ning Hao arranged to meet with Liu Cixin and enthusiastically discussed the universe and other grand issues, after which he bought the film rights to Liu Cixin’s short story The Village Teacher.
The Three Body trilogy’s meaning has been summarised as follows: “Three Body I’s reflections on history and Three Body II’s transcendence of morality have been further developed in Three Body III: Dead End, which posits a comprehensive structure of cosmic sociology, psychology and ecology – is this a merely pointless exercise of technique?”; “The Three Body trilogy has addressed the imagination of the structure of the universe and begins to address the nature of time and the mystery of creation, but it is clear that Master Liu has intentionally maintained a distance from Western mythology, and taken a new path of Chinese mythology.” (Professor Yan Feng, Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Fudan University).
According to the “Dark Forest Theory” proposed by Liu Cixin, the universe is like a dark forest, in which civilisations are armed hunters that prowl around under cover, ready to eliminate any other parties that expose themselves. The Earth’s civilisation is a foolish child. It starts a large fire in the dark forest and shouts: “I’m here! I’m here!” From this moment on, the history of the Earth’s civilisation undergoes a monumental transformation and it faces catastrophes that threaten to overwhelm it. The hero of the novel tries to overcome these disasters with the power of good, but his good intentions in fact lead him only to hell. In his narration Liu Cixin treats mankind as a unified whole; the task of saving the world again falls to the Chinese people, a group of elites that do not stand against the people. The Three Body trilogy stands for a high level of universal values, while also satisfying China’s fantasy of being a “rising power”.
But this point is a little over-interpreted. Liu Cixin is not interested in philosophy; his greatest inspiration comes from the uncertain things; do “universal values” really exist? He leaves such questions unanswered; he is not particularly concerned with issues of political or public interest. He is a computer engineering graduate, one of China’s first generation of computer engineers. He respects rules and has an exceptionally strong ability to summarise systems.
In the early 1990s Liu Cixin wrote a software program in which each intelligent civilisation in the universe was simplified into a single point. At its height, he programmed 350,000 civilisations within a radius of 100,000 light years and made his 286 computer work for hours to calculate the evolution of these civilisations. Although the final conclusion of the program was somewhat naive, it formed the basis and shape of his world view. Before he began to write science fiction novels, Liu Cixin read almost all of the science fiction literature available on the market in Chinese, and summarised his reading as follows:
“Compared to world science fiction, certain themes are absent from Chinese science fiction. Key areas include:
Hardly any works from these two periods deal with this theme, one of the major themes of science fiction novels. Even those that do write about the past engage in “false time travel”, for example using computers or biological technology to resurrect dinosaurs or using virtual reality technology to simulate the Qing dynasty.
There are also few traces of this, a theme that has long and frequently appeared in Western science fiction, in the Chinese science fiction created during these two periods. Although there is a certain amount of historical science fiction, such as Mist in the Ancient Gorge and Columbus from America, these are not alternate history novels in the usual sense of the term.
Works that depict disasters that endanger the whole of human civilisation are also rare among the literature of these two periods (Song Yichang’s After the Disaster is an exception.)
Long-range space travel:
The majority of space travel that appears in the science fiction works of these two periods is set within our solar system. A small number of works portray stories of interstellar navigation, such as Flight to Sagittarius, but the distance and speed of travel that is described is extremely cautious and restrained.
Near-future military conflict:
Works from these two periods such as Death Ray on a Coral Island and Wave only depict small-scale incidents of the cold war and therefore cannot be categorised as military science fiction. Apart from the context of Flight to Sagittarius, I can only recall two works that directly depict a war in the near future that takes place under contemporary political conditions, which are the novel Secret Signal and the short story Bridge (the latter was reprinted by Xinhua Digest), both from the 1980s.
The theme that is most absent from the Chinese science fiction literature of both periods is any philosophical consideration of the ultimate mysteries of nature and the universe. At present I can barely recall any works of this kind.” (From Liu Cixin’s 100 years of Western Trends)
Liu Cixin made his first submission to Science Fiction World in 1999, when he submitted five short stories, including Whale Song, for publication. They were each written in strict accordance with the rules above in order to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors. In order to make his submission as successful as possible, Liu Cixin also analysed the basic characteristics of Science Fiction World and made some small adjustments to the works to accommodate the style of the magazine. In addition, he sent the five short stories to two different editing offices in order prevent any one editor’s subjective tastes from influencing the objective outcome of his submission. All five pieces were published. This is the power of a system.
