China’s Sonic Fictions: Music, Technology, and the Phantasma of a Sinicized Future


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


China’s Sonic Fictions: Music, Technology, and the Phantasma of a Sinicized Future

Carmen Herold
Humboldt University of Berlin / Germany


Lost Futures

When the first world fair of the post-war period took place in 1958 in the Belgian capital Brussels, it was received with hesitation. Under the motto progress of mankind through progress of technology, the exhibitors, seemingly in denial of the horrors of World War II, were eager to show that through the help of technology, a civilization gone astray could be reconfigured. Solely built for the occasion, Brussel’s landmark, the Atomium, still reminds us today of the fatal confidence placed in future technologies such as nuclear power.

Another particularly conspicuous piece of architecture was the emphatically futurist Philips Pavilion. Conceptualized by the utopian Le Corbusier and his long-time assistant Iannis Xenakis, the multi-pointed tent made of concrete broke with all visual habits of the time. Centerpiece of the multimedia pavilion: the 8-minute composition Poème Electronique by experimental musician Edgar Varèse. Together with Xenakis, who would later be known as an acclaimed sound composer himself, they not only put forth one of the first ever electronically generated music pieces, but also devised an unprecedented, conceptronic Gesamtkunstwerk that fused architecture, film, sound, and light in an immersive spectacle. However, when Varèse’ sharp, distorted sounds ran over the 425 loudspeakers, it provoked unbearable discomfort (cf. Treib & Harley).

As much as Varès and Xenakis hoped to draw on the frenzied techno-enthusiasm of bygone days, the dystopian magnitudes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the looming threat of a nuclear war seemed to give way to a decaying pathos of modernity. As such, the fair’s general critique reads as a mourning for the grandeur of major world exhibitions of pre-war times and thus can be understood as an expression not only of a “collapsing faith in the future” (20), as Anna Greenspan detects, but also of a burgeoning scepticism in its most salient signifier: technology.1

Following the distressing realization about the conjunction of wartime violence and technological progress, Friedrich Kittler would have agreed that the fate of modernity is no longer decided at decadent world exhibitions, but rather on the battlefields of wars. No circumstance drives technological progress faster than warfare. As he so famously goes on to reveal, the widespread use of electronic devices in the entertainment industry is unthinkable “without the misuse of military equipment” (198). Or generalizing Hannah Arendt’s conclusion: “progress and catastrophe are two sides of the same coin” (7).

As all hopes in modernity seemed to have vaporized, technology’s brutalist heritage was now triumphantly hovering like a sword of Damocles over the aporia of advancement through technology. Still, science’s failed promise of technological salvation did not just vanish, but inscribed itself as a hauntological verdict in the futuristic topos of arts, especially electronic music.2

Probably the most prominent answer of a science-fictional version of futurism is Afrofuturism. Carrying the promise of an envisioned Black future through techno-culture, Afrofuturism lent tremendous agency to Afro-diasporic subjects. However, rather than reproducing futurities à la Marinetti, alternating articulations of a speculative tomorrow sought to reclaim a lost faith in the future. As the concept became popular in Western philosophical discourse, it was translated into other ethnofuturisms, such as Sinofuturism: a term that was coined in the context of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) at the University of Warwick in England. As I am going to argue, Afro- and Sinofuturism might be closely related on a conceptually historic level and share thematic interferences, but they are marked by important epistemological and political differences. These differences arise from their history of origin and become manifest in their respective relations to technology and the future. While Afrofuturism was an emancipatory diasporic project, the mere fact that Sinofuturism is a Western projection renders the term substantially misleading and useless. By discussing actual contemporary electronic music in China, I am going to look beyond the Western gaze that forged the term.

Alternative Futures

In the late 1990s, cultural theorist Kodwo Eshun became one of the leading figures in the theorization of Afrofuturism. Central to his argument is the observation that Afro-diasporic subjects, who for centuries have been viciously excluded from the unified knowledge of an intrinsically Western notion of science, attempted to reinterpret or even expropriate hackneyed ideas of an imagined future. Through devoted listening voyages, or “lexical listening” (Diederichsen 1.280), and by the introduction of a new kind of language regulation, he would reveal Afro-diasporic sound mythologies that narrate notions of the future far from Euro-centric dominance (cf. Eshun).

Similar to Edward George and others, Eshun emphasizes that pan-African science fiction is not primarily to be found in art or literature, like its Italian predecessor, but most notably in music, proving that science fiction in music—or as he calls it, sonic fiction—is as potent as related forms (cf. Buchwald). Against the prevailing narrative of electronic music as a historic continuum stemming from Karlheinz von Stockhausen via Kraftwerk all the way to Detroit techno, he offers the ideal blueprint for a paradigmatic historiographic shift: a sonological turn that breaks with white supremacist interpretations of Black music tied solely to a single-sociological, geographical, and linear-historic narration of origin. His cartography of a sonic Afrofuture pinpoints to the urgency of a multidirectional schema.3 Eshun therefore specifically accuses the gatekeepers of music journalism of always having “over-aestheticised and under-politicised” (Crawford) techno music and thus robbed it of its political potential.

Afrofuturism’s technological epiphanies and its narrations of extraterrestrial life play with the idea that, once displaced from their alien origins, Black bodies now live in an involuntary exile, often referred to as the Black Atlantic. This is, for instance, reflected in the progressive sound of tracks such as Cyberwolf, Death Star, or Punisher by Detroit techno label Underground Resistance. In the whirl of cyber utopia, they not only point to the post-industrial void of the Motocity, but are also carried by a last desperate attempt to unfold a Black future “without anthropocentrism,” without a history of repression, and “after humanism” (Diederichsen 1.277). Perhaps it is the syncretism in John Akomfrah’s film essay, The Last Angel of History, that best illustrates how Black technologies like blues or hiphop are key to overwriting prevailing techno-narratives and unlocking new spheres of existence, namely the Afro-future.

Warwick’s Sinofuturism

On the initiative of the Warwick-based Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), Kodwo Eshun was invited to attend the annual Virtual Realities (VR96) conference and the complimentary seminar Afro-Futures at the University of Warwick in 1996. His lectures on Afro-diasporic futurisms were met with great enthusiasm and triggered the CCRU’s close engagement with ethnofuturist tropes. Eshun soon became a close ally of this highly mythologized group of researchers, who, to this day, are important authorities in the field of cyber-theory (cf. Reynolds).

Initiated in 1995 by Sadie Plant and Nick Land, the CCRU was an interdisciplinary group of cultural theorists associated with the local philosophy department. Electrified by the ongoing rise of rave culture, the CCRU was obsessed with speculative futures and fully enthused by the idea of cyberspace and electronic music’s usurpation. However, the CCRU did not ascribe to the optimism of the Californian dotcom ideology, where technologies were regarded as de-hierarchizing network machines in a Brechtian sense. This hippie hilarity of the 60s was fundamentally at odds with the cyberpunkian modus vivendi of the CCRU. In this sense, the vision of the techno-future of these self-ascribed cyborgs remained gloomy. Influenced by theorists such as Deleuze and Guattari, members of the CCRU “opposed the rationalist tradition of a history of philosophy” (Deleuze 14). Captivated by the a-conventional language in Anti-Oedipus and Deleuze’s outright rejection of a potential myth of origin (cf. Deleuze & Guattari) only further endorsed their antithetical posture. In an act of countercultural response to the 1990s’ prevailing narratives of unity, peace, and the end of history (perhaps post-modernists’ most obscure and ignorant brainchild?!), the CCRU was fully committed to cyberpunk (cf. Reynolds & Beckett).

Aside from being deeply invested in Afrofuturism, another often-overlooked motif plays a central role in the technophile’s edifice of ideas: China. In reference to a global New Age fever and surely also inspired by Deleuze, transfigurations of pre-modern China on the one hand or a sinicized future on the other are frequently to be found in the texts, art, and music of individual members. It must be read as a kind of Afrofuturist extension that is biased by chronic sinophilia, when time and again elements of the I Ching, Sunzi, but also Xi Jinping ideology are points of reference.

Of exceptional quality are the sinophilic tendencies of the CCRU’s most controversial member: Nick Land, who believes that China is, “to a massive degree” (Beckett) already an accelerationist milieu. His accelerationist delusions are further stressed in the assertion that the fusion of sinicized Marxism and capitalism is “the greatest political engine of social and economic development the world has ever known” (Beckett). Having chosen Shanghai as his permanent residency, Land won’t cease to declare that “Neo-China arrives from the future” (Land, Meltdown). In view of his anti-democracy, neo-reactionism, and cosmic conspiracy theories, I often wonder how his version of the future differs from that of its fascist Italian originators. Is this not simply reproducing a Western-induced longing for a modernity of days gone by? Land’s romanticised Sinofuturism often remains hermetically sealed, evading an elaborate explanation as to what degree China actually is the future.

Also residing in Shanghai is former CCRU member Anna Greenspan, who holds the chair of Assistant Professor of Contemporary Global Media at the local branch of New York University, making it a hub for old and updated CCRU networks, such as that which grew up around Steve Goodman, better known as dubstep producer Kode9 and founder of the infamous music label Hyperdub. Back at Warwick, he would, in the interdisciplinary spirit of the CCRU, often accompany academic events with his music. Having visited Shanghai multiple times in the past years, he was also invited to attend NYU for a lecture. Goodman’s ardent engagement with China insinuated a deeper affection for China, which can be traced back to the late 1990s. Published in the Warwick Journal of Philosophy from 1997, for instance, Goodman already speculates about a vaguely dark prospect of China: “Sinofuturism is a darkside cartography of the turbulent rise of East Asia. It connects seemingly heterogeneous elements onto the topology of planetary capitalism” (Goodman, Fei Ch’ien 155). In his dissertation from 1999, he repeatedly draws on Sunzi’s The Art Of War or fantasizes about a “Tao of Turbulence” (Goodman, Turbulence 274). And when he identifies China as the “kingdom of heaven” the “direct counterpart of Europe” (Avanessian 23), one cannot help but draw a link to French sinologist François Jullien, whose similarly essentialist, supratemporal fixations of China play directly into the hands of the simplifying narrative of politics of difference. However, in contrast to Land, Goodman’s interest in China has led to an incessant creative exchange, which was also expressed through his relentless support for local artists.

Before his first trip to China in 2005, Goodman put up the emphatically culturalist music mix Sinogrime (Kode9). What is intended to make visible the matrix of stereotypes often strikes me as a lived-out China fever. Produced by a number of London’s underground musicians, the mix brings together Grime tracks created between 2002-2003. Incorporating a decidedly Chinese clang, the sound elements oscillate between traditional Chinese instruments or sound samples from old Kung Fu movies. For a short time, Sinogrime even became an independent sub-genre of Grime music.4 Originating from London, Sinogrime is a subtilized projection of an English Sinofuture.

China’s Sonic Fictions

When it comes to the popularization of the term Sinofuturism in China, it is crucial to look at the creative relationship Goodman holds with the English artist of Malaysian-Chinese descent, Lawrence Lek. In an interview, Lek explains how he has drawn inspiration for Sinofuturism through conversations with Goodman (Shen). In 2016, the artist’s eponymous film essay Sinofuturism (1839-2046AD) hit a nerve in both Western and Chinese art discourses. Aside from portraying a speculative Chinese future, his widely acclaimed movie seems to unmask the unintentional difference between the reception of Afrofuturism and Sinofuturism: While Afrofuturism was a crucial enabler for superceding racialized differences, Sinofuturism was intended to undergird a general sentiment of China being the Future, thus reinforcing difference. Regardless, the term was quickly popularized and manifested in an array of cultural fields, namely music, and often ascribed to the artists of Shanghai music label Svbkvlt among others, further blurring its definition while at the same time being increasingly degraded to a sentiment.

Therefore, I doubt that the terminology borrowed from the CCRU complies with its matter. As so often with genre terminology, Sinofuturism seems to be atrophying into a default template. Irrespective of whether genre essentialism is conceivable and desirable at all, since their subject matter is so vital, Sinofuturism does not offer an alternate epistemological surrogate. This is to say nothing of its potential sonic-, semiotic- and techno-orientalist pitfalls.

And yet, in the haze of the new techno-cities Shanghai, Shenzhen, or Hangzhou, the new breeding grounds for technological innovation, a unique sci-fi sound has unfolded that accompanies the rapid urban transformations. Despite what is aesthetically forced upon this (non)-genre, it has already gained cultural momentum while simultaneously comprising an unforeseen socio-political potential. Due to the often non-lyrical, sample- and remix-based formalism of electronic music, it is an ideal canvas with which to envision a critical stance of a sinicized, science-fictional condition, as it is not easy prey forcensorship.5 And here I specifically insist on science-fictional as a modifier, because the music is a realistic yet non-naturalistic, imaginative counter-narrative to the dominance of techno-science and post-socialist ideology, while at the same time I specifically avoid futurism, as the ‘future’ is not a thematic framework and in some cases is even rejected as such.

This is best exemplified by the Shanghai-based artist Osheyack, who has released multiple times on the earlier mentioned label Svbkvlt. In contrast to Afrofuturism’s take on technology, which made use of its imaginative potential, the sound on Osheyack’s album Memory Hierarchy is a response to an already converted information-technological environment. While today the brutal motifs of capital-accumulating profiteers are codified into software and increasingly disappearing behind smooth, aestheticized facades, Osheyack’s murky sonic fiction reveals this “omnipresence of surveillance” (Osheyack), as he states on his EP. Once a cipher for the undetected, Kittler’s proclaimed truth of the technological world is now fully translated into Osheyack’s quivering, stentorian beats. In his stance, the urban, networked subject is under permanent scrutiny. Conversely, the CCRU’s techno-fanaticism formed under antithetical conditions: the efficacious spell of the rave fever stimulated technophilic tendencies, rather than mass-digitization (cf. O’Hara).

Analogously unorthodox are the eclectic beat patterns in the DJ sets of Shenzhen local, Guo Jingxin aka Warmchainss. Situated somewhere between jungle, hip hop or happy hardcore, she, like many Chinese DJs, deliberately breaks with the dictates of genre and historic boundaries.6 As a resident of Shenzhen club Oil, her sets are a science-fictional echo of the insecurities caused by global capitalism and techno-autocracy. She tells me, ever since Shenzhen had the identity of a 高科技城市 high-tech city imposed upon it, she has fully discarded any conceptualization of a futurism. Coupled with the city’s growing atmosphere of tech euphoria, was also a growing formalism of its landscape. As a result, the cityscape increasingly reflects a commodity character and, she says, this inevitably leads to her and her surroundings falling victim to urban ennui and, what Deleuze and Guattari so famously called, deterritorialization. The music, the sonic fictions, may figure as a last reserve of a counter-culture.

