I jumped on Twitter the other day to ask my followers what they wanted to see in a blog post about Invisible Planets, the first English-language anthology of contemporary Chinese SF. All sorts of interesting answers followed, but a common theme soon emerged: they wanted to know what made Chinese SF Chinese.
Aha, I thought, lucky me! There is already an essay in the anthology by the SF scholar and author Xia Jia addressing exactly that question. I guess I can just point to that essay and be done…
But it’s always interesting to see more than one attempt at answering a question.
I’ve always believed that as a species, we’re wired to understand the world through stories rather than data, and the fiction produced by a society can tell us a lot about the meta-narrative of that society, which is the story that people tell themselves to define who they are. Such an ur-story forms the invisible framework in which writers construct their tales and by which readers extract meaning from the stories.
Science fiction, in particular, seems especially well poised to serve this function of social myth-making because it is explicitly driven by genre convention to be about the future, to describe dreams.
Thus, when we look back on the science fiction of the 19th century, when the genre was in its nascent form in Europe, we see a great deal of justification and anxiety concerning the colonial project and European imperialism. The sense of wonder, which we so prize as an aesthetic quality, is rooted in the sublime ideal of Romanticism (cf. Shelley’s Frankenstein), and serves as a justification for the dominance of the “civilizing” influences of the colonizers as well as a shield against the anxieties of the moral ambivalence of imperial destruction. (For more, see, e.g., Paudyal, Bed Prasad. Imperialism and the sublime in the science fictional works of Jules Verne, HG Wells, and Karel Čapek. Diss. UNIVERSITY OF HAWAI’I AT MANOA, 2013.) Sometimes these anxieties, the beams and columns of an invisible framework, are sublimated into aliens and “lost tribes,” but often, as in the work of Jack London, the fear of the colonial subjects and the desire to subjugate, even by means of genocide, are made explicit.
And when we look at the Anglo-American science fiction of the “Golden Age” and subsequent decades, we see reflections of the ideological struggles and dominant concerns of each age reflected in the pages of the pulp magazines and the lurid images on their covers. The invisible frameworks are the dark matter behind the sparkling stars and gleaming spaceships.
I don’t think science fiction can tell us much about the future, but it may provide a window on the societies that write and read it.
Crucially, the parsing of invisible frameworks requires nuanced appreciation for the complexities of the writers’ cultural milieux and the benefit of historical hindsight. In the case of contemporary China, we in the West lack both. Our dominant framework for interpreting Chinese SF tends to be narrowly political. Because we believe contemporary China is a dystopia and a rival for American dominance, we tend to read contemporary Chinese SF as all dystopian and its conflicts focused on China’s relationship with the West. Because we believe in the universal applicability of our concerns and judgments about class, identity, and “progress,” we tend to seek similar concerns in Chinese SF. (Or we commit the opposite sin, which is to treat Chinese society as so different from ours, and so much an instance of the Other, that we interpret Chinese SF literally as written by another species, and read each exotic detail as more evidence confirming our fantasies about a society that we fear and find inscrutable.)
As readers, we have our own invisible frameworks that both give meaning to what to read but also prevent us from looking beyond. I don’t claim to be free from these cognitive biases. But in editing this anthology, I’ve tried to be aware of them and ask that readers do the same.
So, back to the question of what makes Chinese SF Chinese: if there’s one aesthetic quality that stands out in the body of Chinese SF collected here, it’s a sense of imbalance.
Contemporary China is a complex society in transition, and the kinds of technological and social changes that took societies in the West centuries to move through have sometimes been experienced by a mere two generations in China. The anxiety of careening out of balance, of being torn by parts moving too fast and too slow, is felt everywhere. While entrepreneurs, researchers, and megacorps in Beijing and Shanghai are pushing the boundaries of advanced technology in areas like VR, mobile computing, and genetic engineering, sometimes far ahead of the West, just a few hundred miles away from these bustling metropolises, children left behind in rural villages by parents who have gone to the great cities in search of low-wage jobs grow up on bare concrete floors without toys, without books, without basic nutrition, without even the support of crumbling traditional extended families and folk beliefs. High-speed trains have reduced trips that in my childhood would have taken two days and two nights to four-and-a-half hours, but along the way they whoosh past rivers filled with undrinkable water and fields turning into deserts due to climate change. Urban professionals who live in luxurious apartments and vacation in France and Japan and converse as often in English as in Chinese find it impossible to talk to the migrant workers who are constructing the rising skyscrapers next door and who pick up and trash and carry the goods the apartment-dwellers order for instant delivery by phone.
We see this sense of imbalance, of living beyond the twenty-first century but also being mired in the nineteenth at the same time, in many of the stories in Invisible Planets. In Chen Qiufan’s “The Fish of Lijiang,” the imbalance is metaphorically transformed into a disease in our sense of time moving too fast or too slow. In Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing,” the imbalance is literalized by three cities all named Beijing sharing the same space but completely divided from one another. In Tang Fei’s “Call Girl,” this imbalance in the moral order is resolved by the surreal narratives of a young woman who tells stories to paying clients.
The visions in these stories aren’t utopian, but they aren’t dystopian either. Or rather, they are dystopian for some segment of society, but utopian for some other segment of society. This is the reality of the psychological landscape constructed by the tales: tradition and modernity, stagnation and progress, political powerlessness and thrilling technological potential—all aspects of the same reality, a chiaroscuro of extreme contrasts in hope and terror. It is this quality of imbalance, I think, that represents the most Chinese aspect of these stories.
In the end, the story that may be most illustrative of the invisible framework of imbalance in the collection is perhaps Xia Jia’s “Tongtong’s Summer,” a tale in which telepresence technology comes to the aid of the dissolving bonds of the traditional extended family, and the conflict between the past and the future is resolved by a conscious act of choice on the part of those who would otherwise be the victims of social transformation (in this case, the aged). It is the story in the anthology set nearest in time to the present as well as the most hopeful, and I’d like to think that its vision of snatching hope from the jaws of a collapsing imbalance is not only a meta-narrative for China, but the world as a whole.
Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is the author of The Wall of Storms, sequel to The Grace of Kings, a Locus Best First Novel Award winner and Nebula finalist. His collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, received starred reviews from both Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. He is also the translator for the Hugo-winning The Three-Body Problem, and Death’s End, both by Liu Cixin. Invisible Planets is his first anthology as an editor.