The popular influence of the Three Body trilogy made Liu Cixin famous. I asked Liu Cixin if his life has changed as a result of fame:
“Am I popular? Am I on CCTV? Am I on SINA’s homepage? No. I am not popular. I am not interested in fame. Regarding the attraction of fame and wealth… It does not take any will-power to turn down fame; you could give it to many people for free and they wouldn’t want it. But it is very difficult to refuse wealth; I am unable to do that, it really appeals to me. Regarding fame, I have to be particular. I wouldn’t want the type of fame that many people have even if you gave it to me for free. Don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m famous, I’m really not. If we must talk of fame, I really was famous for a short time, but it was nothing to do with science fiction. During my first few years in my job I was very well-known for my computer work in the Shanxi power system, in particular in the area of fuel management. At that time all of the figures of authority in the fuel system knew who I was and if there was ever an issue that could not be resolved they would ask for me. I am just a senior engineer, nothing else.”
The Niangziguan power plant lies in central Shanxi province, surrounded on all sides by mountains. Darkness falls at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Yangquan, the closest city to the power plant, is a 40 minute drive away by car, but because the roads are frequently blocked by lines of coal trucks for days at a time the best way to get to Yangquan is by train, which takes two hours. There is a small mountain and lake to the north of Niangziguan where there is a scenic spot called the Fairy Cave, which is often visited by people from Hebei province at New Year and other festivals. But the trees and rafters are covered with soot and the sky is often overcast. Liu Cixin lives at the power plant and refuses to be interviewed by reporters; a reporter once infuriated him by arriving uninvited.
If we apply a little imagination, the scene could be magical: a Chinese Kafka living in seclusion in a valley, single-handedly holding back the despair in which he is enveloped, as well as the oppressive weather; a pen in one hand, he records everything that he sees, because when he looks up at the stars in the quiet night he sees more than other people do… When the Chengdu press-conference concluded and the street lights came on one by one, Liu Cixin suddenly said to the person next to him: “I pity people who live in cities, they never experience true darkness.”
But, these are all misunderstandings.
Liu Cixin is a realist; he does not like martyrs and has no desire to be an ascetic. He likes the following quote from the American science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein: “I write science fiction to make a little money to drink beer.” In fact, he is not short of money; he has two houses, both of which are large. The reason that he is not willing to meet reporters is that a second job is not allowed in large state-owned enterprises. Although everyone finds ways to earn a little extra money outside of work they do so in a low-key way; it would not make sense to be visited constantly by reporters. He is grateful for the quiet at Niangziguan, which gives him uninterrupted peace to write, but he has not entirely rejected the idea of moving to the city, if there was a better job opportunity or it was better for his daughter’s education.
“My novels do not mirror the temperament of their writer at all. If you tried to deduce what kind of man I am from my novels then you would be entirely mistaken. The characters in my novels are full of superhuman qualities and dedication; they are extreme idealists. But I am a very normal person in my own life. I have moderate political views; I do not advocate revolution but not avoid reform. I am neither left nor right; I abide by the rules of the game. I am no different to anyone else in myself and my conduct.”
But is he an absolute realist? Is he the kind of ‘everyman’ portrayed in Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich, who lives the most simple and ordinary, yet also the most terrible life?
Years ago another science fiction writer said that a strong “hometown complex” was present in Liu Cixin’s works. Does Liu Cixin make light of such a complex? It is quite simply the most unlikely thing to appear in his novels. It is now ten years later and the Niangziguan power plant is to be relocated. Liu Cixin will leave his home of over twenty years, the place where he spent his youth as a recent graduate and where he wrote all of his science fiction novels to date, but he is not reluctant to leave. Liu Cixin feels only the solitude and apprehension of a traveller.
Perhaps this is another moment: the moment when a realist discovers the boundaries of idealism in his heart. Liu Cixin, a senior engineer and science graduate who believes in laws more than he believes in inspiration, has discovered an even more mysterious driving force that was hidden behind science fiction literature: a buzzing desire to express himself; a kind of self-inflicted shock; a kind of wild-natured reaction against the mediocre. Liu Cixin said: “The path of science fiction that I have taken is also a path that seeks home; the hometown complex was hidden so deeply that even I myself could not see, because I didn’t know where home was, so perhaps I must travel far to find it.”
