Science fiction has throughout time acted as a metaphorical barometer for the present, despite it largely conveying worlds of the future. In Hollywood, for example, a slew of films from the 1950s spoke of the Cold War with invaders from unknown worlds representing the threat of Soviet ideology.
In contemporary China, the popularity in science fiction has exploded and with it social commentaries have arisen. Are these stories takedowns on the country’s rapid development? Perhaps they reflect the national pride in China’s own investment in a national space programme. Do they unravel the impact of being at the centre of world’s most innovative technological developments or could they also represent the pressures of youth in modern China – the balance between consumerist opportunity and filial duty?
At the centre of this boom has been the publication of The Three Body Problem by 刘慈欣 (Liu Cixin) which has found global success since its release and is rumoured to being adapted for the screen by Amazon. The novel which acts as fictional commentary on the interplay of science and politics in present-day China became a best-seller worldwide and is seen as a watershed moment for the emergence of a new wave of science fiction writers coming out of China. According to modern Chinese literature expert Mingwei Song, “Today Chinese science fiction is no longer a hidden lonely army, and the genre’s journey to the West is no longer hesitant; it has become a fresh new force that is helping shape the outlook of global science fiction.”
It feels significant therefore for one to examine the list of Chinese literature in translation currently slated for 2019 and to find the current slate all fit within the science fiction genre. Furthermore, from that list, a large portion of its writers are part of the post 1980 collective for which the rest of the world’s microscope is increasingly spotlighting.
陈楸帆 (Chen Qiufan) is one such writer, who’s novel The Waste Tide is scheduled for an English release this April. An alumni of Google’s short lived operation in China, Chen also worked at Baidu and his background in technology has greatly influenced his work. Like Liu Cixin, Chen built his reputation in the 2000s by writing on online bulletin boards, and his writing tends to deal with worlds not far from reality with the focus on the emotional development of his characters. In an interview with the Financial Times, Chen stated “Living in China is already like living in a science fiction world.” Comparisons can be drawn with the TV series Black Mirror whose tales of the future feel eerily close to the present. Indeed Chen is involved in the development of a new TV show called Eros which has drawn parallels with the Netflix spectacle.
宝树 (Baoshu) is another writer due for publication in English this year with the release of The Redemption of Time which is set for release in June. Seen as somewhat of a disciple of Liu Cixin, Baoshu’s background is more rooted in academia than Chen. His popularity as a science fiction writer however, is thanks to the existence of The Three Body Problem – all of his works are set within the same universe as Liu’s novel. Mingwei Song states his work as “ exploring the nature of time, what time does to consciousness, and how time shapes our experiences.”
The popularity in Chinese science fiction and notably Liu Cixin has opened its path to the big screen. Chinese filmmakers and producers are taking to the genre as the industry looks to broaden its repertoire. February 2019 sees the release of The Wandering Earth directed by 郭帆 (Frant Gwo) and Crazy Alien by 宁浩 (Ning Hao). Both films are adaptations of stories by Liu, and with large budgets behind them, the films are seen as key in bolstering China’s box office revenue which is second only to the USA. The films also come at a time when China’s foray into space has been heightened by the recent exploration to the far side of the moon. Given the scale of these productions and Liu’s global interest, it would be surprising if these films do not reach a worldwide audience.
China’s development and the impact that Chinese culture will have on the rest of the world is becoming more prevalent with each passing year. 2019 is undoubtedly a time that will present economic and societal challenges for China and those who are looking to operate within the Chinese market. It is young people who are likely to feel these changes the most, and creative platforms are perhaps their major outlet for expression. As Chen Chiufan states, “People of my generation want to create something, whether that’s making a film or writing a novel . . . Inner life is just as important if not more important than material life.” Perhaps this new wave of Chinese science fiction will provide international audiences with the most visceral perspective of China’s present day yet.