By Matthew Juke
It was in the 1990s that China awoke from its pod and began to see more and more science fiction authors appearing. Fronting the charge are two of China's most prominent and prolific science fiction writers, Han Song and Pan Haitian, who are going to be putting forth the case for Chinese science fiction and the prospects for the future of the country at the Bookworm on March 17.
Prior to that, they spoke to the Global Times about where science fiction was in the past, where it's hiding today, and where it might be in the distant future.
Even before the birth of the reform and opening up, Chinese sci fi was emerging, and to date both men are seen as the third generation of Chinese science fiction writers.
It was in the 1980s that China began to translate the wealth of post war Western science fiction, known as the golden age of science fiction, and it was on this that they cut their teeth. Citing Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Philip K Dick, both the authors understand that science fiction in China is not minority market, but a market that represents a major new frontier for Chinese literature.
"China has no such a tradition of science fiction," said Han, "it has a tradition of spy stories, fantasy, crime, but no science fiction. There's no tradition of science either. In ancient times we had the four big inventions but no teachers of science; Chinese people like to find issues from history, from reality, not from the future but from imagination."
It's this take that makes Chinese sci fi stand out. Not just as a difference in plot, and language, but in perspective too. As a nation that had been largely closed for a long time, the Chinese viewpoint has been missed in sci fi, even dealing with the outside world may have seemed alien a century ago.
"Chinese people were seldom characterized in science fiction novels before. In the beginning Chinese sci fi has had to deal with the relationships between the Western and Eastern worlds," said Han, "China was invaded several times by the Western powers, and in their [the writers'] mind they have this idea of Western society and its people. In Western science fiction, they have aliens. We have the West."
Han is no stranger to this conflict, with his major novel 2066 Red Star over America set in a dystopian US, suffering from an economic crisis, living in the shadow of a now profitable and powerful China, an imagining of how the power dynamic could play out in future, not necessarily positively for either side.
But Han admits that it's the things around him every day that influence his writing, and it can be a commentary on the present which sets the tone for a story set in the future. Pan agrees that life plays a part, but was a little conflicted about how to define modern science fiction. He cites a definition he came up with years ago.
"Science fiction should be of extreme environments, a typical representative of a certain part of the human body, or even representative of the whole story of human actions or a process of thinking. It requires surreal factors," said Pan, explaining this was thinking from 10 years ago. "The loneliness, fear, insanity, anger and greed which are hidden in the depths of human subconsciousness can only be exposed in this kind of extreme environment."
Always quick with words and humor, Pan has now decided to change his opinion, in part thanks to his work with Novoland Fantasy.
"Now looking back at this definition, I don't really agree with it. I am bothered by readers arguing with me about this definition online, that's why I chose to be an editor of a science fiction magazine. It is science fiction as long as I say it is!"
It's been a long running battle between European authors and their bookstores as to whether there should be one shelf for sci fi and fantasy, or whether the genre has strong enough fan base to survive on their own. In China however, there's no competition.
"Chinese people have traditionally had a vigorous imagination, in the past they have created many excellent fantasy stories such as Chan Hai Ching, Journey to the West, Fantastic Tales by Ji Xiaolan, Strange Tales from a Scholar's Studio, and The Founding of a Republic," said Pan. "Even now, China is still a world full of crazy imagination." "As long as China's writers start to broaden their horizons, I believe Chinese science fiction will be the most - not just one of the most - characteristic genres of this age," he adds, noting that at the moment the fans are few, and the authors even less.
"There's a very clear definition for now, fantasy is much more, and the number of fantasy writers is dozens the number of science fiction writers, with more readership. Again, there's just more tradition of that in China," said Han. "But both sci fi and fantasy provide a different angle to see society from a different direction."
It's been a tradition of sci fi everywhere to have the idea of dystopia to fall back on for a plot line. With the current economic crisis, publishing houses around the world are filling up with manuscripts depicting apocalyptic scenarios and dystopian futures about to collapse.
We thought it would be nice to find a few of these in a local bookshop. But Han laments that we won't find a Chinese science fiction section.
"There are few science fiction writers in China but of course not all of them are that good. One of the reasons for this is that all the writers in China are led by the [China Writers] Association," said Han bitterly. "They divide different genres into several sub groups."
"We're in the children's sub genre," he adds.
As with many writers, Han's books often get passed from publisher to publisher for years before they finally hit the bookshelves, each is unwilling to tackle a heavy topic, or worried about the backlash at "sensitive material." It's not so different for Pan.
"In general, a novel is checked by the editors of the publisher and they are responsible for it," he said. "The point is that the regulations are obscure and elusive."
The "pass the buck" attitude of publishers, according to Han, is down to the idea of speculative fiction, fiction which touches on a distant future. The act of imagining a future which is not completely glorious attracts a lot of attention from the people working hard to make a better world.
"In China writing science fiction is very easy. You don't even need imagination, you just take a record of what happens every day in society, take all that into account and it will become science fiction. Sometimes it feels like science fiction, even when you're writing the news," said Han.
Han previously wrote a short story. "My Homeland does not Dream," in which China's development had slowed, and people agreed to be secretly dosed with drugs that would make them work through the night to keep the GDP figures up. It seems a little Orwellian, but Han begs to differ.
"George Orwell was dissatisfied and critical of society. The difference is, we love China, we don't want China fall into chaos, but we worry about its future," he said. "One day China's development will stop. There's no way we will have to work from day to night, it's not repression - they choose to do it, if they went to bed the country would collapse."
"My Homeland does not Dream" never made it on to paper, instead it circulated online. While it means that sci fi fans get something to play with, the author doesn't get the money that could give them a career as a writer. There are ways to do it, but at a price, said Han.
"For example, if you write sci fi in a positive way. If the writer were to describe a very bright future, profitable and stable, that sort of thing," he said. "If everybody wrote this way we would have lots of foolish works but maybe they can make money."
It's still early days for Chinese sci fi, and while both men say they're not averse to writing in English, it's left to those lucky few with the language skills to appreciate the full force of the imagination emerging now.
"This situation is changing now as I think. I do not know about America and England. But I think it's much better than China. At least I can name a few authors from Europe and America. How many over there know my name?" said Pan.
If you'd like a further insight, you can catch both authors speaking at the Bookworm International Literary Festival tomorrow night.
To find out more check out www.bookwormfestival.com. The talk: The future is now, starts at 8 pm March 17.
Han, originally from Chongqing is by day a journalist for Xinhua, and by night the master of future fiction, taking a look at the way society is heading and bending his works of fiction around it. His masterpieces include 2066 Red Star Over America, showcasing a dynamic power shift, China's runaway development leads it to become the world's major power while America becomes a walled off dystopia. It is that society that is then examined through the eyes of his Chinese protagonist.
Pan is from Fujian, and is less severe in his judgments, preferring to stick to analyzing what makes a person tick, and using that to conjure up images of surreal powers and mythical entities. The collection of short stories Run Dajiao Run, tells the story of a boy who travels through a myriad of themed worlds in search of medicine for his mother. A former Tsinghua architecture graduate, he started the magazine Novoland Fantasy, and is considering branching out into online games.