A man who carries a survival pack at all times
HAN SONG BELIEVES that he photographed a UFO. It was above the China World Trade Center Tower III in Beijing and it was neither a plane nor a balloon. It drifted slowly, almost as if it had stopped in midair. The UFO, set above the tallest building in Beijing to date, a building that resembles a giant caterpillar with antennae, looked like a bubble that had been spat out of the tower.
Han Song was standing on the roof of the Xinhua News Agency by Beijing’s Xuanwu Gate when he took the picture. The Xinhua News Agency is another very mystical building. A tool of public guidance, it exudes an aura of communism, majesty, patriarchy and power. When Xiao Ji, a science fiction fan who works for Xinhua, first set foot in the building an old man dressed in a Zhongshan suit and a hat, carrying a container of rice with a steamed bun on top, drifted past her. This is the science fiction of this world, she thought.
Xiao Ji had read Han Song’s science fiction novels for a decade, but she did not connect the old worker at the Xinhua News Agency with the science fiction author of the same name for a long time. Han Song wears glasses that almost obscure his entire face. He is slight of figure and walks softly, as if under a wartime curfew at night. As a new employee at Xinhua, Xiao Ji attended a staff induction class given by Han Song: the Self-Discovery of Journalists. Han Song’s entire body was hidden behind the computer on the platform and he spoke extremely quietly. His voice grew softer and softer and the people in the audience fell asleep one by one.
Han Song is well-known as a representative writer of the soft science fiction genre, in contrast to hard science fiction, for which Liu Cixin is renowned. Soft science fiction refers to literary plots and themes that focus primarily on issues of philosophy, psychology, political science, sociology, and the humanities, while only touching lightly on natural sciences and new technological developments. Conversely, works of hard science fiction stress technological themes and scientific conjectures to propel their plots.
In 1987 Han Song published his first short story The First Sentence, after which he published the short story collection Gravestone of the Universe. One of the short stories in the collection depicts the world in the distant future, when mankind has travelled far into the galaxy and archaeologists have begun to explore space in order to investigate extraterrestrial gravestones, behind which lies a conspiracy that could destroy mankind. The short story collection won the World Chinese Science Fiction Award in 1991. In 2000 he published 2066: Red Star over America, in which he used a travelogue style of writing to describe the experiences of a child Go prodigy travelling around America in the future, throughout which he ridicules Chinese-style narcissism. In 2010, he published the short story collection Subway, which has been hailed as his most representative collection of short stories and “fully displays themes such as secret chambers, survival, individual fate and ultimate concern, violence and the deconstruction and reconstruction of history”. Han Song has been unable to publish the majority of his works; only 20% have been published.
The most prominent element of Han Song’s style is not so much as question of soft or hard science fiction, but rather a sense of reality. Wu Yan, a Professor at Beijing Normal University and a tutor of graduate students majoring in science fiction said that: “His works consciously construct a set of hypothetical fictional conditions, which form a self-contained super-realist world; real science is not a prominent theme of his narrative but it is also not divorced from reality, which enables his works to enter the literary arena of science fiction with a unique “post modern literary style’ of their own.” Han Song himself is also willing to emphasise the power of science fiction to shine light on reality and described Chinese science fiction literature as “a piece of sponge saturated with political flavour.”
Han Song has worked at the Xinhua News Agency as a reporter for twenty years. He completes the work required of his position during the day and writes science fiction between the hours of 4 o’clock and 6 o’clock in the morning, a writing habit which has endured for many years. These two states are interpenetrated: science fiction is a husk, filled with what he cannot say in the real world. It has also permeated his work: he once travelled to a haunted location in Yunnan province to create a non-fiction documentary work An Onsite Investigation of Ghosts, which contains a mixture of science fiction and mysticism. A strong philosophical tone and sense of ultimate thinking can be found in Han Song’s science fiction novels, as well as a literary style inherited from the 1980s and a sense of twisted absurdity and despair.
Han Song declared the following to be the essence of science fiction literature: “Science fiction is a literature of escapism, the weak, and resistance against despair.” When I finally met Han Song after he had finished reporting day and night on the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference he was with Fei Dao, the “younger version of Han Song”.
