Macmillan USA / WIRED
Serious Western interest in Chinese science fiction began in 2014, with the release of The Three Body Problem, written by Liu Cixin, an intergalactic battle for Earth taking place over thousands of years. The book and its two sequels have now sold more than nine million copies. Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg count themselves fans. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are concocting a Netflix series.
For the purposes of this introductory list, it’s worth asking, as Xia Jia does in a much-cited essay, what makes Chinese science fiction Chinese? The answer, she explains, lies in these writers uncertainty about their country’s future.
“The Chinese people once believed that science, technology, and the courage to dream would propel them to catch up with the developed nations of the West,” Xia writes. “However, now that Western science fiction and cultural products are filled with imaginative visions of humanity’s gloomy destiny, Chinese science fiction writers and readers can no longer treat ‘where are we going?’ as an answered question.”
Chinese science fiction, just like Western science fiction, conveys the anxiety and excitement stimulated by rapid scientific and technological change, from the iPhone to space travel to the climate crisis. Here’s our pick of the best books to get you started.
The Three-Body Problem and Remembrance of Earth’s Past series
The book that popularised Chinese sci-fi outside of China. Barack Obama nailed why the series is so compelling. “The scope of it was immense,” he told the New York Times in 2017. “So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty — not something to worry about. Aliens are about to invade!” The first book in the trilogy concerns initial communication with the Trisolarans, a powerful alien civilization (possibly based on America) bent on stealing Earth. Epic in scale (in the second book, The Dark Forest, the Trislorian fleet is still 421 years away) it became the first Asian novel ever to win the prestigious Hugo Award.
Wandering Earth collection
A collection of shorts by Liu Cixin. The title story, about humanity escaping the Sun’s expansion into a red giant, was adapted into a largely brainless but absurdly successful film, packed with expensive explosions and silly one liners. You can watch the film on Netflix, but the actual story is a more thoughtful affair. Beautifully written, the Sun hangs “motionless in the sky, surrounded by a faint, dawn-like halo”. The ten other stories collected here are just as great.
Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation
Ken Liu has pretty much single-handedly gifted Chinese sci-fi to the West, and his translations dominate this list. The first is his 2016 short story collection Invisible Planets. It’s a great introduction to the genre, filled with wild and wonderful stories about genetically-engineered rats, state surveillance, and Hao Jingfang’s classic Folding Beijing. “Every morning, an observer at some distance from the city – say, a truck driver waiting on the highway into Beijing – could see the entire city fold and unfold,” she writes. “The skyscrapers bowed submissively like the humblest servants until their heads touched their feet.” You can read that story online here.
Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation
Liu’s most recent translation, Broken Stars, came out last year. The subject matter of the sixteen stories feels even wider – Liu writes in the introduction that “beyond the core genre magazines, I also looked at stories published in literary journals, on the web, and in gaming and fashion magazines”. What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear is a highlight, a love story told in reverse, shooting from the Beijing Olympics to the cultural revolution back to the Second World War.
The Waste Tide
The Waste Tide, set in a Chinese dystopia in 2020, follows Mimi as she struggles to survive on “the Silicon Isle”, an island-sized waste recycling plant. It’s a fine anti-pollution parable – author Chen Quifan told The New Statesman that he thought of the story when he found a “a huge garbage field” near his childhood home in Guangdong, where migrant workers “are using their hands to break down the pieces of electronic devices, putting them on heat to melt the metals, or putting them in acid pools to dissemble the elements”.
Many Chinese sci-fi writers have pushed back on the idea that their stories are just send ups of the Chinese state, pointing out that an uneasy relationship with science and technology isn’t limited to China. Cat Country, in contrast, is a blatant satire of 1930s communist rule. (Written in 1932, the author Lao She killed himself during Mao’s Cultural Revolution). The narrator crashes on Mars, which is populated by aliens – or humans with the faces of cats. After fending off the defenceless civilisation he is given a tour of their world. “His criticism of China applied not only to the early twentieth century; many points ring true today,” writes Ian Johnson in the introduction to the book’s English-language translation. “Our narrator is angered by the custom of pulling strings to get ahead – akin to the debilitating practice of guanxi that continues to hobble Chinese society.”
Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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