While Warmchainss’ persona already hints at the dissolution of gender or human, Wu Shanmin alias 33EMYBW radicalizes this idea through her increasingly identifiable approach with the character of the arthropod. As an insectoid alien, she superimposes the producing human subject in favor of a post-human vision that sounds like “music from a different universe” and overlays rhythms, “that would be impossible for a human to play” (Ryce). The pulsating, epileptic beats on 33’s (pronounced San San) track Tentacle Centre attack the nervous system like razor-sharp pincers. The audited Arthropods Continent is at the same time organic without being material and mechanical without being purely functionalan Artificial Life (AL). It is precisely these intersections between the organic and the technological that interest 33EMYBW.

There is no doubt that finding an essentialist unity in the acoustical concerns of Osheyack, Warmchainss or 33EMYBW is a question too narrowly considered. Though, together with their aesthetic adherents, such as Chengdu’s newest nightclub Axis, Shanghai Community Radio, or the Beijing based label Do Hits, they embody a hyper-conscious response to the draconian flipside of China’s techno-tropes. Under the aspect of Foucault’s distribution of power, their science-fictional soundscapes reveal technology’s dispositive character. The envisioned sonic counter-reality further expresses the opposition to all formalisms and suggests an affirmation of a counter-culture in a non-normative fashion. Their explicit engagement with contemporary, present phenomenon, hence implicit and explicit rejection of futurisms, signal the fundamental misplacement of the term Sinofuturism.

Further, the firmly rooted term Sinofuturism reifies the dominant role of a Western gaze, which is seemingly more invested in the either—that is, observer-dependent—idealization or demonization of a purportedly sinicized future. In other words: Sinofuturism does not offer an epistemological alternative. Rather, I suggest, the concept sonic fiction will extrapolate its full potential if extracted from its theoretic milieu and if subjected to an emancipatory act of self-description. Then, in lieu of the techno-optimist faith of Edgar Varèse or Afro-diasporic surrogate-futures of Underground Resistance, China’s sonic fictions become ways to channel reality. Evading an escapist notion of fiction, while criticizing Chinese techno-tropes, but also circumventing a Western techno-orientalist speculation about a sinicized future. Who knows, maybe Howie Lee’s track 中非友谊大桥 Sino-African Friendship Bridge on his most recent EP 天地不仁 Tian Di Bu Ren, proclaims the dissolution of ethnocentrist soundscapes in favor of transcultural sonic fictions.


NOTES

1. Of all people, it is Pierre Schaeffer, founder of musique concrète, member of the French resistance, and, incidentally, yet another collaborateur of Iannis Xenakis, who would, in his Studio d’Essai, experiment with technologies invented in Nazi Germany (Stubbs, Kindle Location 1271-1276).

2. Echoes of this dire certitude ring when Maggie Roberts notes, that “the violence of the sounds in techno, is like being turned inside out, smeared, penetrated” (Reynolds).

3. Writer Kalí Tal further insists that the interconnection of Afro-American theory and cyberculture must be subject to a different interpretation and thus notions of a speculative, technologized Afrofuture require a corresponding reading.

4. This hardcore oeuvre with Chinese characteristics is only surpassed by the sonic orientalism of Fatima Al-Quadiri: in 2014 she releases her album Asiatisch on Goodman’s label Hyperdub.

5. This very condition suggests that the cultural importance of electronic music in China will be intensified. That some of China’s most notorious young artists often choose or are closely related to club cultural contexts is a strong indicator (e.g. Asia Dope Boys, Chen Wei 陈维, Cheng Ran 程然, Ren Hang 任航, et al.). Shanghai-based writer Xi Shaonan 郗少男 has explored this more closely in his article on the intersection of club culture and art for Leap Magazine 艺术界.

6. An expression of the absence of (popcultural) historicity or resistance to the West’s obsession with it?


WORKS CITED

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, 1973.

Avanessian, Armen, and Mahan Moalemi. Ethnofuturismen: Befunde zu gemeinsamen und gegensätzlichen Zukünften, edited by Armen Avanessian and Mahan Moalemi, Merve Verlag, 2018, pp. 7-39.

Beckett, Andy. “Accelerationism: How a Fringe Philosophy Predicted the Future We Live in.” The Guardian, 11 May 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/11/accelerationism-how-a-fringe-philosophy-predicted-the-future-we-live-in.

Buchwald, Dagmar. Invisible Colonies: Das Parasitäre als Strategie postmoderner Ästhetik und Politik. edited by Marcus Hahn, Susanne Klöpping, and Holger Kube Ventura, Gunter Narr Verlag, 2002, pp. 43–56.

Crawford, Romi. “Interview with Kodwo Eshun.” Kanopy, November 2011, https://www.kanopy.com/product/kodwo-eshun-interview.

Deleuze, Gilles. Unterhandlungen 1972-1990. Suhrkamp, 1993.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Ödipus: Kapitalismus und Schizophrenie, Suhrkamp,1977.

Diederichsen, Diedrich. Über Pop-Musik. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2014.

Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant than Sun. Quartet Books Limited, 1998.

Goodman, Steve. “Fei Ch’ien Rinse Out: Sino-Futurist Under-Currency.” Warwick Journal of Philosophy, vol. 7, 1998. p. 155.

Goodman, Steve. Turbulence: a cartography of postmodern violence. 1991. University of Warwick, PhD dissertation.

Greenspan, Anna. Shanghai Future. Modernity Remade. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Harley, James. Xenakis: His Life in Music. Taylor & Francis Books, 2004.

Kittler, Friedrich. Die Wahrheit der technischen Welt. Suhrkamp, 2013.

Kode9 (Steve Goodman). “Sinogrime.” SoundCloud, 2005, https://soundcloud.com/kodenine/kode9-sinogrime-minimix-2005.

Land, Nick. “Meltdown.” Abstract Culture, swarm 1, n.d., http://www.ccru.net/swarm1/1_melt.htm.

O’Hara, Dan. History of Virtual Futures. YouTube, uploaded by Virtual Futures, 1 January 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riFRRkqDxQI.

Osheyack. “Memory Hierarchy.” BandCamp, 24 April 2020, https://svbkvlt.bandcamp.com/album/memory-hierarchy.

Reynolds, Simon. “Renegade Academia: The Cybernetic Culture Research Unit.” Energy Flash, 3 November 2009, https://energyflashbysimonreynolds.blogspot.com/2009/11/renegade-academia-cybernetic-culture.html.

Ryce, Andrew. “Label of the Month: Svbkvlt.” Resident Advisor, 3 February 2020, https://www.residentadvisor.net/features/3604.

Shen, Danni. “Sinofuturism: An Interview with Lawrence Lek.” On Screen Today, 3 July 2017, http://www.onscreentoday.com/conversation/sinofuturism.

Stubbs, David. Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music. Faber & Faber, 2018.

Treib, Marc. Space Calculated in Seconds: The Philips Pavilion, Le Corbusier, Edgar Varèse. Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.

Data Narrator: Digital Chronotopes in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Data Narrator: Digital Chronotopes in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction

Astrid Møller-Olsen
Lund University / Sweden


Contemporary Chinese science fiction fills a dual role as an imaginary exercise ground for modern technologies as well as an unofficial forum for expressing hopes and fears regarding future political, environmental, and technological developments. In the words of literary scholar Mingwei Song, science fiction narratives bring into focus “invisible” dimensions of reality, that are repressed, ignored, or not yet dreamt of in mainstream discourse (Song 547). In this essay, I employ Elana Gomel’s concept of “impossible topologies” to analyze and compare three literary visions of how digital realities might in the future augment, as well as impede, the physical world we live in: From Liu Cixin’s 刘慈欣 use of virtual reality as world simulation in The Three Body Problem (san ti 三体, 2008), toTang Fei’s 糖匪 portrayal of an “ocean of data” as the source of all stories in “Call Girl” (huangse gushi 黄色故事, 2013), to Ma Boyong’s 马伯庸 Orwellian narrative “The City of Silence” (jijing zhi cheng 寂静之城, 2005),1 where all interpersonal communication is carried out soundlessly via strictly censored online forums. I use spatiotemporal concepts to analyze digital realities as alternative, parallel spacetimes that afford imaginary arenas for experimentation, escape, and control.

Cyberfiction—fiction about digital and computer-generated levels of reality—has been defined as a subgenre of science fiction that “downplays this interplanetary theme in favor of imagining the faux space of databases and networks” (McCallum 350). The product of a specific cultural and historical context, this genre features the “integration of technology and Eighties counterculture” (Sterling xii); its most famous and pioneering examples include the film Blade Runner from 1982 (dir. Ridley Scott) and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer from 1984. In China, the current boom in science fiction writing, for a national as well as global market, has introduced a new cultural edge, as well as a more contemporary addition to this subgenre that merits further study. As digital realms become increasingly integrated into our lives, the sci-fi stories depicting them span a wide variety of settings from the alien to the quotidian. In the following brief comparison, I present three very different examples of how contemporary Chinese writers imagine possible digital futures, showing both how the genre is not merely an 80s fetish but still relevant today, as well as highlighting the diversity of contemporary sci-fi from the Chinese-speaking world.

Literary Scholar Elana Gomel has pointed out that increasingly in this day and age, “we live in sorts of space that may not be grasped in Bachelard’s sense—or rather, may not be grasped by the narrative paradigms inherited from the nineteenth-century realistic novel. Video games, movies, the Internet, and global transportation constantly reconfigure our spatial perception” (Gomel 5). The phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard advocated a body-centered and psychologically invested approach to space in his influential work The Poetics of Space, and it is this immediate sensuality that Gomel feels needs to be updated to include cyber and virtual realities. Not least in contemporary fiction is this update required as “representation of impossible spaces is an integral part of the narrative poetics of modernity and postmodernity” (Gomel 6). “Impossible topologies” is the term she uses to describe the non-physical or post-Newtonian spaces, those spaces that do not conform to absolute or tangible notions of time and space. So how do writers depict and help us imagine these impossible topologies, not to mention believe in them? What new digital chronotopes2 do they invent? How do the futures look that they create on the page?

Digitalization as Evolution

In his world-famous novel The Three-Body Problem from 2008, Liu Cixin describes a computer game developed to simulate life on a distant planet: “As a game, Three Body only borrows the background of human society to simulate the development of Trisolaris [三体]” (248/168)3 The object of the computer game is three-fold; apart from being a simulation meant to solve the very real problems faced by the Trisolaran civilization, it is also a personality test to judge whether or not a player is suited to form part of a secret society to help the Trisolarans take over planet Earth: “’The goal of Three Body is very simple and pure: to gather those of us who have common ideals [志同道合],’ Pan said” (248/168). Finally, for several of the more experienced gamers, the computer-built world constitutes an alternative reality, a haven from their humdrum lives: “’I’m a bit sick of the real world,’ the young reporter said. ‘Three Body is already my second reality [第二现实].’ ‘Really?’ Pan asked, interested. ‘Me too,’ the software company vice president said. ‘Compared to Three Body, reality is so vulgar and unexciting’” (246/167).

Apart from the computer game, the novel also depicts an interesting reversal of the body-centered versus virtual spatiality that Gomel writes about. Here, computers are not mere boxes for digital landscapes, but are envisioned as an extension of the perceptiveness of the human body into digital realties: “The computer did in fact make its first appearance in Trisolaris as a formation of people, before becoming mechanical and then electronic” (248/168). Seen from this perspective, the computer is a natural evolution of human civilization, a kind of human superstructure: “But suppose that of the thirty million soldiers forming the computer, each one is capable of raising and lowering the black and white flags a hundred thousand times per second […] According to some signs, the bodies of the Trisolarans who formed the computer were covered by a purely reflective surface, which probably evolved as a response to survival under extreme conditions of sunlight. The mirrorlike surface could be deformed into any shape, and they communicated with each other by focusing light with their bodies. This kind of light-speech [光线语言] could transmit information extremely rapidly and was the foundation of the Trisolaran-formation computer [人列计算机]” (247-248, 168). As such, the virtual reality generated by the superstructure of the computer is hardly different from the social reality generated by the superstructure of the city.

Liu’s novel poses an interesting dual image of digital technologies as represented by Earth and Trisolaris culture. Whereas Earth people see the virtual world as an alternative technological reality, whether simply a playground or more real that the physical one, on Trisolaris, the digital is described as a natural development of human civilization. In The Three-Body Problem, digital realities are represented as 1) trial grounds for physical reality, 2) a way to probe and manipulate the human mind, 3) a human superstructure of light. The computer game becomes a chronotope that blurs the boundary between reality and imagination, as well as a metafictional gesture pointing out that the two realities (virtual and physical) are both fictional, existing side-by-side on the pages of Liu’s book.

The Ocean of Data

Another author to imagine the digital in more naturalistic terms is Tang Fei. In her short story “Call Girl” from 2013, she explores the realm of fantasy and imagination and envisions it as a boundless ocean of information: “Fundamental nature [本质] consists of zeros and ones, part of the ultimate database. This sea is an illusion, a projection of that fundamental nature. The sea of data [海的数据] is too big to be compressed into the shape of a dog. Of course, you may still call it a dog. From the perspective of the story, nothing is impossible” (126/274).4 Cyberrealities are not computer-generated alternatives to the physical world, but represent the deeper, binary structure of the universe. Here, the only force that makes this endless surge of numbers congeal into phenomena is narrative imagination. Through the structuring power of narrative, the fundamental nature of the world is molded into recognizable patterns such as dogs. As such, the sea of data represents a kind of nirvana, where selfhood ends and where one can immerse oneself in the holistic universe: “The man can feel the transparent currents—1100110111—pass through him. They’ll flow through the countless trenches and caves at the bottom of the sea and leave this place behind. Someday this ancient source will dry up, too. But not now. As far as the man is concerned, it is eternity [永恒]” (127/275). Raw imagination is described as a natural resource that might one day “dry up,” but until then will form the raw material for all human cognition.

In Tang’s story, imagination is described as the source of all phenomena and depicted as a primeval swamp of data, from which the reality perceived by human beings is formed through the structural power of narrative. Like Liu, Tang fuses natural and digital images of reality in a metafictional exploration of the world-creating power of human imagination. Here, the cyberrevolution is not only about the future, but also provides a key to understanding the very basics of the universe as a vast undivided sea of information. Her holistic vision of spacetime as a mingling of two primary forces represented by 0 and 1 employs the technological vocabulary of the computer age to recall the ancient philosophical concepts of yin and yang. By linking these two seemingly inconsistent domains, Tang creates a chronotope of eternal oneness against which both future and past technology and natural philosophy are merely products of the human mind’s ability to create patterns from the ocean of data.