Fei Dao, who’s original name is Jia Liyuan, is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Chinese Language and Culture at Tsinghua University. He received his M.A. degree from Beijing Normal University in science fiction literature. He is the only person to have voluntarily sat the examination for the science fiction major who is still writing science fiction. Fei Dao also writes soft science fiction, and his published works include A Doomsday Story and The Longest Way to Death. This young science fiction writer uses richly poetic language and his writing is emotionally closer to the combustive style of adolescent works. He often uses ancient Chinese figures as props and some of his works have been classified as fantasy.
Fei Dao has an very similar disposition to Han Song. He is also thin and frail; in fact he is even more so. Because he was hospitalized due to illness he appeared hastily on the day of the interview wearing a hospital gown and as he spoke blood slowly oozed out from his cracked lips. First he wanted to talk about his favourite writers, those great men of weak bodies. For example Proust, he had asthma; and Kafka, he suffered from a social phobia… They were not great because they were sick however, but because of their sensitivity and honesty, and their concern and enthusiasm for writing, because of which they opened up their insides as if they were skinning an orange…
Han Song and Fei Dao are very similar in both disposition and style of genre: they both use real life to write; neither is very optimistic about the real world and they have both tried to escape a little from the ways of the world; they are both extremely inward and both writers’ auras are so weak they are almost non-existent, as if they themselves are their own baggage, ready to be picked up to escape the crowd. Even their family backgrounds are somewhat similar.
Han Song was born and grew up in Chongqing. His father worked in the news and his mother was a teacher. His family lived in a large staff compound. Han Song’s impressions of Chongqing and his childhood there are of a marginal, remote, and closed-off place, and of the military industry there. He still remembers an earthquake that happened when he was 5 or 6 years old. He instinctively ran out into the centre of the compound to escape, carrying cookies and water with him. Fei Dao grew up in a mining region in Chifeng. His love of nature in science fiction comes from illustrations of the blue sky that came with stories of outer space. That blue was a kind of clear blue that he had never seen in the skies above the mining region where he lived.
It is a little strange that the majority of China’s science fiction writers all come from remote and isolated towns, places overflowing with industrial fantasies and suburban culture. Han Song said that: “It is precisely this kind of isolation and suppression, combined with fantasies about the future and a sense of wonder that produces a chemical reaction. This produces two different kinds of people: the majority, who are envious of industrialisation, are therefore inspired with ambition to change their destinies and to go and reap its rewards, both in reality and speculatively; while a small number of people become inward and hope to use their imagination to surpass this stage and reach a distant utopia.” This is the creative soil of Chinese science fiction literature: during the endless transition from an agricultural to an industrial civilisation, science fiction’s imagination of industrialisation enables it to stand in a prominent position and flutter its long banner cloud.
When it was time to leave, Han Song picked up his big, bulging backpack again. What does he keep inside it? Water, compressed biscuits, a flashlight, rope, asthma medication, flu medicine, anti-inflammatory medicine, motion-sickness medication… He is a pessimistic science fiction writer who believes in doomsday rumours and is therefore prepared. He has carried a survival pack with him at all times for over ten years.
Spiritual pollution and gathering spectators
THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA defines science fiction as: literature that deals with science or scientific or technological fantasy, the majority of which is related to the future. Technically, it consists of two levels: scientific reasoning and literary expression. It is a form of literature that deals with alienation in order to depict the unique imagination of mankind; if such alienation can be understood, it is science fiction; if it cannot be understood, then it becomes myth or fantasy. If we look at its meaning, science fiction is a literature of escapism, scientific reasoning, and thinking about the future – this kind of explanation can be expanded endlessly. But in China from the 1950s to the 1970s science fiction literature was restricted to the following two categories: the imaginations of scientists; and the imaginations of a communist society.
China copied the Soviet Union’s approach and made some adjustments in accordance with Chinese characteristics: the visions of scientific minds had to be outstanding and charismatic as representatives of the new scientists of communism; visions of communist society on the contrary had to embody the struggle between man and nature, because after the realisation of communism and the elimination of class, there no longer existed any form of struggle between people in society, who existed in harmony and friendship. Representative works include From Earth to Mars, which not only rushes to communism, but also to Mars; and Communist Capriccio, which describes Beijing in 2001 as a garden of communism, where Chairman Mao has already turned 100 and is still hale and hearty.
During that time, Liu Cixin was a Red Guard in a primary school in Yangquan, Shanxi province. His father was a former national coal system expert, and because of this bad element in his family background Liu Cixin was sent to Shanxi from Beijing. The figure of the Red Guard later permeates his novels, but at that time, this was his only option of self-preservation. When Han Song first read Constellations and Greek Mythology in the staff compound in Chongqing, he was entirely absorbed into another small world, which seemed to remain innately unchanged regardless of fluctuations in the real world.
