Dispatches from the Future of a New China
By Nathaniel IsaacsonJuly 20, 2019
Broken Stars by Ken Liu
It’s not hyperbole to say that without Ken Liu and his Herculean efforts in translation, Chinese SF would not exist — or at least it would not exist in its current state. When Ken Liu’s 2014 translation of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (2008) won the Hugo Award in 2015, not only was it the first Chinese work awarded the honor, it was the first work in translation from any language to be lauded so. At some point in the past decade, Chinese SF went from “having a moment” to “enjoying its golden age,” and if 2015 wasn’t the exact moment that shift happened, it was certainly when the translation heard round the world was sounded. The Three-Body Problem’s award signaled the significance of Chinese SF to many Anglophone readers for the first time, but equally important was its reaffirmation of Chinese SF for local readers. Liu’s translation has in turn been the source for the novel’s translations into other languages, putting Liu at the vanguard of Chinese SF’s march toward the world. Within hours of the award announcement, domestic internet searches and sales of both the first book and of Liu Cixin’s whole 2008–2010 trilogy increased more than tenfold. Publishing houses and state institutions like the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China redoubled their efforts using SF as a vehicle for promoting China’s “peaceful rise,” and have identified SF as a key aspect of their propaganda and publicity campaigns.
In 1902, Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao began to publish his serial novel, The Future of New China. Liang planned to write a retrospective set 60 years in the future, tracing China’s rise from the disarray of the end of the imperial era. Liang’s novel cuts off abruptly at the fifth chapter — it was seemingly impossible for him and many of his peers to imagine a future moment where China had transcended its national peril, and the emergent genre of SF suffered for it. That moment has arrived. The relationship between the dreamlike ascendance of Chinese SF and China’s “peaceful rise” reveals itself in the marvels of the engineering state that one sees traveling from the massive Beijing Capital International Airport into Beijing proper. To take the 30-minute ride on the airport express train into the heart of the city is to behold Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) come to life. At sunset, the recently completed 1,732-foot China “Zun” tower — a supertall skyscraper nicknamed for its resemblance to a Zhou dynasty ritual bronze vessel — is seen through a veil of vermillion smog. Closer at hand, innumerable futuristic buildings drift by, including the Zaha Hadid–designed Wangjing SOHO, a trio of asymmetrical curvilinear skyscrapers said to resemble Chinese fans that could just as easily be the wings of some massive spacecraft in the Star Wars franchise. The express train’s terminus at Dongzhimen, a subway station named for a city gate that stood from the 15th century until 1965, is not far from the Beijing Moma complex: eight towers interconnected by walkways canted at odd angles translating Henri Matisse’s 1909 La danse (The Dance) into a cubist-impressionist origami jumble of latticed concrete and steel paneling. One of these towers houses the office of the Future Affairs Administration, a startup promoting Chinese SF run by tech-savvy millennials too young to remember Beijing as anything other than a center of global commerce and design.
Time and memory act as central themes in Broken Stars as well. The emergence of SF in early 20th-century China was marked by a monumental shift in cultural perceptions of time. Traditional Chinese cyclical time, and the Confucian notion that (to the extent it was linear) time was characterized by regression from a prelapsarian past, were supplanted by linear progress and Darwinian evolution. As much as human beings had the capacity to evolve, devolution was also an ever-present danger, and social Darwinism was interpreted not so much as a misprision of evolutionary theory as a fact apparent in the uneven fates of East Asian nations, resulting from wars both cold and hot. The authors featured in Broken Stars recapitulate these themes, availing themselves of contemporary theoretical physics: quantum theory, string theory, and alternate timelines. Liu Cixin’s “Moonlight” and Tang Fei’s “Broken Stars” both contemplate the risks of attempting to divert the arrow of time. Han Song’s “Salinger and the Koreans” is a Man in the High Castle–esque alternate history that imagines J. D. Salinger as a reluctant icon of social realism in a globally dominant Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Han Song — himself an employee of China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency — contemplates the role of the artist, the power of art, and its relationship to the state with a wry wit. Bao Shu’s “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” imagines China’s long 20th century in reverse, as technology regresses and the monster that is history visits the nation’s greatest traumas on its citizens in reverse. These meditations on Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” (the notion that Western liberal democracy was on course to be the universal form of governance) are particularly relevant in a moment where this teleology is unraveling at an increasing pace.
Two stories co-translated with Carmen Yiling Yan illustrate the massive challenges involved in making work like this read smoothly to an Anglophone audience. China’s linguistic plurality and its long literary history loom particularly large in Zhang Ran’s “The Snow of Jinyang,” which reimagines an episode from a late 10th-century period of Chinese disunion through the lens of anachronistic alternate history where cars and the internet are briefly available thanks to a time-traveling inventor. Genre, as well as language, presents both challenges and joys to the reader unfamiliar with Sinophone belles lettres. Zhang Ran’s story taps into chuanyue: a wildly popular Chinese television and fiction trope that often focuses on transplanting ordinary people to extraordinary times and places in Chinese history. Zhang Ran puns on the Chinese word for “zeppelin” sounding like the phrase “cypress grove” (a Xi’an, China, street name), and Liu and Yan render this dad joke in equally eye-roll-inducing English with a reference to a “stairway to heaven.” Elsewhere, Ma Boyong’s “The First Emperor’s Games” establishes correspondences between contemporary online role-playing games like The Sims, and Warring States philosophies like Confucianism and Daoism. Imagine an homage to Star Trek written in Aramaic or Greek that interweaves the language of Christ or Homer with sly allusions to contemporary popular culture and you are somewhere close to what a Western European version of Chinese SF in the 21st century would look like.
