Calling from the Margins of Perception in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction

Calling from the Margins of Perception in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction

Bo Ærenlund Sørensen

As a genre, science fiction aids our mental exploration of what new technologies may do to human subjectivity, family relations, state-society dynamics, and to our embodied selves. Such new technological inventions often augment human sensory capabilities, allowing individuals or governments to look through walls, read the thoughts of others, or curse us with infinite recall. In this paper, I’m interested in the opposite, namely in science-fiction stories where human sensory capacities, instead of being augmented, come to seem problematic; where what is at the center of the story is not the expansion of the sensory apparatus, but rather a curious and often painful inability to make sense of sensory input. Or, to put it differently, I wish to examine what we find at the margins of human perception and thought in Chinese science fiction. One example of a story where communication is sonic rather than semantic can be found in this snippet from Hao Jingfang’s Invisible Planets

The tongue and the ear have the most meaning on Chincato. For the people of this planet, speech is not a mere way to pass the time, but a necessity for existence. [. . .] The Chincatoans do not have eyes or any organs that sense light. They rely on sound to locate one another. Their ears are both for listening and observing. Actually, to be precise, they don’t have ears. They listen with their entire body. [. . .] So all day long, the Chincatoans talk and listen without pause. They emit sounds to feel the presence of others, and also to let others know of their own existence. They cannot be silent. Silence is dangerous and makes them panic. [. . .] Some children are born with defects in their voice organs. These children almost cannot survive. They’re always in danger of being run over by others much bigger and faster. And then no one would even know such a child once existed. (215f) 

I should say at the outset that this is work in progress and that it is part of a larger project about sensory perception in twentieth-century Chinese history. For this paper, however, I focus only on the topic of hearing in contemporary Chinese science fiction. I limit myself even further, namely, to discussing works by contemporary science fiction writer Han Song, who also works as an editor for the mainland Chinese news agency Xinhua. 

Han Song’s short story “Submarines” begins as follows:

It was an early autumn night. Loud noises woke me from sleep, and it seemed as if the whole city had boiled over. My parents dressed me quickly, and we hurried out the door, heading for the river. We became part of a surging crowd whose thumping footsteps and worried cries were like exploding firecrackers on New Year’s Eve. I was so scared that I covered my ears, unsure what was happening. (121)

What has so perturbed the adults is the arrival of submarines in the local river, but the memory is clearly coded into the memory of the protagonist-child primarily as an auditory event. The entire story is told in the form of a flashback leading up to the catastrophic conflagration that swept from submarine to submarine and that none of the resident villagers did anything to prevent. This haunting event, did not, however, so the narrator repeatedly assures himself, affect his subsequent life in any way: 

A sense of unresolvable solitude gripped me, while I knew also that my own future would not be affected in any way by what I was seeing. [. . .] Morning finally arrived. Dim sunlight revealed lifeless hunks of blackened metal drifting everywhere on the river. In scattered rows, circles, clumps, they reflected the cold, colorless light, and the air was suffused with the decaying odors of autumn. The city-dwellers brought forth cranes to retrieve the wreckage of the submarines from the river and trucked the pieces to scrap metal yards. The whole process took over a month. After that, no submarines came to the Yangtze River. (122f)

Obviously, when a narrator repeatedly tells you that a particular past event is unimportant, you know that this narrator is misreading himself or herself, as our memory does not obsess over unimportant trivialities. What I find interesting in this story is how Han Song manages to let the events unfold almost without dialogue and almost without sense-making. Equally interesting is the shift in sensory modality: the story starts out as an unnerving audible event, but by the end, sounds seem to have been drained from the scene to be replaced by the painstaking reinstitution of orderliness by cleaning up the landscape visually. Through the youthful narrator’s matter-of-fact relating of details, Han Song suggests that what has imprinted itself on the mind of the narrator are sensory perceptions, which have never been processed into schemes of meaning. This may account for the fact that the impressions still seem so raw and consequential to the narrator, despite protestations to the opposite. 