Wu Yan is a high profile figure. He grew up in the Cultural Troupe compound of the Air Force Political Department in Beijing, in an environment that strongly resembled the movie In the Heat of the Sun. His childhood was tinged with blue: the courtyard, painted blue and divided into two front and rear sections, was once the private residence of a warlord; the children of the troupe chased each other around the brook and rockery in the yard; they could watch films reserved exclusively for the leaders and read secret materials and foreign novels. They were a group of privileged children who had a natural sense of superiority; it was very similar to the scenes described in Wang Shuo’s writing. Cui Jian was one of Wu Yan’s playmates in the courtyard.
Wu Yan’s father was a member of the propaganda team of the cultural troupe; his mother was a dancer. A sense of the destructive power of the arts in his family led to his love of technology. Wu Yan cried when he read Guo Yishi’s In the World of Science published in Science Fiction World, in which a child explores the scientific world and sees an artificial man-made sun, an atomic power plant and radioactive farming; when the child returns home he finds a gift: a cabinet of test tubes, microscopes and telescopes. Wu Yan’s love of science is not based on his own personal experience, but is on the contrary observational and descriptive.
In 1978, Wu Yan, who was in junior middle school at the Dengshikou Middle School in Beijing, wrote a book review of science fiction writer Ye Yonglie’s Xiao Lingtong’s Travels in the Future, and submitted it to the Guangming Daily. An editor then arrived to meet Wu Yan in person and find out if he was a qualified successor in pursuing the socialist cause. In 1978, to celebrate the downfall of the Gang of Four and welcome the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee, culture, children’s literature and popular science were encouraged to flourish and Wu Yan received an important recommendation. The Guangming Daily published his book review and also wrote a special feature in praise of his work. He became nationally famous as a ‘young writer’ and was able to meet Ye Yonglie in person. He had stepped into the limelight.
After the Cultural Revolution, science fiction literature focused primarily on reflection. It also contained characteristics of “scar literature”. In Zheng Wenguang’s Descendents of the God of War he depicts the development of communism on Mars before bringing the story to a tragic conclusion. In Three Whips, another story by Zheng Wenguang, three whips talk and discuss who they lashed during the Cultural Revolution. In Jin Tao’s Moonlight Island, a group of people who have fled from the Cultural Revolution arrive at the island; in the end they do not go back to the mainland, but follow aliens to another world.
The period from 1978 to 1983 is still viewed as the Golden Age of Chinese science fiction. All provincial science associations established science fiction magazines to promote popular science; Sichuan’s Association for Science and Technology established the magazine Scientific Art and Literature (the predecessor of Science Fiction World). Its first issue consisted of a total of 150,000 copies, which increased to 200,000 in the following year. Tong Enzheng’s Death Ray on Coral Island, which was published in People’s Literature, won the First People’s Literature Short Story Prize. The novel was also turned into a film, which left an enduring impression, on those who saw it as children, of the incredible power of a laser to cut anything in half in a flash.
In 1983, Liu Cixin was a student at the Institute of Electric Power, by which time he was already a seasoned science fiction fan. He lay in his dormitory listening to the radio: the People’s Daily announced in an editorial that science fiction was typical of “bourgeois liberalization” and was classed as “spiritual pollution”. Criticism of science fiction developed across the country, in a campaign which became known as the “small Cultural Revolution of 100 days”. Science fiction magazines were forbidden from publishing science fiction literature, and the majority of magazines went out of business. Science fiction writers such as Zheng Wenguang, Ye Yonglie and Tong Enzheng were subject to accusations, as a result of which Zheng Wenguang fell ill and did not recover. Wu Yan was again pushed into the limelight as he was criticized as a child of Ye Yonglie, and his honorific title of “young writer” was forcibly removed.
Looking back, Wu Yan recalls that there were a number of vague reasons that science fiction became a target of the ant-spiritual pollution movement. The attack on science fiction writers first began because their works lacked “scientific character” and popular science writers wrote articles that analysed the “hard errors” of science fiction novels, which promoted “incorrect scientific views”. This subsequently became ideological criticism: science fiction writers were pessimistic and world-weary; they hated humanity and believed in unhealthy values. Finally it became a personal attack. Contemporary political factors and personal grievances were also evident during this process. Wu Yan is a tutor of doctoral students majoring in science fiction at Beijing Normal University, and leads China’s only science fiction literature major. He stopped writing fiction long ago, but continues to contribute to the genre as a scholar and science fiction observer. If Chinese science fiction was an individual, it would be one that had no control over its own fate, someone that was subject to dramatic fluctuations; it is constantly being pulled up, cut off, and forgotten.