Language, a Software for Surveillance

Where the two previous examples describe digital realities in semi-natural terms and use them to represent possible alternative (alien) worlds, as well as point to the role of imagination in understanding our own, the following example presents the darker side of cybertechnologies. In Ma Boyong’s short story “The City of Silence” from 2005, the Orwellian world in which the protagonist lives is under constant and pervasive monitoring by a digital construct known as the Web: “He was glad of the opportunity to be temporarily free of the Web [互联网络]. On the Web, he was nothing more than the sum of a series of dry numbers and ‘healthy words’ [健康词汇]” (5/161). Everyone has an official avatar on the Web, a virtual personality through which the authorities keep track of them and which constitutes their only portal of engagement with society. In a fictional parable that combines images from Chinese internet-censorship5 with George Orwell’s Newspeak,6 the number of “healthy words” allowed on the Web are dwindling by the day. Furthermore, plans are afoot to extend this linguistic poverty outside the Web as well, by help of a device known as the Listener: “The appropriate authorities [有关部门] were attempting to gradually unify life on the Web and life in the physical world so that they would be equally healthy. . . . The Listener [旁听者] was not yet sufficiently advanced to adjust to the unique rhythm and intonation of each person. In response, the appropriate authorities required that all citizens speak in this manner, so that it would be more convenient to check if anyone used words outside the regulations.” (5-6/161-162). As this digital structuring is slowly spreading from the virtual to the material world, a small group of people decide to create a club where they can meet in person and engage in illicit actions, such as critical discussion, sex, and reading, away from the watchful eye of the authorities. “The Talking Club [说话会] is a gathering where we can say anything we want: There are no sensitive words here, and no healthy Web” (16/175).

In Ma’s story, the digital realm is not a haven or a natural resource, but a Web of control slowly asphyxiating freedom of thought by deliberately and steadily depleting language, as “every hour, every minute, words vanished from it” (30/195). The advent of this digital linguistic control is described as a threat not only to liberty, but to life itself: “He was stuck in an electronic quagmire [电子淤泥] and he couldn’t breathe” (13/170). Here, freedom is symbolized by linguistic diversity, both in terms of a rich Chinese language without forbidden zones and by invoking various foreign languages such as the Greek, English, German, and French found in books. In their illicit sharing of books, the Talking Club recalls images from the Cultural Revolution, where sent down youths continued to copy and rewrite banned literature to be shared as shouchaoben (手抄本 hand-copied fiction, Henningsen 111-112). In “The City of Silence,” language is the fabric through which we live and breathe, while both books and the internet are historical and future technologies for sharing that can be censured.

In this brief comparison of three examples from contemporary Chinese sci-fi, we have seen the impossible topology of the digital realm envisioned as a lightscape, a seascape, and as a cityscape under surveillance. The chronotopes we have encountered include the computer-generated alternative reality in The Three-Body Problem, the ocean of data in “Call Girl,” and language as World Wide Web in “The City of Silence.” The digitalization of our world is imagined variously as the next step in the civilization process, a metaphor for understanding narrative cognition, and a weapon of authoritarian control. To be sure, the digital domains of our lives already incorporate all these aspects and more, but sci-fi narratives such as these can help us visualize and comprehend what they might come to mean in the future, and a not too distant future at that.


NOTES

1. I want to thank Mingwei Song for generously helping me access Ma Boyong and Tang Fei’s original manuscripts.

2. The term chronotope was developed by Mikhail Bakhtin in his essay “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” from 1937, in which he defines the term thusly: “We will give the name chronotope (literally, ‘time space’) to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (84). I find it useful as a term that recognizes the inseparability of space and time in our experience of reality and directs analytical focus towards the narrative-shaping impact of specific time-spaces. For a more recent reconfiguration of literary time-spaces in a Sinophone context, see Møller-Olsen.

3. In the following references to quotes from The Three Body Problem, the first page number refers to the Chinese text and the second to Ken Liu’s English translation.

4. In the following references to quotes from “Call Girl,” the first page number refers to the Chinese text and the second to Ken Liu’s English translation.

5. “If Chinese internet users think Big Brother is watching them, or that fellow users may report

them for “provoking trouble [寻衅滋事]” then they make think twice about what they search for, what they read, what they forward, and what comments they make” (Abbott 167).

6. “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the worldview and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” (Orwell, “Appendix”).


WORKS CITED

Abbott, Jason P. “Of Grass Mud Horses and Rice Bunnies.” APP, vol. 11, no. 1, 2019, pp. 162-177.

Gomel, Elana. Narrative Space and Time. Routledge, 2014.

Henningsen, Lena. “What is a Reader? Participation and Intertextuality in Hand-Copied Entertainment Fiction from the Chinese Cultural Revolution.” MCLC, vol. 29, no. 2, 2017, pp. 109-158.

Hockx, Michel. Internet Literature in China. Columbia UP, 2015.

Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem. Translated by Ken Liu. Head of Zeus, 2014.

Liu, Cixin. 刘慈. San ti 欣 三体 (Three Body). Chongqing Publishing Group, 2016.

Ma, Boyong. “Jijing zhi cheng 寂静之城 [The silence city].” Uncensored version. Private manuscript, pp. 1-31.

Ma, Boyong. “The City of Silence.” Translated by Ken Liu. Invisible Planets, edited by Liu, Head of Zeus, 2016, pp. 153-196.

McCallum, Ellen L. “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction.” Poetics Today, vol. 21, no. 2, 2000, pp. 349-377.

Møller-Olsen, Astrid. Seven Senses of the City: Urban Spacetime and Sensory Memory in Contemporary Sinophone Fiction. 2020. Lund University, PhD dissertation.

Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classic, 2003.

Song, Mingwei. “Representations of the Invisible: Chinese Science Fiction in the Twenty-First Century.” The Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures, edited by Carlos Rojas and Andrea Bachner, Oxford UP, 2016, pp. 546-565.

Sterling, Bruce. “Preface.” Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Sperling, Ace, 1988, pp. ix-xvi.

Tang, Fei. “Huangse gushi 黄色故事 [A Yellow Story].” Kanjian jingyuzuo de ren 看见鲸鱼座的人 [The One Who Saw Cetus]. Shanghai Art and Culture Press, 2017, pp. 117-128.

Tang, Fei. “Call Girl.” Translated by Ken Liu, Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, Head of Zeus, 2016, pp. 265-276.

Capitalist Monster and Bottled Passengers: Political Stakes of Embodiment in The Reincarnated Giant and The Last Subway


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Capitalist Monster and Bottled Passengers: Political Stakes of Embodiment in The Reincarnated Giant and The Last Subway

Lyu Guangzhao
University College London / UK


During the Dublin Worldcon in August 2019, I attended a panel discussion entitled “The Global Perspectives on Chinese Science Fiction,” which I had the privilege of transcribing. At this panel, Professor David Der-wei Wang, the Edward C. Henderson Professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard University, once again reiterated his understanding of Chinese SF as a unique approach to engage in the broader domain of cultural politics in contemporary China. While acknowledging that “our [sf] writers are really motivated to create a lot of new and different themes,” he believes the underpinning question still to be answered urgently is: “how much political stake are we taking at this critical moment of Chinese history?”

New Wave, New Themes

Since the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel went to Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem, the last few years have seen a rising dynamism of Chinese SF on the international stage. An increasing number of Chinese SF stories have been systematically translated for non-Chinese-speaking readers. They are collected in anthologies and magazines, introduced at SF conventions and conferences, and discussed in academic journals. Through such a process, an SF renaissance in China famously termed “The Chinese New Wave” by Song Mingwei (After 1989 7-8) gradually grew in recognition among the global SF community. The beginning of the Chinese New Wave can be dated back to the year 1989 with Liu Cixin’s novelette China 2185, a story still not formally published and only circulated online, that indicates certain literary characteristics that were different from “pre-New Wave” stories (Song, After 1989 8). Alternatively, from the perspective of publishing and international promotion, the Chinese New Wave started in 1991 when the magazine Science Literature and Art (Kexue Wenyi) changed its name to Science Fiction World (SFW, Kehuan Shijie) to strengthen the fiction side of SF . It serves as the most important and most influential platform for Chinese SF publication since the 1990s and embarks “on a solitary quest to establish the [SF ] genre permanently in China” (Huss 95). Fostered by the “transformed” SFW, a robust group of “the Newborn” and “Post-Newborn Generation” SF writers (Wu et al. 52) is endeavouring to provide the “new and different themes” concerning the “political state” mentioned by David Der-wei Wang at the 2019 Worldcon panel. In doing so, they challenge the dominant yet misleading expectation of SF stories, by both the public and a large group of elite intellectuals, as an educational medium for the popularisation of science and technology.

Beginning to take shape in either 1989 or 1991, the Chinese New Wave cannot be separated from a series of social and cultural changes towards a “post-socialist” society (Zhang 9-16). This transition from “relying on the state” to “relying on one’s self” resulted from accelerated economic reforms of marketisation and privatisation under Deng Xiaoping’s instruction, a new normative order “for self-promoting subjects to manage their lives through the pursuit of private interest, but within political limits set by authoritarian rule” (Ong and Zhang 15). The competitive market drives and personal responsibility became pivotal in taking care of people’s livelihood, namely education, health, and other forms of social welfare that used to be protected by the state or state-owned enterprises (SOEs). With this, Chinese people could also develop a certain degree of individual autonomy, indicating that the perceived dissolution and degeneration of the totality of a purported socialist reality “open[ed] a narrow gate on a reconfiguration of economic, social, political, and cultural powers” (Zhang 18). The Chinese discourse on privatisation has therefore travelled beyond market activities and been changed into a subjectivising impulse that aims to prime the powers of the private self. In the 1990s, Chinese citizens were urged to “free up” their individual capacities to confront dynamic conditions in all areas of life “without seeking guidance from the state, society, or family” (Ong and Zhang 7). The breaking of the socialist totality, however, has also resulted in the breaking of the ‘iron rice bowl,’ made true via ‘the evisceration of social protections, the imposition of user fees, the creation of a flexible labour market regime, and the privatisation of assets formerly held in common’ (Harvey 150).

Therefore, people in China found themselves in turmoil where the previous living stability projected by the socialist ideology and planned economy had been replaced by the uncertainty and insecurity accompanied with the competitive nature of the free market. The gap between the rich and the poor widened, as well as that of inequality between different social classes. “Someone somewhere and somehow is getting very rich” (Harvey 142). In this way, the emergence of the Chinese New Wave along with such a profound social transformation would be underestimated if it is merely rendered as a historical coincidence. Instead, the most recent renaissance of Chinese sf since the 1990s should be understood as a literary or cultural response directly to China’s change, an interrogation of the calculative logic in market competition that has been increasingly considered the social norm. Although the “new and different themes” identified in the Chinese New Wave may vary from writer to writer, this essay will concentrate on one of them, i.e. the embodiment of market forces that are thoroughly transforming the current China, in two short stories—Wang Jinkang’s “The Reincarnated Giant” (2005, Zhuansheng de Juren) and Han Song’s “The Last Subway” (1998, Moban Ditie).

The Reincarnated Capitalist Monster

For anyone interested in the Chinese New Wave, Wang Jinkang is a name that should never be overlooked. He has been commonly known for using “body,” “life,” or “biology” as the central metaphors in many of his works such as “Leopard (1998, “Bao”), “Sowing on Mercury (2002, “Shuixing Bozhong”), Ant Life (2007, Yi Sheng), and, of course, “The Reincarnated Giant” (“Zhuansheng de Juren” 2005) here to be discussed. Included as the cover story in the anthology edited by Song Mingwei published in 2018, RG portrays an eccentric billionaire, Imagai Nashihiko, who hires biologists and doctors to transplant his brain into an infant body and in this way attempts to realise his ambitious reincarnation. His surgery turns out to be successful, but what comes later goes terribly wrong. After his brain transplantation, Mr. Imagai, now an infant with a seventy-year old mind, completely surrenders to his lust and desire. His physical growth, fuelled by unlimited food and resources, “could no longer be described with terms like ‘felt like’ and ‘was like,’ and now, if you stood next to him while he nursed, you could actually see his body inflating like a balloon” (Wang 329). Eventually, his mountain-like yet still “insatiable” (347) body, transforming whatever he has “shovelled into [his] enormous mouth” into “excrement” (348), collapses upon itself, together with his business empire. In such a process, giant Mr. Imagai’s monstrous consumption of matter and bodies fits in Marx’s famous description of capital as “dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (Marx 342). Further, he can be considered as what Steve Shaviro (281-290) called a “capitalist monster”.

Preying on everything around him, Mr. Imagai is in a constant state of dissatisfaction, always in want of more. No matter how much food he consumes, how much resource invested and how many wet nurses found to feed the giant infant, his thirst for intaking and assimilating the “surplus values” (if put in a Marxist term) of those who work for him can never truly reach an end. These values, in turn, would become “a part of this giant’s body and participate in his ravenous consumption” (350) in further steps. The productivity and productive potentials of other people serving Mr. Imagai’s needs are in this way quantified, measured by, and sold for wages in an economised and commercialised discourse. They are extracted, exploited, and exhausted by Mr. Imagai as the embodiment of capitalist market principles, which in reality, has been significantly changing today’s China. The creativity and spirituality of human beings as social “subjects” are gradually drained out through the competitive logic of capitalist accumulation, whereas the empty bodies with no exploitable values are left over and eventually cast aside, just like the wet nurses who “marched in and out of Mr. Imagai’s room, like images on a revolving lantern” (329). Expanding continuously, the vampiric capitalist monster at last dies upon his own weight and whatever he consumed previously becomes “a mountainous pile of flesh” (351)—lifeless and homogeneous.

As observed by He Xi, another reputable Chinese New Wave SF writer, Wang Jinkang’s stories stand out for two notable characteristics—on the one hand his challenge and interrogation of humanity and ethics, and on the other hand, even more importantly, his emphasis on SF ’s retrospection on social and political concerns (69-71). The spectre of such a capitalist monster in RG is in fact far more than a merely science fictional creation, whose realistic connotations should be viewed in line with the pressure, confusion, and uncertainty felt by Chinese people during China’s recent and ongoing transformation. They have increasingly found themselves formulated as “human capital” (Brown 32) or “calculative agencies” (Callon 3) embedded in a marketised social discourse. This is actually a zero-sum game compulsory for everyone, even including the transplantation experts and wet nurses, apart from Mr. Imagai himself. In this story, doctors and wet nurses are provided with two payment methods—“one option involved a high fixed salary, while the other offered instead a low salary with a bonus […] one year later” (328). Interestingly, most of them would prefer the second option, which can be connected, in many ways, to the contractual system that has dominated the private sectors in current China, and increasingly in Chinese public institutions such as schools, universities, and hospitals. As the responsibility of welfare and livelihood provision is transferred from the state to individuals, people are incentivised, subjected to a “calculative,” “entrepreneurial,” and “human-capitalised” logic of self-investment and self-appreciation (Feher 21-41), to take risks in exchange for future benefits.