Another Han Song story in which sounds play an even more central role is “Regenerated Bricks.” In this story, which plays out in the aftermath of the terrible Sichuan Earthquake of 2008, the debris left by the earthquake is used as building materials for new bricks which are described as very crude-looking, but they become very highly sought after because they emit sounds of muffled whispering. People who put their ears to the bricks are not able to make out what the murmuring voices are saying, and this seems to be exactly what makes the bricks into such pleasurable objects. 

Throughout the story, voices are of central importance, but it is usually not the meaning of what is said or shouted that matters, but rather the voice as a sonic object. An example of this is when the architect desperately tries to have various factories produce bricks that fulfill his specifications: “Should I call a second time to make sure they got it right? We discussed it a bit and decided not to call, since we feared that if we called again they would add too much straw. My feeling was this: ultimately my tone of voice determined the proportions” (7).

Another example comes a few pages later when it does indeed turn out that the factory has messed up another batch of bricks: 

More cement had been added, but now there was no time. Things did not look good, and yet another woman came out, her combat style completely the same as that at the factory. But now I had some experience, and with a shout from me she retreated. The proprietor of the workshop realized there was some mistake, and even though his intentions had been good, he had done wrong, so his tone was very mild. (10)

Here we see once again how communication is not decided by semantics, but by the sonic properties of what is said, shouted, or murmured. As the architect becomes increasingly involved with the production of the bricks, he turns into a hybrid of machine, birthing mother, and undulating swamp. He momentarily seems to transgress the boundary between life and death, and as he begins to groan like the nefarious landmass, the land of the living is reduced to a state of anxious listening. 

His face was as pale as tinfoil, as if he were a ghost and let the yellow moonlight shine brightly into the tent. The architect seemed to be pondering how he had managed to turn himself into a brick, and a brick that would immediately begin asexual reproduction and rapidly produce great numbers of buildings so as to allow any conscious bipeds to move into as soon as they could [. . .] A silly gray smile crossed the architect’s face, as if he were in labor, and an intermittent moan issued forth from his mouth, as if from a swamp. And behind him and the villagers, outside the tent, was a dense blackness, land that, although it had endured grievous wounds, was still rich and abundant and was arrogantly clearheaded as it casually pressed down upon the bodies of the dead, looking at them as if listening to a joke. The living dared not utter a sound. (11)

A multitude of related examples can be found in works by Liu Cixin, Xia Jia, and Chen Qiufan—which are in some ways different and in some ways similar. What is central in all of them is that sounds play a very important role, and that sound as physical presence very often trumps the semantic content of speech. The plots of these stories are ceaselessly driven forward by the sonic, but for the characters in the stories the meaning of the sounds remain opaque, leaving them to deal only with the effects of the sounds. If we employ Darko Suvin’s idea that science fiction is characterized by cognitive estrangement, we might say that in these stories cognitive estrangement is performed by sounds figuring as powerful sonic agents, yet remaining somehow marginal to the sense-making of the characters. How to interpret this is the topic for the longer version of this paper. 


[1] In the case of Rallya, her age introduces a third barrier, as the reader has to assume that she has entered menopause.


Han Song. “Regenerated Bricks.” The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First-Century Chinese Science Fiction, edited by Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters, Columbia UPPress, 2018, pp. 3–44.

—. “Submarines.” Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu, 1st edition, Tor Books, 2019, pp. 113–122.

Hao Jingfang. “Invisible Planets.” Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu, Tor Books, 2016, pp. 199–218.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale UP, 1979.

Bo Ærenlund Sørensen, a graduate from the Danish Academy of Creative Writing, holds a B.A. in comparative literature, an M.A. in history, and a DPhil in oriental studies from the University of Oxford. He is currently employed as assistant professor of China Studies at the University of Copenhagen. He has previously worked at Novo Nordisk and at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. His general research interests include modern Chinese history and literature, global history, cognitive literary studies, memory studies, and digital humanities. He is working on a translation of contemporary Chinese science fiction into Danish.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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