From the day that science fiction entered China, it has born the great responsibility of a literary form that conveys a moral message, and it has been burdened with too great a number of social functions. In 1902, Liang Qichao established New Fiction and published the scientific novel A Future Record of New China; he used science fiction novels as a tool to promote new fiction. In the following year Lu Xun translated Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and A Journey to the Centre of the Earth into Chinese, which he considered primarily as tools of popular science education, which could “guide the Chinese people forwards”. This is considered as the moment that science fiction entered China, and also as the beginning of a debate as to whether science fiction should be classified as an art or a science. Any gain for either viewpoint was a loss for the other; but regardless which one prevailed, science fiction was used as a tool, an instrument of either ideological means or the advancement of popular science.
Wu Yan said to me: “Science fiction literature should return to the literary form itself.” He had just finished teaching an elective class in science education. The science fiction major that he runs began to take applications from students in 2003; it has produced a total of 15 graduates, the majority of which first applied to other majors and then transferred to this one. Only Fei Dao chose himself to apply to take the entrance examination, and he is the only graduate to still be writing science fiction novels.
I was able to sense Wu Yan’s disparagement and humility. The science fiction major is run very well; at least it is better than nothing. But I could also sense his excitement and a kind of hidden arrogance. He started telling me about the different types of science fiction writers: first, women, who in the technological age are subject to the dual forces of both technological and patriarchal oppression; second, the immature men who stop developing and live eternally as 17 year olds; third, people of lower social standing and marginal groups in society; and fourth, the members of underdeveloped countries and regions.
The one common characteristic of all of these groups is that they are a little nerdy – they were all the observers at parties that never danced, ‘the people who watch the dark side of the moon’. They know how to use their imagination to resist repression and mediocrity; they are sincerely proud, ambitious and progressive; they believe that they are the gods of the imaginative realm, so much so that they have carved their names on the medals of the intelligence hierarchy.
A watertight industrial chain
YANG XIAO TRAVELLED by train for eight days and eight nights to Amsterdam to win the right for China to hold the World Science Fiction Convention in Chengdu. An exciting legend, this story is as mystical as science fiction itself.
Especially when you imagine Yang Xiao: a small, thin woman with a few strands of grey in her hair, who on top of being travel weary also wore a mysterious air of injury specific to her own country. At that time, China was not popular internationally. It was 1991, and the international world had imposed sanctions on China because of the incident at the square. Permission to hold the World Science Fiction Convention, which had been previously granted, had been withdrawn. Yang Xiao moved people with her passion and overcame Poland, China’s rival, to win permission to hold the event. Seventeen internationally renowned individuals from the science fiction world were invited to the convention, which was the first international event to be held by China since 1989. Sichuan’s Association for Science and Technology attached great importance to the event, which it supported using its official clout. Science fiction fans were also excited and flocked to Sichuan. This marked the end of the campaign against science fiction as “spiritual pollution” that had begun in 1983 and a “lifting of the ban” on science fiction literature.
At that time Yang Xiao was the director of Scientific Art and Literature, the first director to be chosen democratically. After 1983, it was impossible to publish any works of science fiction literature and there was also a lack of materials from authors, both of which caused Scientific Art and Literature’s subscriptions to drop to 30,000. At one time the financial accounts of the magazine were as low as 60,000 yuan. The majority of science fiction magazines run by other provincial science and technology associations went out of business, but Sichuan’s Association for Science and Technology decided to keep themselves to themselves with regard to the future of Scientific Art and Literature. The magazine was entirely responsible for its own profits or losses and held democratic elections, through which 34-year-old editor Yang Xiao was elected. For a time Science Art and Literature changed its name to Strange Tales, and published non-fiction works in order to try and attract more readers with incredible anecdotes. In 1989, it wanted to use the opportunity created by the entrance of Transformers to China to inspire a revival of science fiction, but the students took to the streets soon after. The attempt to hold the annual World Science Fiction Convention in China was a gamble. After that the magazine changed its name to Science Fiction World.
