As Chinese sci-fi picks up steam, it’s finding fans around the world

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2016/5/16 18:58:01

Celebrated Chinese sci-fi works such as Hao Jingfang's Folding Beijing, which was recently nominated for a Hugo Award, have been attracting growing interest from foreign readers. Photo: IC


Although everyone in the book club spoke highly of Folding Beijing, their thoughts were far from unanimous.

Some liked how the story touched on inequality and class distinctions; others discussed whether they liked  the language and the quality of the translation from Chinese to English; someone else argued that it is more of a social-context fantasy than a sci-fi story while another pointed out how local details such as the food, the traffic, the ring roads and references to places like Xidan gave him a feeling of personal connection.

"I think it's my favorite Chinese short story," said Olga Alimova, organizer of the Beijing Sci-Fi Book Club, a group that meets every week at the Bookworm to discuss science fiction works from all over the world.

"It raises important questions and is well-written," she said.

That day, the group could barely wait to begin their discussion - the work they were talking about, Folding Beijing by Chinese writer Hao Jingfang, had recently been shortlisted for the Best Novelette category of this year's Hugo Awards, which are widely regarded as the most prestigious honor for science-fiction and fantasy works.

The story is set in a dystopian but fantastical future version of Beijing, where time and space are allocated to the three Spaces, with the elite First Space receiving the most and the Third Space receiving the least. The main character, Lao Dao, is a waste worker who resides in the Third Space, the poorest section of the city, and is desperately in need of money to send his daughter to school. The story begins when he is hired to deliver a letter from the Second Space to the First Space, and uncovers a whole new world.

As the popularity of Chinese science fiction grows year by year, so too is international interest in the country's writers.

As this book club shows, more and more foreign readers are beginning to fall for the charms of China's developing sci-fi scene.

Foreign readers find Chinese sci-fi different in terms of its cultural and literary influences, but many have found that it shares the same spirit of imagination and exploration. Photo: IC

Finding fans in China

The book club, which started in October 2014 as a small-scale meeting of friends, now has more than 140 members, most of whom are expats in Beijing. At their weekly meeting on Thursday evenings, the group chooses a short story to read and discuss.

Alimova, 29, a PhD student from Moldova studying environmental economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said that her experience living in China has proven very helpful with understanding Chinese sci-fi stories. "For us (expats in China), these stories are a little bit more personal, because we can relate them to our own experience."

She cited a scene from Folding Beijing in which the characters are eating outside. "And this experience of eating outside, with Chinese cuisine, plastic tables… It's just a few strokes, but it creates this picture that is very familiar to any Chinese person, or foreigners who are living here."

Like many people in the club, she has enjoyed being able to combine reading sci-fi and learning about Chinese culture. "It's very interesting to talk about topics that are just outside your window," she said. "And we can discuss the translations and language as well [with the Chinese members], which is very interesting."

While she observed that many of the topics that Chinese authors approach are very China-specific, Alimova stressed that in the end, the similarities with other sci-fi works transcend the differences. "[Chinese science fiction works] are also all about the important questions that all sci-fi addresses: 'What happens if?' - which is basically the whole premise, with all the fantastic things grounded in science," she said.

 "The charm lies in the fact that the main characters are normal people, instead of gods or semi-gods. Although some of them are above average, stronger, smarter, scientists or cyborgs, they are essentially human beings."

The best of the best

According to Alimova, they have discussed around 30 works so far, mostly short stories, including several by Chinese writers. One of their sessions was dedicated to talking about The Three-Body Problem, which has come up in a number of other discussions.

"Because it's very popular, not only in China obviously, but also all around the world, it is a huge thing for us. Almost everybody in the group has read it," she said.

The novel, which was published in serial form in 2006, takes place during China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and features struggles between aliens and humans. The English translation of the trilogy's first book was published in 2014, and it won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel. According to the China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation Ltd., sales of the English edition of the first book have exceeded 110,000 copies as of the end of 2015.

"Many Chinese readers hadn't heard much about Chinese sci-fi before that. It was a discovery for them that in China, there are authors who are capable of writing such great books," she said. "It also shows Chinese authors that they can be successful in the West."

The English edition of the second book was published in August 2015.

Now anxious readers like Alec Ash are waiting for the English translation of the third book of the trilogy to be released this year.

"The Chinese sci-fi scene is gaining more international acknowledgement, especially since The Three-Body Problem," he said. Ash, a 30-year-old British expat who has been living in China since 2008, is also a member of the club, and has a number of favorite Chinese sci-fi writers including Fei Dao, Han Song and Ma Boyong. 

In addition to admiring their portrayals of urbanization, Ash believes that many Chinese sci-fi works will prove fascinating and influential internationally, despite the fact that the genre only sprang up in China in the first half of last century.

Universal charm

According to Alimova, although many foreign readers are very interested in Chinese science fiction, many have limited access to its works due to language barriers and lack of translations.

Among the people trying to solve this problem are Neil Clarke, the editor-in-chief of Clarkesworld Magazine, a monthly sci-fi and fantasy publication that has won three Hugo Awards, a World Fantasy Award and a British Fantasy Award since it started in 2006. Each issue of the magazine currently features five to six original stories, at least one of which is a Chinese translation.

Clarke started the "Chinese Science Fiction Translation Project" on in 2014, which received backing from 473 people.

Part of Clarke's motivation was the fact that, although science fiction is a global genre, he was seeing very few stories from non-English-speaking countries - that is, until he discovered the work of Ken Liu, an American writer and translator of the sci-fi genre. "His independent efforts as a translator introduced me to works by Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Cheng Jingbo and many others. I bought several of those stories for publication in Clarkesworld and our readers responded very positively to them."

Clarke pointed out that stories in both Chinese and English are crossing language barriers and finding audiences across the world.

"While every author has their own cultural and literary influences, we appear to share very similar hopes, dreams and fears," he said. "Sure, our characters and settings may have different names, but at its heart, the stories transcend."

'Spring' for Chinese sci-fi

That doesn't mean there isn't a great deal of diversity of viewpoints in the global sci-fi community, which is one reason why award-winning writer Chen Qiufan tends to seek out reviews and feedback from overseas critics and readers.

That's in part because Chen believes readers from the West are more mature, interpreting works based on multiple dimensions rather than just their own personal connection to the story. "They might be more interested in the political side of the stories. For Folding Beijing, they would focus a lot on the differences between social classes," Chen told Metropolitan.

One of the reasons for this is that Chinese sci-fi fans tend to skew younger, according to Chen. While many of the most experienced and respected critics in the West are older, he said, the majority of Chinese sci-fi readers range in age from middle school to university students. Many Chinese sci-fi works focus more on science education than the story, which has traditionally been a problem with the genre, Chen said.

As for the differences between the works themselves, Chen said Chinese sci-fi stories often lack the same scope of subject matter as their Western counterparts. "Science fiction is a broad genre, with a lot of subjects to discuss, some of which are lacking in China, such as gender-related issues, or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) themes," he said.

But then again, Chinese sci-fi is just getting started. "You could say that the 'spring' for Chinese science fiction is here now, as the genre sees growth in readers, writers, public interest and capital," he said. "There should be more writers like Liu Cixin and Han Song. What we need are people who genuinely love sci-fi and writers covering more diversified themes."

Newspaper headline: One of us

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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