Unfortunately, however, the attempt of doctors and wet nurses to earn their bonus eventually turns out to be vain, since none of them manages to endure until the end of their contracts. Here in such a capitalist game, the winner takes all while others will lose, as their values and productivity are to be stripped away by the competitive market mechanism, integrated into Mr. Imagai’s giant body. The capitalist monster embodied in RG in this way interrogates, from a critical perspective, the current economic and socio-political transition in China towards a discourse guided by market principles where people are rendered as undifferentiated human capital. Such homogeneous nature is also represented in another New Wave story written by Han Song, “The Last Subway.”

The Bottled Passengers

Among all writers of the Chinese New Wave, Han Song stands in a unique position. He is not only well-known for his sf contributions but also can be compared to Lu Xun for his use of cannibalism and his social criticism in a satiric tone (Jia 103-115). Li Guangyi likens his writing to Franz Kafka’s in term of his ambiguous, indeterminant, and absurd writing style: “One can use refined language, magnificent imagination, or any number of other adjectives to describe Han Song’s [stories], but no phrase captures Han Song’s writing better than ‘eerie’” ( 29). Such a sense of “eeriness”, according to Nathaniel Isaacson, can be considered “the result of an uncanny blend of magical realism and grotesque transformations of the human body with a palpable sense that these are quotidian descriptions of everyday experience” (4). Meanwhile, it is also the “eeriness,” the weird and peculiar phrases, expression, narrations, that makes his stories particularly difficult to translate. Consequently, he can hardly reach the equivalent leading reputation among the English readership as he has in China.

“The Last Subway” (LS) is one of Han Song’s most influential short stories, one that was originally published in 1998 and later rendered as the first chapter of a novel, Subway (2011), in which chapters are loosely connected to each other. However, it has not been printed in English yet and its translation is only available in the online magazine Pathlight: New Chinese Writing (2012). Unlike the capitalist monster in RG, LS accommodates a group of “strange people […] no taller than [a] ten-year-old,” who “worked in pairs to move the sleeping passengers [on the last subway], one dragging the arms, the other carrying the legs,” and stuffed them “into large, fluid-filled glass bottles” (3124, Kindle location). Such a “grotesque transformation of human body” in Isaacson’s words to describe the uncanny dwarves and bottled passengers, can be put in a broader context of China’s social transition. It should be understood as an embodiment of people’s fading sense of security and meaningfulness, as they have been increasingly considered not human agencies, but human capital embedded in a sophisticated social and economic network.

Despite the success of China’s market-oriented reforms in economic terms, an economised cultural discourse based on economic values and calculation has been extended to every dimension of human life—“a process of remaking the knowledge, form, content and conduct appropriate to these [dimensions]” (Brown 31). As the Chinese society becomes more “efficient” than ever, with the state and social units (danwei, 单位) retreating from welfare provision, individuals, though reluctantly, find themselves becoming human capital in a market competition. Here, everything is measured by quantified values. People’s survival is subject to the maintenance or the deterioration of such homogeneous values that would allow for “the conversion of every human need or desire into profitable enterprise” (Brown 28). In this way, their subjectivity is gradually dissolved, assimilated, and eventually consumed by the economised and entrepreneurial social discourse configured by various value symbols rooted in a world of consumerism and commodity fetishism where the neon lights of the “Coca-Cola sign” would constantly blaze (Han 3033, or “C Company” in his other stories). Their jobs, although unique from their own perspective, turns out to be nothing but one of the functional points attached to the entire social network. They are identical to each other as long as they work well.

The sense of homogeneity as such of human capital, the sense of meaninglessness, of nihilism, of repetition, or in Fredric Jameson’s terms, of “pastiche” and “schizophrenia” (1-54), acts as the central metaphor in LS. Here, a train full of passengers “ran through the night without returning to a station” (3205), yet no one notices, no one cares. The passengers, or more precisely, their social identities, disappearing with the train, will then be perfectly replaced by the “strange people” found by the protagonist Lao Wang in the subway tunnel. They are all “short in stature and waring grey jump-suits and masks” (3124), looking like the products of the same manufacturing line, and endeavour to seal the passengers in glass bottles. In this way, these bottled bodies are moved “along the rails into the darkness” (3124) and hidden deeply under a seemingly dynamic city. Only their identities, or more importantly, their ID numbers, are left to be occupied by some eerie, homogeneous creatures. Just like what Lao Wang did repetitively for his job “to fill out a pile of forms” (3255), these numbers are being watched and taken by “countless pairs of eyes” (3255) belonging to people trapped in this economised discourse and thus reduced to human capital.

All of sudden, Lao Wang realises that only in his youth did he feel his liveliness and subjectivity in this world, now held only in distant memories of air-defence drills, protest parades, air-raid shelter safaris, etc. It was a time before China’s market-oriented transformation. While the current world is more like “a pot of old soup that [is] now being replaced drop by drop, just as his generation [is] being replaced by a younger one” (3405), people are now quite used to this ruthless process. Therefore, Lao Wang breaks his routine, and tries to do something he has never thought of. He retires from his repetitive, tedious job, giving his social position away to someone to come, and absolves from the discourse made of economised values, symbols, and ID numbers. He searches for his long-lost subjectivity and uniqueness. He discovers that people’s emotions and sensitivity are hidden somewhere underground, embodied by those missing passengers sealed in bottles. He wishes to step further, to embrace such an underworld. “The trip in the tunnel felt like a second birth. A far-off newness welled up in his heart, and in the twinkling of an eye, he felt embarrassed. The world he had clung to for so many years [is] toppling” (3391).

Bit by bit, Lao Wang manages to detach himself from the economised social network, and eventually entraps himself in a bottle he witnessed on that missing train. “The fluid surrounding him [is] particularly full and smooth and seem[s] imbued with endless life. Lao Wang, his face content, look[s] like a fetus sleeping soundly in the womb.”—his “primordial form” (3473). It is at this very moment, among the last few paragraphs of the story, that Lao Wang, the narrator previously known as “he,” found his name. “He” is Lao Wang and should not be called by a random title like others who have been consumed by the society—namely the “telephone operators,” “wives,” “young women,” “office chiefs,” etc. The world outside the bottles functions just like a capitalist monster embodied in “The Reincarnated Giant,” constantly exploiting and exhausting the values of the homogeneous human capital represented by lifeless ID numbers and symbols.

The Chinese New Wave was born in an age of change and transition, for which many of the “new themes” noticed by scholars at the Worldcon panel in 2019 have provided a wide range of interrogation and criticism. Here both in “The Reincarnated Giant” and “The Last Subway,” the calculative and competitive logic of market is embodied by a giant infant who can be seen as a capitalist monster and by a group of strange dwarves representing the homogeneous nature of the world dominated by economised values. In either way, the New Wave has indeed provided a new scope that frees Chinese SF from its educational and utilitarian stereotype, to perform not as a vehicle for science population but an important platform for social critique, to respond to the socio-cultural impact of China’s market-oriented reforms to take the requested “political stake” urgently called forth during the 2019 Dublin panel.


WORKS CITED

Brown, Wendy. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Zone Books, 2015.

Callon, Michel. “Introduction: The Embeddedness of Economic Markets in Economics.” The Sociological Review vol. 46, no.1, 1998, pp. 1-57.

Feher, Michel. “Self-Appreciation; or, the Aspirations of Human Capital.” Public Culture, vol. 21, no.1, 2009, pp. 21-41.

Han, Song and Joel Martinsen (translator). “The Last Subway.” Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, vol. 3, 2012, Kindle location 3020-3473.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford UP, 2005

He Xi. “Wang Jinkang: Kehuanjie de Wenxue Yuanjiaozhi Zhuyizhe” [“Wang Jinkang: A Literary Fundamentalist in Science Fiction”]. Zhongguo Kehuan de Sixiangzhe [Thinker of Chinese Science Fiction]. Popular Science Press, 2016, pp. 69-71.

Huss, Mikael. “Hesitant Journey to the West: SF’s Changing Fortunes in Mainland China,” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 2000, pp. 92-104.

Isaacson, Nathaniel. “Han Song.” Chinese Literature Today, vol. 7, no. 1, 2018, pp. 4-5.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Verso, 1991.

Jia, Liyuan, and Joel Martinsen (translator). “Gloomy China: China’s Image in Han Song’s Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, 2013, pp. 103-115.

Li, Guangyi and Nathaniel Isaacson (translator). “Eerie Parables and Prophecies: An Analysis of Han Song’s Science Fiction.” Chinese Literature Today, vol. 7, no. 1, 2018, pp. 28-32.

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Ong, Aihwa and Zhang Li. “Introduction: Privatizing China; Powers of the Self, Socialism from Afar.” Privatizing China: Socialism from Afar, edited by Zhang Li and Ong Aihwa Cornell UP, 2008, pp. 1-20.

Shaviro, Steve. “Capitalist Monsters.” Historical Materialism, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 281-290.

Song, Mingwei. “After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction,” China Perspectives, vol. 101, no. 1, 2015, pp. 7-13.

Wang, Jinkang. “The Reincarnated Giant,” translated by Carlos Rojas. The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First-Century Chinese Science Fiction, edited by Song Mingwei and Theodore Huters, Columbia UP, 2018, pp. 313-353.

Wu, Yan, et al. “A Very Brief History of Chinese Science Fiction,” Chinese Literature Today, vol. 7, no. 1, 2018, pp. 44-53.

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Images of Alternative Chinese Futures: Critical Reflections on the “China Dream” in Chen Qiufan’s “The Flower of Shazui”


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Images of Alternative Chinese Futures: Critical Reflections on the “China Dream” in Chen Qiufan’s “The Flower of Shazui”

Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker
Freie Universität Berlin / Germany


Since the late Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Chinese science fiction (SF) literature has been a reflection of intellectuals’ expectations, dreams and, lately, also fears of the Chinese future. Contemporary Chinese SF authors not only explore the complex reality of twenty-first century China, but also critically comment on official visions and policy guidelines such as the “China Dream” (Zhongguo meng 中国梦). Consequently, they have taken the genre to the next level which is, according to Song Mingwei, “more sophisticated, reflective, and subversive in terms of mixed representations of hope and despair, utopianism and its dystopian reflection, and nationalism and cosmopolitanism” (“After 1989” 8). David Der-wei Wang describes this hybrid form of narration as “heterotopia,” thus adapting Foucault’s concept to Chinese SF (“Utopia”). Based on the literary quality and narrative techniques of contemporary Chinese SF authors which, in a way, resemble the Anglo-American SF tradition of the 1960s, Song has termed this new generation of SF writers the Chinese “new wave” (8).

This paper discusses the short story “The Flower of Shazui” (Shazui zhi hua 沙嘴之花, 2012) by Chen Qiufan (陈楸帆, b. 1981) which can be linked to president Xi Jinping’s (习近平, b. 1953) political program and his vision of realizing the “China Dream.” I argue that, in consequence of a recent increase in domestic and international readership as well as large-scale media attention, SF literature extensively circulates challenging alternative images of the Chinese future that are demystifying the state’s grand narrative of a flourishing China.

Since his inauguration in 2012, president Xi Jinping has defined the “China Dream” as the generic national dream. His great vision includes every Chinese individual, since he regards it as “the shared hope and expectation of every Chinese” (Lin)1—thus making it a collective dream. Xi further emphasized that the “China Dream” is to “achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and has given assurances that a more just distribution of wealth could be achieved by 2021, the 100th anniversary of the CCP (Lin). In so doing, he has employed a powerful political metaphor for China’s future as a global superpower that had already been on people’s minds since at least the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which campaigned under the slogan, “One World One Dream” (Tong yige shijie tong yige mengxiang 同一个世界同一个梦想) (Barmé 7–8). The nation-wide propagation of the “China Dream” has generated a controversial public dialogue among Chinese netizens calling for political reform and media freedom (Barmé 9–12; Bandurski).

Contemporary Chinese SF authors are expanding this discussion of the dream’s potential risks. For example, Chen Qiufan states that “[b]etween the feeling of individual failure and the conspicuous display of national prosperity lies an unbridgeable chasm” (“The Torn” 373). Most of his narrations are set in the near future and focus on China in an era of economic and social transition. For illustrating everyday life in a realistic way and getting to the bottom of people’s complex innermost being, his writing style is regarded as “Science Fiction Realism” (Kehuan xianshi zhuyi 科幻现实主义) (He). By criticizing global capitalism and social issues (e.g. income inequalities), Chen’s images of alternative Chinese futures send out a warning to his readers. His unique and sophisticated aesthetics satirically visualize China’s rapid modernization as something that is already leaving irreversible marks on the bodies and souls of the Chinese people—the metaphor of body modifications is used to address society’s corruption caused by increasing commercialization. Hence, Chen’s works are characteristic of the Chinese “new wave” writers.

Recent scholarship highlights the fact that contemporary Chinese SF stories reveal a hidden reality and can be interpreted in the context of the “China Dream” (Conn; Rojas, 39; Song, “Representations” 560; Schneider-Vielsäcker 59–60). In addition, scholars have emphasized the cultural and political implications of contemporary Chinese SF (Healey; Li; Luo; Song, “After 1989”, “Variations”; Y. Wang). Building on this research, I seek to answer how Chen’s SF writings assess the “China Dream” and what kinds of alternative images they provide. By reading his short story “The Flower of Shazui” (2012) in comparison to the state’s official vision, I demonstrate the existing tensions between the grand narrative of the “China Dream” and Chen’s alternative.

Living in an Illusion of Social Happiness

The downsides of China’s large-scale urbanization are disclosed in the short story “The Flower of Shazui” (Shazui zhi hua 沙嘴之花, 2012)2 by Chen Qiufan. This story critically reflects urban life in the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of Shenzhen and the gap between rich and poor that is omnipresent in post-reform Chinese society. Focusing on low-income earners, Chen gives a voice to those unheard by the official narrative. The main characters are mostly ordinary people living in Shazui, a former village which today is part of Shenzhen’s urban area. The unnamed first person narrator is a former engineer with a secret past who sells the latest technology. We become acquainted with his landlady Miss Shen (沈) who, like many people in Shazui, depends on working multiple jobs to be able to afford the basic standard of living. Finally, we are also introduced to the narrator’s neighbor and love interest, Snow Lotus (Xuelian 雪莲), who is a sex worker.

