Science fiction in China was repressed as recently as the 1980s as “spiritual pollution.” Fortunately, in the past two decades, Chinese science fiction has blossomed, and the United States is finally getting to read some of it.
Much of this access is due to the translation efforts of Ken Liu, an excellent author in his own right.
Want the big picture of science fiction from China? Well, in Ken’s own words:
“China is also going through a massive social, cultural, and technological transformation involving more than a billion people of different ethnicities, cultures, classes, and ideological sympathies, and it is impossible for anyone, even people who are living through these upheavals, to claim to know the entire picture.
China is dreaming, and its dreams contain multitudes.”
Many of the younger science fiction dreamers in China focus on short stories instead of books, so several of those are listed below. Links go to collections that contain their stories.
Ma Boyong’s “City of Silence” is an homage to 1984, updated with improved surveillance and network technology. This is countered with acts of resistance from Chinese netizens.
The story, like many of Ma’s works, is funny and smart, with plenty of great juxtapositions of new technology and elements from Chinese history.
Ning is a child who is growing up under the strict protection of the Monk in Ghost Street. Ning is the only real person in the midst of a group of ghosts. What begins as a Chinese ghost story ends up being something that seems to belong to a very different genre.
On October 11, 2012, an experiment in the Large Hadron Collider caused consequences that no one would have imagined. The time field was distorted around the world—at an interval of 20 hours, everything would return to the state as it was at 6:47 a.m. on October 11, except people’s memory.
Han Fang, a college student in Beijing, watches as his own life collapses and the world is swept up in craziness and ignorance. Eventually, a religious sect claiming to be guided by the God of Time becomes popular around the world. The hierarch Paul seems to have grasped the truth behind the scenes, and intends to bring people to the unknown future through an elaborate plan. When the truth is uncovered, Han Fang finds that he and a mysterious girl shoulder the last hope of the world in the wasteland of time.
Factory workers are turned into cyborgs, their minds and bodies altered to create perfect manufacturing drones. Their plight is unknown to the world, as the rich elite’s control over the Internet means no one can know what is happening to them.
The Waste Tide depicts the future China as influential on the world stage, but corrupt and unable to pull its people out of poverty internally.
This pessimistic, dark view of a corrupt near-future China won the Xingyun (Nebula) Award as Best Novel.
A professor tries to raise a robot as his own, but at the age of five, the robot stopped growing up. Depressed, the professor loses interest in the unfortunate robot. When the professor’s son-in-law starts his own research on the childlike robot, unexpected emotions run high and come to a fever pitch.
These stories, the first collection of Fan’s work to appear in English, focus more on Taiwan than China, but they’re still great (and quite sardonic).
In “Zero,” Xi De, a young man living among the elite in a postapocalyptic world, challenges the technocratic rule of a charismatic leader. An idealistic man becomes trapped between conflicting claims to truth, unsure of whether he is heroic or foolish in his ultimate choice of resistance or sacrifice.
In the widely anthologized “Lai Suo,” a naïve individual becomes the pawn of powerful men intent on advancement.
“How to Measure the Width of a Ditch” is an absurdist, metafictional tale in which the narrator reminisces about his childhood in Taipei.
“The Intelligent Man” weaves an allegorical satire of Taiwanese migration to the United States and the business expansion to mainland China and Southeast Asia.
All together, these stories portray the tensions and aspirations underlying Taiwanese society, as well as other worlds waking up from political strife.
“Folding Beijing” was originally posted on newsmth.net, the BBS of Tsinghua University, in December 2012. It allegedly took the author around 1 month to plan, and 3 days to write, which I am totally not jealous of.
Beijing is divided by three classes physically, sharing the same earth surface in each 48 hour cycle: The first governing class with 5 million population occupy the space for 24 hours from 6 am to 6 am, after which the earth’s surface is turned upside-down, to move the second and third class up.
The second class has 25 million middle-class people, and will enjoy 16 hours from 6 am to 10 pm. Then, the building of the second class will fold and retract while the high buildings of the third class unfold and rise, which hosts 50 million lower class people, who can be awake for 8 hours till 6 am. When each class is turned down or folded, the residents there would be put to sleep. Traveling between classes is tightly controlled and violators are jailed.
An entire month has gone missing from Chinese records. No one has any memory of it, and no one seems to care except for a small circle of friends who will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the sinister cheerfulness and amnesia that have possessed the nation. When they kidnap a high-ranking official and force him to reveal all, what they learn—not only about their leaders, but also about their own people—stuns them to the core.
“An uncommon novel… With its offbeat puzzle and diverting characters… Chan’s story is not only absorbing in its own right, it also shines reflected light on the foibles of the West.”
— The New York Times
Described by the Los Angeles Times as China’s premier science fiction writer, Han Song has written four novels and won the prestigious Galaxy Award—China’s foremost Science Fiction prize—six times. Many of his works are still banned.
2066: Red Star Over America is considered Han’s masterpiece and presents a world where the tables of global power have turned. America is on the decline and China is the dominant power. A delegation of Chinese Go players is sent to the US to spread their superior knowledge, when a series of major catastrophes take place, plunging the host country into anarchy.
When a traveler from China crash-lands on Mars, he finds himself in a country inhabited entirely by Cat People. Befriended by a local cat-man, he becomes acquainted in all aspects of cat-life: he learns to speak Felinese, masters cat-poetry, and appreciates the narcotic effects of the reverie leaf—their food staple. But curiosity turns to despair when he ventures further into the heart of the country and the culture, and realizes that he is witnessing the bleak decline of a civilization.
“[O]ne of the most remarkable, perplexing, and prophetic novels of modern China… [T]he work predicts the terror and violence of the early Communist era and the chaos and brutality that led to Lao She’s death at the Lake of Great Peace. Cat Country is often called a dystopian novel, but when Lao She took his own life, it was an uncannily accurate portrait of the reality around him.”
— New York Review of Books
Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.
The Grace of Kings won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.
“Liu’s ambitious work expertly blends mythology, history, military tactics, and technological innovation (airships and submarines).”
— Kirkus Reviews
Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion.
An English translation by Ken Liu won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
“Remarkable, revelatory and not to be missed.”
― Kirkus Reviews (starred review)