Science Fiction World is China’s most widely circulated and influential science fiction magazine; at its height circulation was roughly 400,000 copies per issue. It is the Bible of science fiction fans. Science Fiction World is at the centre of a number of stories, both related to science fiction and not. In 1997 the magazine once again hosted the annual World Science Fiction Conference and invited several American and Russian astronauts to attend. This attracted CCTV to report on the event, while the American magazine Newsweek also took notice of Chinese science fiction writers for the first time, and was particularly interested in the division between Han Song’s job as a Xinhua News Agency reporter by day and science fiction writer at dawn. A small craze for science fiction literature subsequently appeared in the popular realm for a time. The writer A Lai took up the post of editor-in-chief of Science Fiction World after he finished writing Red Poppies. He brought about a dialogue between mainstream literature and science fiction and also inherited Yang Xiao’s idealism and indoctrinated his editors with an ambition to be a great world periodical. In 1999, the magazine published popular science articles and literary works about memory transplantation just before the university entrance examinations and guessed correctly the Chinese language composition topic in that year’s examinations, as a result of which subscriptions rose rapidly to 380,000 copies. In 2009 the magazine issued an open letter which instigated a campaign to get rid of its editor-in-chief, who had been appointed by Sichuan’s Science and Technology Association; he was driven out by the magazine’s editors because of activities such as dealing in ISBNs and investing public funds.
Science Fiction World’s offices are located on the 6th floor of Sichuan’s Association for Science and Technology’s building in a new district in the south of Chengdu. As well as Science Fiction World, the office also publishes three other magazines: Science Fiction World Translations, Fantasy World, and Newton. It is still managed by the Association for Science and Technology and at present it has a circulation of roughly 150,000 copies per issue. An inscription by Yang Zhenning hangs on the office wall: “Fantasy and dreams are not the same”. If you look closely there is also evidence of support from fans from around the time that the editor-in-chief was driven out, in the form of sweets, plaques and notes saying things like: “On the other side of darkness is sunlight”.
Editor-in-chief Yao Haijun does not only regard Science Fiction World as a magazine, but also as a body that functions as an industrial chain and a platform. Inspired by changes in American science fiction literature, rising stars first publish works in science fiction periodicals and then collate a number of these works to publish as a collection, after which they then publish a full-length novel which can enter bookstores alongside other popular literature. This is followed by TV adaptations and the development of affiliated products, and a famous writer is born. Writers are then able receive the money and attention that they deserve, which is enough to offset mainstream literature’s low regard for the science fiction genre. Each stage of the process is connected, but there is little entanglement within itself, so it forms a healthy and complete industrial chain.
Science Fiction World has launched a Nova Program, in which new authors can publish their works in the Nebula Series; while the Galaxy Awards promote established authors (Wang Jinkang has won the award nine times; Liu Cixin eight times), who are then published in the Cornerstone Series collection. Recommended foreign science fiction works are also published in the Science Fiction Masters books as a supplement; and finally Science Fiction World also publishes individual works by star authors that are discovered during this process, such as Liu Cixin’s Supernova Era and the Three Body trilogy, and develops further associated products. Science Fiction World is Liu Cixin’s talent scout and Yao Haijun is his literary agent.
The moment that Yao Haijun’s ambition was unleashed can perhaps be dated back to 1997. It was then that Yao Haijun, who worked at a forestry centre, first took part in the annual World Science Fiction Convention. His monthly salary of 140 yuan was not even enough for the train ticket from his home, Yichun, to Beijing. He stayed in a basement quite far away from the event itself; it was full of science fiction fans who were not officially invited to the event and everyone staying there felt that it was quite an achievement to have got there. They talked all night, and the place became known as the “underground convention”.
Yao Haijun saw Charles Brown, the founder of the American science fiction publication Locus Magazine, for the first time. The elderly American had a suite at a hotel near to the venue and held an after party there in the evening, to which many big names were invited; it was an exciting party overflowing with wine and guests. To attend the main event of the convention was not as important as an invitation to Charles Brown’s party, which was seen as the real honour. He himself was also a science fiction fan, who used his own money to start a magazine in 1968, which he has edited for 40 years. Locus Magazine is America’s most important science fiction periodical, and a platform for science fiction news and information. The Locus Awards have also become an authoritative science fiction award. Charles Brown’s salon-style of hosting in Beijing left an unforgettable impression on Yao Haijun.