This near-future story portrays the real development of Shenzhen since the 1980s. However, it is enriched with fictional elements to create an image showing the negative developments that reality could possibly lead to. In the wake of economic reforms and the opening up of China, the SEZ of Shenzhen was established in 1980 (Yuan et al. 55). Urbanization brought construction sites everywhere, thus the former fishing village expanded to one of the fastest growing global cities in China and functioned as its first “open door” to the international market (Morssink). Over the years, Shenzhen has developed into a hub for China’s high-tech industries (Yuan et al. 62). This transformation attracted many migrant workers. In order to relieve border controls between Hong Kong and mainland China, a 2.8 meter high fence was built and divided the city into two worlds: “the inside” (guannei 关内, i.e. the SEZ) and “the outside” (guanwai 关外). The latter is described by the protagonist as “wilderness” (manhuang 蛮荒)—a part of Shenzhen that is not only characterized by its low-income population but also by criminals who rule the streets (Chen, “Shazui” 29). The fictional fence can be understood as a literary trope for the gap between rich and poor in Chinese society.

A negative perception of urbanization is expressed by employing the trope of cancer cells and by means of exaggeration. Living within the enclosed area himself, the narrator describes the rapid development from his point of view: “I imagine these buildings growing as fast as cancer cells into the form they have today” (25). The skyscrapers leave so little space in between that neighbors are able to shake hands (25). Moreover, the real estate market grows rapidly, leading to a daily rent increase of even small and dark apartments (26). The negative effects of urbanization are strongly emphasized by comparing urbanization processes with invasive cancer, where the malignant tumor rapidly spreads into neighboring healthy tissues, which eventually could cause death. Since cancer is a disease (involving the abnormal growth of endogenous cells) that destroys the body from the inside, the trope implies that it is a home-grown problem that can be traced back to the period of “reform and opening-up” (gaige kaifang 改革开放), and that China’s continuous striving for economic development will eventually have fatal consequences.

As the location of Shenzhen is a symbol of China’s rise, the strongest trope in this story is that of the “Shenzhen Dream,” which is “high-tech, high salary, high-resolution, high life, high Shenzhen” (25). The “Shenzhen Dream” can be directly linked to the “China Dream,” providing an example where this dream is already lived. Everywhere in the city, the protagonist sees an “illusory sense of satisfaction” on people’s faces and calls it the “Shenzhen expression“—even politicians appearing on TV have it (28). In the story, society experiences the dream through everything money can buy: high-end luxury goods such as Louis Vuitton bags, sex with beautiful women, consumption of aphrodisiacs, or seeing the fortune-teller. In addition, the metaphor of body modifications is used to visualize society’s moral degeneration caused by the increasing commercialization. The residents of Shenzhen all aspire to earn a lot of money, and the display of social status has become street culture. Using the latest technology of “body films” applied to their skin, the wearers are able to show off their personality, daring, and sex appeal to others (26). The protagonist was once just like them, but the disenchantment of reality made him wake up from the dream, leaving him with a feeling of emptiness: “my heart is like a dead pool of water“ (32). This metaphor suggests that Xi Jinping’s maxim is nothing but a hollow promise to legitimize the country’s communist leadership and that in the long run there will be no decisive changes towards social equality. Like the “China Dream,” the “Shenzhen Dream” is supposed to give people satisfaction, but in fact, Chen’s narrative reveals it to be a mere distraction from the dark truth. The dream—be it the “Shenzhen Dream” or the “China Dream”—turns out to be a placebo effect as both the city’s residents and Chinese politicians all live in an illusion of happiness: “In this city, everyone needs some placebo” (28).

Ultimately, the story gives an example of what might happen when Chinese people wake from the “China Dream” and, upon realizing that the leadership only uses empty rhetoric, feel a sense of deep sadness. Death is presented as the only option to escape “reality’s battlefield,” since the ostensible joy of living the dream actually fades after a short while (26). This manifests in Snow Lotus’ bitter fate. The protagonist’s neighbor is afraid to tell her husband that she is pregnant because he might beat her like he did in the past. However, after being encouraged by both Miss Shen and the narrator, she tells him anyway (32). Not believing that the child is his, he threatens her with a knife. As a result of lifelong unhappiness, Snow Lotus eventually kills her furious husband in an act of despair and attempts suicide. According to Luo Xiaoming, descriptions of the city in contemporary Chinese SF, in this case Shenzhen, “bring to light harbored feelings of helplessness, cynicism and even self-justification upon realization that their ideas and/or opinions cannot be realized and that, ultimately, they cannot change the status-quo” (595). “Death is the best placebo,” the narrator concludes sarcastically, while the police are arresting Snow Lotus, regretting that he was not able to help her (35). By associating the “China Dream” with death—as “China Dream” equals placebo and placebo equals death—the text highlights the potential risks of the CCP’s political tool.

In summary, this story depicts the losers of China’s rapid development and the alternative image shows how these individuals struggle at the margins of society in Shenzhen. In contrast to the state’s grand narratives, “The Flower of Shazui” does not present a typical success story as dreams turn out to be dangerous illusions.

Coda: From State Utopia to Nightmarish Alternatives

Contrary to the determined future that is controlled by the government, “The Flower of Shazui” provides an alternative look into a possible Chinese future. The story points out the negative consequences of China’s rapid urbanization on society and highlights the helplessness of ordinary Chinese individuals as the main characters are permeated with unhappiness. The central motifs of the story are the gap between rich and poor and death as a consequence of China’s rapid urbanization or as an escape out of reality’s misery. According to an interview, Chen draws his inspiration from his own experiences and environment (Liu). When observing the people from his generation, he senses “a feeling of exhaustion about life and anxiety for success” (“The Torn” 373). Instead of a “shared hope” for the future propagated by the “China Dream,” Chen perceives that “the burdens on their shoulders grow heavier year after year and their dreams and hopes are fading” (373).

My analysis suggests that, in the shadow of the optimistic “China Dream” narrative, a social discourse nurtured by critical voices, one that includes Chen Qiufan, exists. “The Flower of Shazui” challenges the state’s grand narrative by deconstructing the collective dreamscape. The story further dismantles the myth around economic growth which is, according to Song (“Variations” 91), a characteristic of contemporary Chinese SF. Through Chen’s narrative, representations of Chinese dreams are transformed from official utopian visions to nightmarish alternatives. The alerting message is further highlighted by employing a cynical language, giving his narrator an angry voice, and by using powerful literary tropes that convey its political implications—the located dream as Shenzhen, the trope of death, and the dream as a placebo for social happiness. The story can therefore be read as a satire of Xi Jinping’s maxim. Positive notions of the official “China Dream” narrative such as the hope of an ever-bright Chinese future are clearly undermined by the alternative images Chen creates. Like malignant cancer cells, China’s unbalanced model of economic growth equals a death sentence for many people. In the meantime, they are sedated with a placebo to sustain the harmonious society.


NOTES

1. All translations of Chinese primary texts are my own. When translating the cited passages from “The Flower of Shazui,” the English translation of Ken Liu has been considered. I honor his literary translations; however, I decided to do my own translation. Please note that my aim is rather to analyze the original texts and therefore to provide a literal translation instead of a literary translation.

2. Ken Liu’s English translation first appeared in Interzone in 2012 and was later included in his anthology Invisible Planets (2016), see Chen (“The Flower”). A bilingual reprint was issued online in Strange Horizons (2017).


WORKS CITED

Bandurski, David. “A New Year’s Greeting Gets the Axe in China.” China Media Project, 3 Jan. 2013, cmp.hku.hk/2013/01/03/a-new-years-greeting-gets-the-axe-in-china/.

Barmé, Geremie R. “Chinese Dreams (Zhongguo Meng 中国梦).” China Story Yearbook 2013. Civilising China, edited by Geremie R. Barmé and Jeremy Goldkorn, The Australian National University, 2013, pp. 4–13.

Chen, Qiufan. “Shazui Zhi Hua” [The Flower of Shazui]. Weilai Bingshi [A History of Future Illnesses], Changjiang wenyi chubanshe, 2015, pp. 25–36.

—. “The Flower of Shazui.” Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, Head of Zeus, 2016, pp. 69–87.

—. “The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition.” Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, Head of Zeus, 2016, pp. 369–75.

Conn, Virginia L. “Technologies of National Narration, Erasure, and Invisibility in the Chinese Science-Fiction Short Story, ‘The Olympic Dream.’” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, vol. 31, 2017, doi:10.20415/rhiz/031.e04.

He, Keren. “Disi Jie Quanqiu Huayu Kehuan Xingyunjiang Jiexiao Chen Qiufan ‘Huangchao’ Huo Jinjiang” [The Fourth All Chinese Language Science Fiction Nebula Award Announces Chen Qiufan’s ‘Waste Tide’ to Win First Prize]. Fenghuangwang Dushu, 12 Oct. 2013, book.ifeng.com/yeneizixun/detail_2013_10/12/30255859_0.shtml.

Healey, Cara. “Madmen and Iron Houses: Lu Xun, Information Degradation, and Generic Hybridity in Contemporary Chinese SF.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 46, no. 3, Nov. 2019, pp. 511–24, doi:10.5621/sciefictstud.46.3.0511.

Li, Hua. “Twenty-First Century Chinese Science Fiction on the Rise: Anti-Authoritarianism and Dreams of Freedom.” The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link, Cambridge University Press, 2019, pp. 647–63.

Lin, Yunshi. “Xi Jinping: Kongtan Wuguo Shigan Xingbang” [Xi Jinping: Prattle Harms the Nation, Pragmatic Actions Help the State Flourish]. Caixin Wang, 30 Nov. 2012, china.caixin.com/2012-11-30/100466950.html.

Liu, Ken. “Staying Sensitive in the Crowd: A Conversation with Chen Qiufan.” Clarkesworld Magazine, vol. 102, Mar. 2015, http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/chen_interview/.

Luo, Xiaoming. “The Divided City: Imagining the ’Urban’ in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction.” Frontiers of Literary Studies in China, vol. 12, no. 4, 2018, pp. 583–609, doi:10.3868/s010-007-018-0028-1.

Morssink, Mick. Fence, Trade, Desire, Happiness: Shenzhen from Necessity to Destination. The Berlage Center for Advanced Studies in Architecture and Urban Design, 25 June 2014, http://www.theberlage.nl/galleries/projects/details/fence_trade_desire_happiness.

Rojas, Carlos. “Han Song and the Dream of Reason.” Chinese Literature Today, vol. 7, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 33–41, doi: 10.1080/21514399.2018.1458376.

Schneider-Vielsäcker, Frederike. “An Ideal Chinese Society? Future China from the Perspective of Female Science Fiction Writer Hao Jingfang.” Monde Chinois, vol. 51–52, 2017, pp. 50–62, doi:10.3917/mochi.051.0050.

Song, Mingwei. “After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction.” Utopian/Dystopian Fiction in Contemporary China, special issue of China Perspectives, vol. 2015, no. 1, March 2015, pp. 7–13.

—. “Representations of the Invisible: Chinese Science Fiction in the Twenty-First Century.” The Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures, edited by Carlos Rojas and Andrea Bachner, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 546–65.

—. “Variations on Utopia in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, March 2013, pp. 86–102.

Wang, David Der-wei. “Utopia, Dystopia, Heterotopias: From Lu Xun to Liu Cixin.” World Chinese-Language Science Fiction Research Workshop, 20 January 2012, http://www.chinesescifi.org/475.html.

Wang, Yao. “National Allegory in the Era of Globalization: Chinese Science Fiction and Its Cultural Politics since the 1990s.” Aspects of Science Fiction since the 1980s: China, Italy, Japan, Korea, edited by Lorenzo Andolfatto, et al., Nuova Trauben, 2015, pp. 61–81.

Yuan, Yiming, et al. “China’s First Special Economic Zone: The Case of Shenzhen.” Building Engines for Growth and Competitiveness in China, edited by Douglas Zhihua Zeng, The World Bank, 2010, pp. 55–86, doi:10.1596/978-0-8213-8432-9.

Chinese Science Fiction: A Genre of Adversity


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Chinese Science Fiction: A Genre of Adversity

Yen Ooi
Royal Holloway, University of London / UK


Most, if not all Chinese science fiction scholars will agree on two things; that the current form of science fiction from China can be traced back to a starting point in 1989 that “signaled the arrival of a new wave in Chinese science fiction” (Song 8); and that the science fiction genre is originally a Western genre,1 in that “Science, technology, and modernization are not characteristic of Chinese culture” (Han 20). In accepting these two points, we can start to recognise that Chinese science fiction is a genre that was born in crisis and continues to grow through hardship—it is a genre of adversity.

In China, science fiction isn’t a mainstream genre, but is growing, and getting recognition in part due to the international limelight that it has received over the last few years. The relationship between the Western genre and its Chinese writers have inadvertently brought science fiction from China together with science fiction by Chinese diaspora writers, led by Asian-American writers.

The culmination of Chinese science fiction by writers from China and diaspora writers created a genre that highlights a duality, of “Chinese-ness” and the (Western) science fiction genre itself. All writers who delve into this form of cultural literature must navigate both, and both come with their own baggage. 

Chinese science fiction started to receive notable attention in the West, especially in the United Kingdom and America, when Liu Cixin, “The most prominent and popular SF writer of the recent renaissance” (Han 17) won the Hugo Award in 2015 for The Three-Body Problem. It was the first translated novel to do so, and it is crucial to note that the translator was the Chinese-American writer Ken Liu, who, a few years before, had earned his own Hugo Award (2012) and a Nebula Award (2011) for his short story, “The Paper Menagerie.” Ken Liu’s achievements are important to note here because with them, he rallied his fans in China by being “the second Chinese-American after Ted Chiang to win major SF awards in the United States” (Han 15). Both these writers created a desire for more Chinese science fiction in China, Europe and America. They had set the stage for their colleagues to follow.

This new wave in Chinese science fiction as described by Professor Song, “is more sophisticated, reflective, and subversive in terms of mixed representation of hope and despair, utopianism and its dystopian reflection, and nationalism and cosmopolitanism” (8) making the genre the “cultural currency of contemporary Chinese literature as the most accurate lens through which to view and truly understand China” (Chau 113).

