China looks for progress through science fiction

Posted on Monday, November 19, 2018

Author: Jean-Louis Trudel

Jean-Louis Trudel

ISSP Writer in Residence, Author and Historian

Until recently, Chinese science fiction was an empty concept for most Western readers. 

Though it is rooted in China's discovery of Jules Verne's nineteenth-century works, Chinese science fiction began to make its mark on the international scene much more recently.  The first major science fiction gathering officially endorsed by the Communist Party took place as recently as 2007.  And it was only in 2015 that the first volume of Liu Cixin's best-selling "Remembrance of Earth's Past" trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, won a Hugo Award, one of the most prestigious awards in English for science fiction, in what was the first win ever by a Chinese work.  In 2017, Chengdu hosted its fourth international science fiction convention, while Beijing's Museum of Science and Technology was the venue for the first Asia Pacific SF Convention in the spring of 2018, put on by the Future Affairs Administration.  And China is now bidding to host the 2023 World Science Fiction Convention in Chengdu.

This isn't merely about a literary success story or another milestone in the spread of Western popular culture. On the one hand, Chinese science fiction will no doubt benefit from government support as long as it serves the government's soft power agenda. On the other hand, China seems less concerned with promoting its authors abroad than with fostering a new mindset at home.

The recent prominence of science fiction in China seems closely tied to the country's concern with its own innovation performance, which has already led to the government's increasing support for science literacy.  Science fiction is seen as a potential key to the same desired outcomes. 

The story goes that when China sent a delegation to study the people working for companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft, it observed that many were or had been science fiction readers.  This brings to mind tales of technological espionage in the time of the Industrial Revolution, when travellers from abroad observed (and committed to memory) the machines powering the productivity edge of Great Britain.  Today, China believes that science fiction is driving the innovative edge of the United States.

This may not be a universally-held belief, but it is driving an unprecedented opening to Western science fiction.  Take Ottawa-Gatineau science fiction writer Derek Künsken, a rising author known for a number of stories as well as the novel The Quantum Magician.  In 2017 and 2018, he was invited no fewer than five different times to attend Chinese conferences and events.  As a guest of his Chinese publishers, he spoke on panels and led writing workshops, as is customary for invited writers.  Less classically, he also visited the R&D facilities of an Alibaba affiliate in Hangzhou, meeting with AI researchers  and other technical specialists to develop a science fiction story.  Another story was inspired by a visit to Danzhai, the site of a major corporate anti-poverty initiative.

The hard science fiction subgenre favoured by Künsken is characterized, at its best, by dynamic storytelling, an ability to draw out the wondrous possibilities arising from new science or technology, and a sometimes obsessive attention to verisimilitude.  All three may have something to offer to China's technology sector.  The hope seems to be that close observation of the writing process given a known starting point will yield insights about  ideation.

Künsken's own take on his role emphasizes the differences between his two experiences:  "Both were corporate-driven, one by a high-tech financial services company with 500 million shoppers buying on their cell phones, the other a major construction company contributing to China's goal of raising all Chinese above the international poverty line by 2020. In the first case, the consumer may ultimately be the high-tech company looking to see if science fiction writers might have new insight into the future of society and technology. In the second, the company was in part looking to let people know about a new cultural tourism site in China that is combatting poverty."

It would be facile to ask who is using whom.  Künsken himself found both ventures "artistically fulfilling", and science fiction writers both inside and outside China can only gain from closer engagement with unfamiliar fields and unaccustomed challenges.  Yet, it may also be worth asking outside China if science fiction can help illuminate some of the mysteries of innovation.

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