The clear consensus in Chinese translation is that no one does SF better than Ken Liu, but there are occasional instances of choppiness. In Anna Wu’s “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: Laba Porridge,” the owners of a Chinese restaurant in outer space exchange the backstory of a customer as they work in the kitchen, and one remarks, “Humanity always reenacts the same bildungsroman.” This sentence is not mistranslated; I can imagine seeing the Chinese, typing it out, and thinking: “I’ll get back to that later.” Bildungsroman is the kind of word I try to get college students to use in analytical writing, but it never comes up when I ask them to imagine telling their friends at a keg party about the plot and significance of a Chinese novel. The sentence has me turning over alternatives, some better than others: “Humankind is always repeating the same coming of age story?” “Human beings are always reenacting the same drama of development?” Google Translate suggests, “Humans always repeat the same growth story.” Perhaps I am so fascinated with this sentence because it reminds me of the way that one always comes upon the perfect phrasing after a work is already in print, and that translation is never a finished project. Fortunately, nuances like these are still the purview of artists like Ken Liu and Carmen Yiling Yan, rather than the robots.
Artificial intelligence emerges as another prominent theme. Xia Jia’s “Goodnight, Melancholy” opens the collection with a tale of automated affect and alienated labor, riffing on Alan Turing’s work on machine learning and the philosophical implications of the Turing test. Fei Dao’s “The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales” features a Scheherazadian robot master of flimflam on a quest to understand the relationship between art and immortality. In Baron von Münchausen–like style, the robot traipses the universe, skipping from one absurd encounter to another. At the collection’s weakest, some stories seem to be written by algorithm, apparently taking artwork by algorithm as both theme and method. These stories read to me like social media divertissements, a postmodern globalized pastiche of Eastern and Western culture with little psychological depth or sense of social context. This may be a response to a century of highly politicized literature dedicated to chronicling suffering in excruciating detail. For example, Fei Dao has expressed a desire to write work that is just plain fun. I should also note that when I taught Ken Liu’s first volume of translated short stories, Invisible Planets (2016), my students expressed a strong appreciation for those stories I was least keen on.
The best stories in the collection, aside from evoking the marvelous future of worlds far from us, also evoke the most vexing aspects of our shared present. The Chinese have a word for this: chaohuan, or hyperrealism — the notion that reality in contemporary China is so bafflingly jarring as to exceed the limits of literary realism. To my mind, this phenomenon is not limited to the People’s Republic of China, and the best stories in the collection take aim at a globally familiar strain of technocratic state capitalism and its ability to worm into people’s conscious and subconscious. In Hao Jingfang’s “The New Year Train,” the logic of venture capital is applied to time travel, shortening trips home for lunar new year. The CEO of the time-traveling train company, Li Dapang, uses a Mao-era slogan to dress up his act of creative destruction, quipping: “The transportation market is dominated by inefficient monopolies. We had no choice but to push the regulatory framework to Uberize space-time to better serve the people.” Move over, Zuckerberg.
Chen Qiufan’s “Coming of the Light” juggles a critique of capitalism and organized religion with Buddhist notions of existential emptiness, skewering the techno-evangelism of startup culture in a way that is as recognizable in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, as it is in Haidian, Beijing. In Chen’s cyberpunk future where all are hardwired into the internet, Chinese users are immune to a malware infection that induces a sort of digital Tourette syndrome compelling people to blurt out taboo or socially inappropriate responses because “Chinese users’ subconscious was already fundamentally fragmented and could seamlessly switch between different egos.” Where other authors use China’s Great Firewall for cheap laughs, eschewing real critique, Chen’s “A History of Future Illnesses” imagines the firewall as a psychological and evolutionary adaptation that has wound itself into human DNA.
It is far too much to demand that Chinese SF entertain audiences both foreign and domestic while also enacting a critique of the society and nation-state that surrounds it, resonating with global commerce and politics. Yelp reviews for Chinese restaurants evince a similar impossible set of demands: diners want cheap food, perfect service, a gorgeous dining room, artisanal cocktails, Sunday dim sum that reminds them of that time they went to Macao, a never-ending and always-fresh buffet, cultural authenticity, and bottomless General Tso’s chicken and Diet Coke. In many ways, this collection does just that. If forced to rate it, I’d give it 4.5 broken stars. I am also wary of analogies proclaiming any of these authors to be China’s Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, or Franz Kafka, as this reduces them to Chinese knockoffs of the real thing, but readers of the collection will surely see these resonances. These authors all deserve to be read on their own terms, and while the best of them will surely remind readers of many of the above giants, all of these stories strike me as evidence of a shifting geopolitical landscape and an evolving SF selective tradition, transforming the genre in their own unique ways.
Nathaniel Isaacson is an associate professor of modern Chinese literature in the department of foreign languages and literature at North Carolina State University. His research interests include Chinese science fiction, Chinese cinema, cultural studies, and literary translation.
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