However, despite this cultural currency, Chinese science fiction isn’t a natural development in Chinese literature. Han Song sees the values of science fiction (which he characterises as: science, technology, and modernization) to be alien entities to writers from China. “If we [writers from China] buy into them, we turn ourselves into monsters, and that is the only way we can get along with Western notions of progress” (Han 20). He also suggests that “science fiction is perceived as inconsequential [in China] because it is unable to solve real-life problems. And the government can step in if it seems that the genre has gone too far conceptually” (Han 21). This means that science fiction writers in China are outsiders to the genre, dabbling in a Western concept only so far as it is not seen as a threat by their own government.

This duality that writers in China have to work with isn’t new to Chinese diaspora writers internationally. They have been writing with this duality, by choosing to include their personal cultural experiences in stories that still fit the expectations of the science fiction genre. Whether the works are written in English, or translated from Chinese to English, writers and translators alike are aware of the cultural imbalance global literature presents, where “Educated Chinese readers are expected not only to know about all the Chinese references—history, language, culture, all this stuff—but to be well-versed in Western references as well. A Chinese reader can decode an American work with far greater facility than an American reader can decode a Chinese work, on average” (Pandell).

Han Song’s comment above came from a paper published in 2013, since when “in 2016, China’s State Council announced a four-year plan for promoting scientific literacy among its citizens, including a step-by-step process for popularizing science through the production of SF.” Writers in China are encouraged to inspire teenagers with their quality writing, and “to popularize scientific learning and to contribute to China’s status as a world technology power” (Chau 115). This doesn’t remove the problem that Han Song had noted. However, it constituted an official endorsement of the need for China to participate in the production of science fiction, of ‘Western progress.’ Looking back, the four-year plan can probably be deemed successful, as Chinese science fiction (notably through works by Liu Cixin and Ken Liu) began to attract new and more influential readers internationally, not least Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg both of whom endorsed Liu Cixin’s trilogy in 2017 (Frank). This coincided with a time when China started to be more active in cultural exportation (Sun). According to some critics, genre fiction (including science fiction), finds itself at a considerable advantage in reshaping cultural mediascape after all. (Chau 123)

This exportation of Chinese science fiction, a modern genre reflecting China’s growing role in the world economy, is best viewed in conjunction with a broader process of cultural commodification, or as modern Chinese literature scholar Angie Chau sees it, a process of cultural deterioration (113) in Chinese literature, where “the Chinese had suddenly discovered that books, even literary works, could be treated as commodities to be mass produced, advertised, and sold for profit” (Kong 4). As the world started to get to know China more through Chinese science fiction, China started to experience a change in their own cultural production, as literary journals—a crucial cog to the publishing industry in China in the past—moved from being socialist state-sponsored institutions to market-oriented cultural enterprises. As the older journals learn to grapple with the market economy (locally and then internationally), they also meet new competition from popular and genre fiction journals, triggering the contention between high and low art in Chinese literature production. And typically, science fiction—as genre fiction—is considered a popular, low art.

The drastic turns in Chinese literature reflect what writer Chen Qiufan calls the “drastic transformation and fracture between different social forms.” Chen explains that in a hundred years, China’s progression rate outmatched any of the progress from the West that took over centuries to complete. “From the late Qing dynasty to the Republic of China, to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, to learning from the Soviet Union, to the reform and opening up, every stage lasted only about a few decades” (Sun).

The West, with American media at its forefront responded to this whirlwind progress by presenting their anxieties through “techno-Orientalism”: “the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hyper-technological terms in cultural productions and political discourse” —of “an ‘Orient’ undergoing rapid economic and cultural transformations” (Roh et al. 2 & 3). As Chinese writers, from mainland China and internationally, continue to grapple with the duality of writing Chinese-ness with (Western) science fiction, they’re also, unknowingly, having to tackle concepts of techno-Orientalism in their own writing, a “danger that Asian and Asian American creators might internalize techno-Orientalist patterns and uncritically replicate the same dehumanizing model” (Roh et al. 7).

Chen Qiufan has also argued that “There is something very science fictional and fantastic about this very drastic social transformation. At the foundation, the soil of rural China is still there, not thoroughly washed away. This has led to the co-existence of many different layers of society, which science fiction is best suited to present” (Sun). Though the larger situation in which China finds itself can be reflected within Chinese science fiction, it remains the case (as with Han Song’s comment about Western progress and concepts, noted above), the lens in which we look at China and Chinese science fiction, is unfortunately, Western-tinted. This creates the inevitable encounter with techno-Orientalist aesthetics.

Though this will not be discussed in detail in this paper, it can be noted that this discourse is problematic in itself, for it assumes that concepts of science, technology, and modernization belongs wholly to the West, and that any contact it has with East Asia are Orientalist in nature (whether Orientalist, post-Orientalist, or techno-Orientalist). Here, the techno-Orientalist discourse falls into the same postcolonial rhetoric from which it declares itself attempting to break out, by assuming that because Chinese is the ethnic culture in the equation, that when it comes in contact with the West, it loses its nativism, while the Western body gains in knowledge. Rey Chow describes this post-colonialist attribute as one where “the values involved are hierarchically determined and tend to work in one direction only: the original, so to speak, exists as the sole, primary standard by which the copy is judged, but not vice versa; the white man, and the white man alone, is authentic” (Chow 104).

However, going back to the opening statement of this paper: since most Chinese science fiction writers and scholars agree with the fact that science fiction, at least, is a Western genre, it can be argued that Chinese science fiction, in struggling with techno-Orientalist developments in the (Western) science fiction genre, begins to develop techno-Occidentalist tendencies to compensate. In this scenario techno-Occidentalism becomes Chinese science fiction’s strategy to decolonise its use of the Western genre and concepts. While techno-Orientalism “serve to both express and assuage Western anxieties about Asia’s growing cultural influence and economic dominance” (Roh et al. Summary), techno-Occidentalism is Asia’s response to these anxieties through demonstrating a rich diversity in its membership.

Liu Cixin and Ken Liu, as writers, prefer to project a non-political image. While they are invested in promoting the genre of SF, they have been known to attempt to dissuade readers from the notion that there is something inherently ‘Chinese’ about their writing (Chau 127). Liu Cixin says he prefers “Anglophone science fiction fans to read his books ‘because it’s science fiction, not because it’s ‘Chinese’ science fiction’” (Chau 126), and in the introduction in his 2016 anthology, Invisible Planets, Ken Liu questions what kind of meaningful purpose the label of ‘Chinese science fiction’ can serve, given the incredible diversity of the works and their authors” (Liu 16). This precisely emphasizes the fact that Chinese science fiction’s image is a problem when other writers, like Han Song, are happy to affirm Chinese science fiction’s position, noting that “Present-day sf authors have touched on a wide variety of subjects and added noticeable Chinese colors to the genre” (Han 17). Ken Liu’s anthology also includes a paper by Xia Jia entitled “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” a curious book-end to his opening remark that draws readers’ attention to the issue of ‘China and Chinese-ness’ in Chinese science fiction.

Interestingly, what Ken Liu, Liu Cixin, Han Song, Xia Jia, and other Chinese science fiction writers are trying to grasp in their tug-of-war on the term Chinese is precisely the impossible notion that Chinese-ness can be understood on its own, or that China can be represented clearly as a nation apolitically and without involving its diaspora. The word ‘Chinese’ has too many meanings—nationality, culture, language, ethnicity, even food. And when we consider that “retention of Chinese cultural heritage is important” (Wei 177) to life in the diaspora, we start to see how problematic this question of ‘Chinese-ness’ can become. If we consider as well that the duality Chinese science fiction writers have to manage is similar to that of the diaspora, are they then trying to simply justify their own fixations of Chinese culture, whatever that may be?

This assertion of culture is the techno-Occidentalist impulse that Xia Jia describes, where: “the Chinese had to wake up from their five-thousand-year-old dream of being an ancient civilization and start to dream of becoming a democratic, independent, prosperous modern nation-state” (Xia 378). It is the realisation that the shape of what ‘Chinese’ means is different today, despite an unbroken history of five millennia, and requires advocacy.

In Chen Qiufan’s novel, The Waste Tide (originally published 2013; published in English, in Ken Liu’s translation, in 2019), the monster, Mimi, and the book itself, were both born in and of China. They both reveal characteristics of techno-Orientalism, where the country—China, and Mimi are seen as inventions of information capitalism. Except, this is no longer just in imagination and is actually reflective of China’s current position. As the consumption of information technology increases in the world, the constantly-ignored process of e-waste management gets delegated to East Asia. And as China itself replaces America as the largest producer of e-waste (Chen), China’s struggle to stay ahead in the world of information capitalism, sees itself exploiting its own people through cheap labour, now not only in production, but also in waste management. This is the techno-Occidentalist drive that is China’s response to the rapid economic and cultural transformations that Chen calls ‘condensed urbanisation’ of the last four decades.

Techno-Occidentalist elements do not only manifest through nationalist or ecopolitical writing and can be experienced through more basic storytelling components like character development too. In Maggie Shen-King, another Asian-American writer’s debut novel, An Excess Male (2017), the consequences of China’s introduction and management of the one-child policy provides the backdrop through the entire premise of the book that is set in a near-future Beijing. The people are managed by the government as commodities that need to be controlled, where the one-child policy has created a community of ‘leftover men’ who can now find love and marriage as a third husband, the maximum required by law. This commodification of people is part of the discourse of techno-Orientalism, with the State—the government—being the main protagonist that sees its people made of “Asian body as a form of expendable technology” (Roh et al. 11). However, in Shen-King’s attempt to develop a more diverse perspective of the story, two of her main characters are from backgrounds that would usually be ostracized—a gay man, and an autistic man. In giving them vital roles to the story, Shen-King humanises them to counter the techno-Orientalist discourse through techno-Occidentalism.

In Chinese science fiction, from the stories that negotiate “between verisimilitude and universality” (Chau 124) to those that reimagine the past, like Silk Punk—“a blend of science fiction and fantasy…[that] draws inspiration from classical East Asian antiquity” (Misra)—they are just trying to glean some sort of position in which to operate in an extremely fecund and chaotic space, where, “The failure of Communism as an alternative for overcoming the crises of capitalism means that the crises of capitalist culture, accompanied by the process of globalization, are manifesting in the daily lives of the Chinese people…[While] China, after a series of traumas from the economic reforms and paying a heavy price for development, has managed to take off economically and resurge globally” (Xia 381).

Chinese science fiction writers internationally find themselves working at a moment of contradiction, of failure (in politics) and success (in economy) through the literature they produce, that tries to commentate on extremely polarised events through cultural grounding (Chinese-ness) and repurposing a genre (science fiction) that has had its own rich history. This constant negotiation roots Chinese science fiction in a position of adversity. Some writers predict that this prosperous phase of Chinese science fiction’s popularity will wither away, while others continue to invest in its growth, as an instrument to promote diversity in science fiction (Xia & Chen).

Whatever the outcome, Chinese science fiction writers will continue to demand their positions in this Western genre by asserting their culture and developing new techno-Occidentalist ways to decolonise.


NOTES

1. References to the Western genre of science fiction generally concerns British, American, French, and Soviet science fiction.


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The Wandering Earth: A Device for the Propagation of the Chinese Regime’s Desired Space Narratives?


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


The Wandering Earth: A Device for the Propagation of the Chinese Regime’s Desired Space Narratives?

Molly Silk
University of Manchester / UK


Introduction

The anticipated film adaptation of Liu Cixin’s short story The Wandering Earth [流浪地球] was released in Chinese and American cinemas at the beginning of last year, and quickly became one of China’s highest grossing movies of all time. In order to allow for a smoother adaptation to the big screen, the plotline and characters of the film greatly differ from those in Liu’s original story. Additionally, the Earth’s political state is only lightly touched upon in Liu’s story, whereas a more detailed account of international relations and cooperation is weaved into the film. Recognising the “soft power” potential of Chinese science fiction as it grows in popularity around the world, the Chinese government have encouraged authors of the genre to include elements that assist in propagandizing the rejuvenation of the Chinese state as a global power. The acquisition of soft power, or the ability to achieve foreign policy goals through attractive and persuasive means, was adopted under the leadership of Hu Jintao as a long-term national strategy. Tools used to gain soft power traditionally include attractive cultural products and the construction of compelling and credible narratives that present the nation in a positive light (The Soft Power 30). Science fiction, acting as both a cultural product and a vehicle for the proliferation of constructed narratives, presents itself as ideal device for assisting in the achievement of national soft power objectives.

This paper argues that the world constructed for China’s science fiction hit The Wandering Earth was greatly influenced by the regime’s call for science fiction to benefit the country’s rejuvenation aims, particularly to portray the Chinese space programme as a peaceful and cooperative venture that has the potential to benefit all of humanity. Through an examination of the production choices made during the creation of the film, this paper shows that The Wandering Earth’s promotion of transnational cooperation in space works as a device aiming to create a positive international perception of its space capacities. This in turn has made the science fiction adaptation favourable with the Chinese government and exemplary of what the regime seeks to find in China’s science fiction creations.

This paper shall first outline the issues that China faces in regard to the reputation of its space endeavours, and how the state is seeking to replace the prevalent threat narrative around its space programme with a more positive one. Based on these contextual foundations, this paper shall discuss elements of The Wandering Earth film in relation to China’s political aims surrounding the perception of its space programme.

Conflicting Narratives: The Chinese Space Threat vs. A Tool for Humankind

The focus placed on national rejuvenation and economic development by the government since the start of the century has proven sufficient in generating support for the Chinese Communist Party at home. However, many people and governments of the world believe that the China’s unceasing growth should be feared by all who seek to uphold the values of the world’s longstanding political superpower: the United States (Chen and Garcia; Halper). The China Threat narrative maintains that the nation’s authoritarian regime of antihumanitarian policies and expansionist ambitions cannot peacefully co-exist with the democratic ideals purported by the United States government (Broomfield). The narrative is primarily propagated by the US and its allies, who state that China’s re-emergence represents a threat to both US security and to the survival of democracy worldwide. In recent years, the China Threat criticism has extended to one of the country’s most treasured projects: its national space programme.

The significance of China’s latest outer space achievements cannot be understated. Yet since its conception, observers and critics of China’s political regime have suspected that the Chinese space programme may endanger the freedom of the US and allied nations to operate in outer space. Concerns have ranged from China’s potential militarization of space, to the assertion of resource nationalism over celestial objects, to the fear that China could overtake the US as the world’s dominant space force (Johnson-Freese; Vasani; Erwin; Goswami; Thompson).