At that time Yao Haijun was also running a magazine for science fiction fans: the Science Fiction Fan Association. It was founded in 1986, based on the principle of publishing science fiction news and advancing exchange between science fiction fans. The magazine is issued through a membership system and the annual membership fee is 15 yuan. Only one person works at the magazine: Yao Haijun is responsible for compilation, editing, printing and distribution. Because the magazine is run and published privately, it is an “illegal publication”; it has run for 12 years.
Yao Haijun was born in Yichun, Heilongjiang Province, to a family of forestry workers. In junior middle school he suffered from a strange illness. His doctors gave up treatment and he had to leave school. His family sent him to his uncle’s home on the outskirts of Yichun to be looked after. The house was in a village 7.5 km from the nearby town of Hongqi (the village is named as such). In the day his uncle would go out to work in the forestry centre, and Yao Haijun would either go fishing on the riverside or read Scientific Art and Literature. He was left to fend for himself and in fact he relaxed. He still remembers the first time that he was shocked and absorbed by those words about the universe and the future. It was as if his entire self had became smaller; curled up on a heated Kang bed, the wider word opened up in his mind, while in the real world, the trees outside of his window were heavy with hazelnuts, and who knew when a small creature might fly over to lick the window paper.
In 1997, Yao Haijun, who had magically recovered from his childhood illness and studied at a technical school, had a job at the forestry centre. In another space, he was also somewhat famous as a seasoned science fiction fan. He received an invitation from the magazine Science Fiction King to enter the science fiction publishing industry and in 1998 he transferred to Science Fiction World. The world of science fiction that he sees today is already very different to that of the past: new star writers such as Liu Cixin and Han Song have already appeared and the construction of a solid platform centred on the core of Science Fiction World has been completed. Science fiction literature, which in the past has been used as an instrument and suffered many setbacks, has gradually returned to the realm of literature itself; it seems that all it needs now is time…
Science fiction fans are also looking excitedly toward the future. Seasoned science fiction fan Xiao Ji, who works at the Xinhua News Agency, excitedly described her thoughts: this is a era when geeks are very popular and “intelligent is the new sexy”; the internet and mobile media are also stimulating youths in all cities; and the number of youths that will radiate to science fiction literature can be developed through children’s literature. Xiao Ji used to think that Jia Zhangke had a very cosmological view on the world (a flying saucer appears in Still Life), but he later explained that this had nothing to do with science fiction, which was very disappointing. Now Ning Hao has bought the film production rights to Liu Cixin’s works and will shoot a science fiction movie, which is very good news…
In August 2010, the first Nebula Awards organised by the World Chinese Science Fiction Association gave the best science fiction/fantasy prize to both Liu Cixin and Han Song.
Han Song gave a humble acceptance speech on Weibo: “I don’t entirely agree with the decision to give the outstanding author award to myself and Liu Cixin. One person is enough, and Liu is the great writer of Chinese science fiction; he is the best representative. I wrote to ask to decline the award, but they believed that they should promote the achievements of Chinese science fiction, and that I must accept the situation.”
Liu Cixin did not say much. He has barely any contact with other people in science fiction circles. The claim that has “single-handedly raised the standard of Chinese science fiction to a world class level” perhaps refers both to the standard and popular influence of his writing, and also to his manner of doing things alone. Liu Cixin once again spoke on the topic of “science fiction literature as a genre of literature”: “The format has changed now; the main body of literature now is in fact genre literature, so that even mainstream literature has now become a genre.” An engineer, Liu Cixin has a great ability to systematically summarise laws and he has also studied the creative methods of other literature genres, such as sitting down to write tens of thousands of words per day. But this made him anxious; he could not follow the set pattern.
“First I must shock myself in order to be able to write. If I don’t shock myself, then I can’t write anything. I am not a qualified writer of “genre literature”; I can’t produce work as if I am on a production line. My limitations are obvious to me. If all of the hopes of Chinese science fiction literature are placed on my shoulders alone, then its future is also obvious.’ Liu Cixin has not written another word since the publication of the Three Body trilogy. He has re-read his previous works and feels that the young man who wrote them was incredible: he had a writer’s arrogance about his own achievements and was excited; but praise and expectations have reminded him that the holiday is over. He must start his next work. These tangled thoughts alone have consumed too much of his efforts.
Translated by Lucy Johnston
A version of this article appeared in print in the 2nd issue of Chutzpah! （published June 2011）