The US government asserts that China’s activities in space pose a very real threat to its national security. Less than a year before the Eastern giant landed its rover on the far side of the Moon at the beginning of 2019, President Trump declared that the US would not allow itself to be surpassed by China as the world’s dominant space force (“Trump Vows”). A few month later, Vice President Pence named China’s space activities as one of the main threats to US security (“Pence Unveils Plans”). The China space threat narrative has been used by Trump’s administration to justify the creation of the US Space Force, and due to fears of espionage, China remains the only country with whom NASA is not permitted to collaborate.

The proliferation of such a narrative may lead to its widespread acceptance, which in turn may cause damage to China’s aims of repositioning itself as a global leader. Should the international community accept the narrative that China’s space programme is a threat to the status quo, there will be less support for it. Instead of financing space-based projects in partnership with China, countries will instead side with nations that they perceive to be more accountable, transparent, and reliable technological powers (Flagg). Furthermore, should China’s space aims continue to be portrayed as a tool for enhancing the regime’s grip on the world stage, feelings of distrust for China’s technological development may hinder transnational relations.

Recognising these challenges, China’s central government have made attempts to demonstrate that its space programme is not a threat to those values shared by the US and its allies, nor is the programme an attempt to grab power in the space arena away from the US. To counter fears that China’s technological rise will threaten the autonomy and interests of other nations, the Chinese government are actively attempting to change the prevalent threat narrative to one that asserts its space programme as a tool for the benefit of humankind.

In the face of criticism, China’s chief administrative authorities continue to maintain that it is opposed to the weaponization of outer space, and that its space programme is for the benefit of the international community (“China’s Military Strategy”). Every five years, China’s State Council releases a White Paper outlining the nation’s space activities in order “to enable the world community to better understand China’s space industry” (“Full Text of White Paper”). A large part of the Paper is dedicated to summarizing China’s transnational space cooperation, and continuously states that the purpose of the programme is “to utilize space for peaceful purposes” and to “benefit the whole of mankind” (“China’s Military Strategy”). China is an active member of the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs, asserting the nation’s adherence and dedication to the peaceful uses of outer space as outlined by the various treaties adopted by the General Assembly. China has also extended an invitation to all UN member states to use its forthcoming space station for the purposes of scientific experimentation, demonstrating that Chinese diplomacy in space extends further than that of the US, who do not allow China to participate in the ISS project.

While the Chinese government have taken great efforts to sponsor and coordinate space research and technical programmes with multiple international institutions, such diplomacy only affects government officials and researchers working in the area of space technology. Where China’s space science diplomacy has been lacking is in its access to international populations at large, whose trust often remains in the China threat narratives purported by their own governments and national media (Sun).

The rising popularity of Chinese science fiction worldwide was soon recognised by the government as a potential ideological mouthpiece. As a genre that strongly showcases the imaginative visions of the future of Chinese technologies, government agencies devoted to promoting China’s image sought to utilise science fiction as a vehicle to more artfully promote its own desired narratives and ideologies to the international public. Should creators insert into their stories representations of China’s technological endeavours that are in line with the state’s narrative aims, these notions would be propagated to a wider international audience that the state has been less successful in reaching through direct government publications and higher level dialogues.

The Wandering Earth as an Incorporation of State Space Narratives

According to Gwennaël Gaffric and Will Peyton, Chinese science fiction literature and film has been “placed at the forefront of a nationalist project both inside and outside China,” where Party members have encouraged science fiction authors to inspire the nation’s youth through their stories to fulfil the Chinese dream of renewed global leadership. China’s state media has continued to hail the international success of Chinese science fiction as representative of “the rebirth of a great nation,” and has already taken steps to establish science fiction authors as representative and supportive of China’ scientific developments (Gaffric and Peyton). For instance, following the increasing international popularity of Liu Cixin’s work, particularly his science fiction epic The Three-Body Problem [三体], the author was invited to act as a consultant for the China National Space Programme (Liu), as well as an official ambassador of China’s Mars exploration programme (Gaffric and Peyton). Liu has also been invited to be involved in a number of high-profile national space events, including giving a speech at the unveiling of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST).

However, the increased connection between science fiction creators and state organs gives rise to conditions in which new works are expected to promote elements of the regime’s official narrative on China’s technological developments and capabilities. China’s publishing industry has been recognised as a tool that will allow the political regime to appropriate the science fiction genre (Gaffric and Peyton). This means that government agencies have an important role to play in the in selecting narratives that align with China’s foreign policy agenda. Sociotechnical imaginaries, or visions of society centred on the realisation of certain technological developments, that do not fit with the government’s technological development narrative may therefore be discounted or suppressed by these agencies. However, those imaginaries that fit with the regime’s political narrative may also be promoted and held up as exemplary sinofuturistic stories and models.

The argument presented here is that the success of The Wandering Earth and its promotion by state organs can be considered to comprise elements that are representative of the narrative that the regime seeks to propagate. Specifically, it is those elements surrounding the portrayal of its space capabilities and the role of the Chinese astronauts in global affairs that are favoured by Chinese officials.

The worldbuilding choices in The Wandering Earth film incorporate the government’s own purported narrative that its space endeavours are based on ideals of international cooperation and the enrichment of humankind.

While a Coalition government is mentioned in Liu’s original short story, details of the internationality of the Earth’s new government or its space forces do not feature heavily in the story. However, within the context of the film, while individual nations and nationalities are still recognised, there are no national space forces. Instead, all nations of the world have combined their space technological expertise under a United Earth Government for the purpose of saving the planet.

According to director Guo Fan, political aspects of the film were strongly considered, and the choice was made to incorporate a peaceful coalition government with a unified space force into the story (Li). Within the production notes for the film, one of the foundational ideologies of the world in which the film is set is that humanity exists as “one big family” and the astronauts of Earth’s various nations work together as a team for the good of humanity (Shuo). The global society shown in the film was not an arbitrary choice, but a carefully considered and purposeful decision on the part of the production team, which allowed for the portrayal of China as an important actor within a global community.

Equally, the decision to ensure that the Earth is eventually saved from the clutches of Jupiter thanks to the sacrifices ultimately made by Chinese protagonists further demonstrates that the power of the Chinese people is not self-interested. Instead, it tells the audience that the Chinese people see themselves as part of a collective humankind, that its capabilities will be used to protect this collective, not to challenge or compete with it for survival.

While it is ultimately Chinese characters who save the world, as Song explains, The Wandering Earth did not separate China from the rest of the world, but allowed China to be representative of humanity (Song). The heroism displayed by the Chinese protagonists was not led by nationalist interests, but by the widely supported value of protecting humankind. While such principles are represented here in a fictional future, they are the principles that the Chinese regime desire to be associated with their space programme in reality. Given the real political context in which the film was created, such key production choices were likely included in the film in order to align with state purported narratives that would show the Chinese nation in a positive light.

In addition to these narrative additions, the audience is consistently reminded of China’s role as a valued member of the united coalition through aesthetic choices. The space suits that are worn in the film were meticulously designed, involving over 1,000 separate parts (Li 2019). The decision to include the logo of the new coalition’s space force, designed to appear very similar to the UN’s well-known emblem, was again unlikely to have been an arbitrary choice. Placed on both the arms and the fronts of the suits and clothes worn by the characters, the symbol is frequently shown on screen, including during the important ending scene where a Chinese character sacrifices himself to protect the Earth. The presence of the symbol next to China’s national flag on the suits of the characters is also symbolic of China’s first space flight, when taikonaut Yang Liwei held up the flag of the UN alongside the Chinese flag to represent mutual aims and values for space exploration. The presence of the symbol in the film acts as a permanent reminder to the audience that while the main characters are of Chinese origin, the work they do is ultimately for the benefit of humanity.

While the film does not explicitly condemn any nation as the antagonist of the story, the underlying ideology of the film is favourable towards the purported Chinese values of space exploration, and hints at a rejection of common US values associated with space exploration. According to Guo, Western science fiction portrays a sense of longing to escape Earth in favour of worlds beyond our own. While the American notion of space is one of an ‘endless frontier’ waiting to be explored, the Chinese mindset conversely does not desire to leave the home that it has identified with for thousands of years. According to Guo, the US mindset is that if Earth is experiencing a crisis, it is possible to run away from it. The Chinese mindset differs from this as exemplified in The Wandering Earth (Li). Instead of running from Earth in the face of crisis, Chinese science fiction demonstrates a different ideal of remaining with and protecting the planet. While not explicitly stating so in the film, the underlying narrative of wandering with the Earth instead of from it suggests that Chinese philosophies offer a leadership style that seeks to defend the planet and the heritages of its people. Chinese do not run from crises, but will remain and help where it can. This key theme in the movie suggests that China’s technological development can only serve to further its capacities to help, and had the state not pursued the aim of advancing its space programme, the Earth’s collective space capacities would have remained underdeveloped. In turn, the world would not likely have been able to save itself from the crises presented in the film.

The film adaptation of The Wandering Earth has already proven to be a production favoured by the central government. The film has been recommended by the Ministry of Education to be shown to school students throughout China (“Sci-Fi Blockbuster”), and its financial success and award wins have been covered extensively by Party mouthpieces such as Xinhua and People’s Daily. The film has also been continuously dubbed by the state media as “China’s first homemade sci-fi blockbuster” (“First China-Made Sci-Fi Blockbuster”). The decision of the state media to promote The Wandering Earth as the nation’s “first domestic sci-fi epic” is one that does not recognize China’s history of science fiction film productions, ignoring films such as Deformity Sci-Fi [残废科幻] (2013), Reset [逆时营救] (2017), or The Secret of Immortal Code [伊阿索密码] (2018), to name only a few. Death Ray on a Coral Island [珊瑚岛上的死光] (1980) is widely considered to be China’s “first science fiction film” (Zhang), but is again overlooked by the state in favor of presenting The Wandering Earth as China’s first.

The key feature that differentiates film adaptation of The Wandering Earth from its science fiction predecessors is that it actively promotes the government-purported narrative that China’s technical capabilities are for the benefit of humanity as a whole. While Death Ray on a Coral Island sets China and Westerners as rivals, The Wandering Earth presents a more peaceful and diplomatic relationship between China and the world. Showcasing Chinese imaginaries of the nation’s space capabilities as beneficial to the international community, the film conforms to the desired narrative that the state seeks to purport.

The regime recognises that The Wandering Earth portrays “a community of a shared future for mankind,” a key quality it seeks to promote of its space ambitions (Chung). Most notably, the Wang Xiaohui, who acts as both the Executive Deputy Head of the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the Director of the Film Bureau of National Radio and Television Administration, reportedly praised the film for its portrayal of “the Chinese people’s non-utilitarian, cosmopolitan and cooperative spirit” (“China’s Film Authority”).

Seeking to put its best foot forward on the international stage, the marketing of The Wandering Earth as China’s first science fiction film intends to send the message that the nation’s technological development has always been with the welfare of the international community in mind.

Conclusion

In the face of criticism by the US, the film adaptation of The Wandering Earth presents China as a technologically responsible, cooperative, supportive, and reliable actor in space that seeks to benefit of all of humanity. While the US has adopted more neoisolationist policies over the last few years, coupled with its assertion of dominance in space through the creation of the US Space Force, the film purports a more peaceful and cooperative narrative of China’s space activities that fall in line with official state narratives. It is likely that these narrative additions to Liu’s original short story were made with consideration given to the state’s call for science fiction creators to incorporate and reinforce the government’s real-life policy narratives.

In turn, the Chinese regime adopted the film as a state favourite, promoting it through a variety of methods and asserting it as representative of Chinese thought on the nation’s technological development. However, with the global popularity of Chinese science fiction still its infancy, it remains to be seen how effective these incorporated state-approved narratives are at swaying the opinion of the international public on China’s space affairs.


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Wondering about the Futures of the Wandering Earth: A Comparative Analysis of Liu Cixin’s “The Wandering Earth” and Frant Gwo’s Film Adaptation


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Wondering about the Futures of the Wandering Earth: A Comparative Analysis of Liu Cixin’s “The Wandering Earth” and Frant Gwo’s Film Adaptation

Mitchell van Vuren
Leiden University / Netherlands


Frant Gwo’s big-budget film “The Wandering Earth” (2019) hit Chinese cinemas big as the acclaimed first science fiction blockbuster from Chinese soil (Kuo) and has become one of China’s highest-grossing films of all time (“The Wandering Earth”). The blockbuster also gained global visibility through its international distribution on Netflix, presenting an apocalyptic future scenario to the world through Chinese eyes. The film directly builds upon the universe conjured by the science fiction author Liu Cixin in his short story “The Wandering Earth”. Liu has been lauded for his imaginative mixture of philosophical and scientific contemplations, earning him multiple national Galaxy Awards for best science fiction work and even the international Hugo Award once for best science fiction work (“Liu Cixin”). However, the short story and the film differ radically on several aspects and portray very different visions on the way humanity needs to change its ways to reach a happy ending at the end of their stories, including the required transformation of humanity to meet the demands of a dystopian future.

In this paper, I will clarify these differences through a comparative analysis between film and short story to abstract the different visions on the required changes humanity is in need of to save itself from extinction. Before doing so, I will briefly discuss the various genres the two works position themselves in and the process of adaptation. Then, I will describe the representation of the future world in the works and the ethical dilemmas posed by these narratives. After having clarified the main subtextual differences between the two works, I will reflect on the implied and different ways whereby humanity needs to transform itself to be able to survive the same fictional apocalypse.

Liu Cixin himself names as the source and most prominent element of science fiction the beauty of science itself. He says: “Science-fiction novels are thus bridges to this beauty, freeing it from formulas and displaying it for all to see” (“Beyond Narcissism” 23). This love for science expresses itself profoundly in his works, and not the least in “The Wandering Earth”. The narrative reveals the life of the protagonist as a small part of a detailed macro-history: the gargantuan project of maneuvering the entire Earth to Proxima Centauri. The subjugation of the character development to the scientific macro-details is characteristic of Liu’s variant of science fiction, but these descriptive macro-details are in the film replaced by visual spectacle and dramatic turns.

From the considerable historical period Liu describes from initiation of the project to the abandonment of the solar system, the film only takes place during a small part halfway-through Liu’s story when the Earth passes Jupiter. In the high budget film, the tale of the Earth’s journey with its scientific specificities is substituted by an accessible disaster narrative that borrows many masculine and upbeat genre conventions from the action film. The distillation and popularization of the story comes to no surprise when the intended broad target audience of the film is juxtaposed with the niche sci-fi audience, but, in Liu’s intended sense, the film’s narrative is only part of a sci-fi tradition through the world it finds itself in and not specifically through narrative genre conventions.

At this point, we come to the issue of adaptation. Commonly, film adaptations are conceived as inferior to the books they are derived from. However, it is not my intention to approach these two works in a hierarchized relation of lineage. I will rather conceptualize them as two stories in a transmedial storyworld (as theorized by Marie-Laure Ryan and Jan-Noël Thon), where audiences can enter this universe through multiple platforms and narratives that do not always find coherence. Although issues such as medium specificity or fidelity to a source text are conventional topics of discussion in Adaptation Studies, the implications of the stories’ subtextual elements are of most importance to my analysis to come to a conclusion about the differing morals of these stories and the suggested transformations of which the world is in need. To abstract these differing subtextual elements, I will focus in my textual comparison on ethical questions posed to humanity and the following decisions, with special attention to China as the focalizer of humanity in these narrated, apocalyptic futures.

Liu’s story starts when the Earth stops rotating. The birth of the protagonist coincides with this first step of controlling the planet and transforming it into humanity’s vehicle, and alongside the character’s coming of age, the Earth changes more and more on its millennia-long journey. During a school trip around the world, the protagonist and his classmates witness the colossal Earth Engines that serve as the Earth’s motor, the catastrophic effects of the project on Earth’s ecology, and their first splendid sunrise after years on the dark side of the Earth. The supranatural, technological achievements of humankind are constantly brought into ambivalent juxtapositions with the terrifying splendor of nature in Liu’ descriptions. An example of this can be found in the protagonist’s first thought when seeing an Earth Engine for the first time (“The Wandering Earth” 6). While marveling at the immense scale of the blue plasma beam, he is reminded of a riddle about an infinitely tall and broad wall.

What is the wall?

Death.

Here, the conventional technocratic faith in technology to relieve humanity of the burdens of nature, and particularly of death, is lost when the power of technology becomes synonymous with the sublimity of death. During the following years, the expenses of technology to fuel the Earth’s journey leave their mutilating traces on the Earth, slowly transforming it into an unrecognizable and lifeless place.

The contrasting of the horrors of technology and nature serve a higher purpose than solely description in the story, which is expressed most clearly when the children see the Sun for the first time. The Sun, normally the source of life, has now turned into the Earth’s doom due to its predicted violent explosion in the near future, called a helium flash. When the children see the celestial body for the first time, they are struck with terror when they encounter humanity’s biggest threat. But, when the children and their teacher gaze at the starlit sky later on, hopeful tears well up in their eyes when the teacher points out Proxima Centauri, “their new home!” Among the stars, “[o]nly one star held steady; it was the beam of a distant lighthouse over dark and stormy seas. . . . That star had taken the place of the Sun in our hearts. It was the only pillar of hope for one hundred future generations as they navigated a sea of trouble” (13). Already from a young age onward, the children are taught to direct their hopes at the promises of technology and to abandon the symbols of life from the past.

The global process of accelerating the Earth to gain enough speed to leave the solar system also incorporates the people of Earth in its self-transformation. Genetic engineering (16) and birth control (26) have enabled humankind to regulate and evolve its members to unknown standards to meet the harsh conditions of the millennia-long project, but this has happened at a cost. For current generations, it is unimaginable how people in the past could have attached so many emotions to matters unrelated to planetary survival, including adultery (18). What is needed in the new world are reliable and docile persons, who can function optimally inside the world-encompassing Earth apparatus. Inessential subjects for this global cause, such as art and philosophy, are removed from school curricula (16), which leads to the solving of ethical dilemmas based on statistics in the name of the greater good. For example, when the underground hometown of the protagonist is hours away from being engulfed by magma, the rescue of young people is unquestionably prioritized regarding their higher beneficence to the global cause. Thus, it becomes too late to save the elderly, including the protagonist’s mother, following a naturalized social Darwinist logic. Every form of individual agency or reflection disappears in the collective because of their shared burden of saving humanity, while they gradually lose their own humanity along the way.

When the Earth passes the hellish “behemoth” (34) of Jupiter in Liu’s story, the film’s primary storyline begins. The gravitational pull of Jupiter leads to the malfunctioning and destruction of many Earth Engines and raises the danger of planetary collision. Liu Qi, the protagonist of the film, travels through China and beyond its borders to help reactivate the Engines. At the same time, his father Liu Peiqiang tries in the International Space Station (ISS) to avert hopelessness by the United Earth Government (UEG). Liu Qi shares many similarities with the protagonist of the short story, such as a father in space and an uncle from Shanghai, but his character arc and the events in the film differ to such an extent that inconsistencies arise between story and film. The differing plots also have a profound effect on the overall morale of the works. While Liu’s sci-fi shows the fragility and possible futility of humanity’s project, the film portrays several hardheaded characters that refuse to lose hope and keep on striving to survive.

This ultimate impossibility of defeat despite hardships, which is the norm in the disaster film and the action film with few exceptions, comes to the fore the most when the film poses an ethical dilemma to Liu Peiqiang. The UEG has decided at the perceived point of no return in the wake of collision to activate the Helios Project: the launch of the ISS as an arc, containing numerous samples of animal and human life, towards Proxima Centauri to act as the last means for humanity to survive. But, in a final attempt to avert collision, Liu Qi and his companions have, against the UEG’s orders, called for the help of many national rescue teams on Earth. They have the plan to shoot a plasma beam from an Earth Engine towards Jupiter to ignite its atmosphere and blast the Earth away (in full accordance with the action film genre).

Liu Peiqiang in the ISS stands before the choice to subjugate himself to the plan of the UEG and to watch the Earth be destroyed below him, or to fly the ISS into Liu Qi’s plasma beam that is just a few miles short of igniting Jupiter and to hope that the plan of the newly formed coalition of national rescue teams, under the leadership of the Chinese, will save the Earth. Liu Peiqiang chooses the latter and rebels against the UEG in a final attempt to save the world. In an emotional last dialogue between father and son, they forget their preceding conflicts and are reconciled as a family, just before the ISS explodes and Liu Peiqiang sacrifices himself for the greater good, ultimately saving his son and the world. The plan of the newly proposed world governance succeeds and Liu Qi survives, continuing to serve the purpose of The Wandering Earth with firm belief and in good spirits.

In Liu’s story, the Earth bypasses Jupiter without technical complications, but not without social unrest. A conspiracy theory maintains that the Sun is not dying at all and that the entire journey is a hoax. A rebellion against the Coalition, the current world government, starts to take shape and divides the world into two groups: the ones who have held hope in the project and those who have lost it and desire to return to the earlier state of heliocentric orbit. The protagonist sides with the Coalition, motivated by his family’s history in the military and not by his own conviction per se, but starts to slowly believe in the hoax as well after a long and violent period of war injuries and alcoholism. He deserts with other militaries on a hospital ward and helps to overthrow the last stronghold of the Coalition.

The rebels celebrate their victory and punish the remaining leading figures of the Coalition cruelly. During their last walk of shame, the remnants of the Coalition are spat upon and humiliated by all layers of society, including a little girl with “the wild rage in her eyes searing through her mask” (42). Then, the nuclear batteries from the prisoners’ thermal suits are confiscated, and they are left to freeze to death on the ice-cold surface of the Earth, with the people of the rebellion watching. Every standard of moral order seems to have been forgotten. During the painfully slow submission to the cold by the last figures of the Coalition, the rebels start to sing ‘My Sun’ to praise their giver of life in the sky. Faith in the Sun and in the natural course of life seems to be restored, until suddenly the helium flash occurs. Then, “[a] red dim sphere had replaced the Sun. From our vantage point, it slowly swelled until it reached the size of the Sun of old, a strange memory from Earth’s original orbit… But, it was no longer our Sun” (44). The rebellion shows itself to be built on an illusion. Their hope of return is shattered and their future is uncertain. The Sun has died, but “[f]ortunately, we still lived” (44).

In the last chapter of the story, half a century has passed and the protagonist has grown old. The Earth’s journey has been continued towards the dark emptiness of space beyond Pluto. However, the protagonist is not overcome by despair or pessimism and sees before his mind’s eye visions from life in Proxima Centauri. “I see my great-grandchildren, one hundred generations removed, playing and laughing on green grass”. While faith in the original Sun has faded and the errors of technology have been discovered, he directs his beliefs at “the three golden suns of Proxima Centauri” (46). Hope has not been lost, although humanity has been forced to transcend its earlier moral and technological boundaries and a long and tough road is still ahead for many generations to come.

Despite both texts’ happy endings, the morals of the two narratives give a very different estimation of the new status of humanity after the hardships of the project. In the case of Liu’s story, humanity’s morale is busted and battered, but a shimmer of hope remains in the envisioning of a very distant and utopian future. The demise of the faith in technology and the following failed rebellion show that humanity is in dire need of self-transformation to find a new form that is fit for the conditions of the technological world of the future. Liu Cixin argues that humanity has to move beyond an anthropocentric narcissism in the far reaches of space, in which we are nothing but “a cosmic speck of dust” (“Beyond Narcissism” 22). Science fiction shows itself to be a genre well fit to challenge this central self-conception and to rethink the position of the human in relation to the ungraspable immensity of the universe and to the unthinkable potential of technology.

The film, however, has fewer moral bumps in the road to Proxima Centauri. Following the three-act model of Hollywood blockbusters, several obstacles are defined in the generic plot that need to be overcome to guarantee a happy ending. The plot-driven story designates the natural environment of Jupiter as the antagonist (at a certain point, a character even decides to futilely shoot a machine gun at it while cursing the gas giant), against which the Earth is in need of defense. Frictions between different characters and nations obstruct productive collaboration, which is only achieved when a shared goal is found and the previous form of world governance is overthrown under the new Chinese leadership. Humanity has not undergone a moral transformation but has only experienced a changing of the guards in its global governance.

In conclusion, Liu Cixin writes in accordance with his own principles concerning sci-fi by addressing the moral status quo of humanity as it is focalized by China. Through allegorically positioning characters and nations, he tells a tale of the world and envisions how humanity can change her own self-conception in relation to science to be ready for the challenges of ecological disasters and other sci-fi scenarios in the maybe not-so-distant future. Frant Gwo’s film does not question the core of humanity but rather the position of China in the world. The film utilizes the rebellion in its narrative to indicate the fallacies of the current world governance, and imagines how humanity can only be saved, and its utopian future far away can only be reached when China’s methods are followed. Although the film has international allure through representing the territories and populations of many nations, it ultimately tells a story of China as the world through its claimed monopoly to guide the world towards survival. The film’s moral, just like its narrative, seems to remain stuck halfway through Liu’s story, where the wavering of hope has not set in just yet. Hopefully, the announced sequel of the film will divert from just making a political statement and will correspond more with Liu’s sci-fi storyworld through engagement with the moral dimensions of the near future and the ensuing challenges in it for all of humanity, instead of merely redrawing national borders.


WORKS CITED

Kuo, Lily. “China Challenges Hollywood with Own Sci-Fi Blockbuster.” The Guardian, 11 February 2019, www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/11/china-first-blockbuster-sci-fi-film-wandering-earth.

Liu, Cixin. “Beyond Narcissism: What Science Fiction Can Offer Literature.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, 2013, pp. 22-32.

Liu, Cixin. “The Wandering Earth.” The Wandering Earth, translated by Holger Nahm, Head of Zeus Ltd., 2017, pp. 3-47.

“Liu Cixin.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, October 4 2019. http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/liu_cixin.

Ryan, Marie-Laure and Jan-Noël Thon. Storyworlds across Media: Toward a Media-Conscious Narratology. University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

“The Wandering Earth.” Box Office Mojo, n.d., www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl3710223361/weekend/?ref_=bo_rl_tab#tabs.

The Wandering Earth (流浪地球; Liulang diqiu). Directed by Frant Gwo, China Film Group Corporation, 2019.

A Diagnosis of Sinofuturism from the Urban-Rural Fringe


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


A Diagnosis of Sinofuturism from the Urban-Rural Fringe1

Dino Ge Zhang
Zhejiang University / China


Sinofuturism, in its emergence as exemplified by a series of essays (Goodman, 1998; Land, 2014), books (Greenspan, 2014; Hui, 2016), and videos (Lek, 2016), is still predominantly a discourse of the Anglosphere. Through a reading of Land’s past essays on the Shanghai Expo and Greenspan’s perspectives on Shanghai urbanism (2014, 2020), I would argue that sinofuturism in its current English articulation is perhaps more of a reaction towards the impotence and expiry of the declinist West than an incisive provocation of Chinese futures concretely rooted in the Chinese condition. The disheartened Anglo intellectual looks beyond “the death-grip of an embittered and self-mortifying anti-modernism” (Land, 2011) of the apologetic old world and for “zones of experimentation” (Greenspan, 2020) in the new world. It starts with an astute critique and an exasperating divorce from baizuo or the ‘White Left’ but then it falls short in responding to the disparity between planned ideals of futurity and their manifestations in a (un)managed disorder in China

Shanghai is presented as the model city by the sinofuturists: a spectacular retro-futurist revival, propelled by the 2010 World Expo itself, towards the status of World Capital. The crucial argument is that this revival has its own texture of futurity: not linear, not cyclical, but a spiral temporality. “Forward to the past” of the Golden Age 1920s: “neomodernity is at once more than modernity and modernity again” (Greenspan, 2014, p.12). Unlike Land’s optimism, Yuk Hui’s assessment of sinofuturism is a pathological “modernisation without modernity”: there is nothing new about sinofuturism as “ultimately, it is only an acceleration of the European modern project” ( Hui 2016, p.297); a lack of moral cosmotechnics in contemporary China, despite the economic and sociotechnical achievements, can potentially lead to disastrous consequences. In both diagnoses, the singular sinofuture derives from the official vision of modernity, whether in Land’s twist of a spiral temporality or Yuk Hui’s critique of an accelerating society that lacks a moral cosmology. To various degrees, both remain ungrounded in already fermenting visions of immiscible futurities elsewhere.

While also remaining vigilant for “zones of experimentation”, this essay chooses not to focus on the first-tier cities, Pudong skyline, special economic zones, massive factories, drones, automation, surveillance, and techno-nationalism. I am not interested in searching for the “authentic” China as much as the immiscible condition of a sinofuture itself—I will give one example of the quarantined temporality of the chengxiangjiehubu (literally “urban-rural fringe”).2 The urban-rural fringe is not necessarily the side of China that the official propaganda of futurity prevents one from seeing, nor should it be seen as somehow more authentic or naturalistic than the city. This is not to say that the fringe is invisible, but it is certainly undesirable, as its clear definition is often obscured. These intermediate contact zones are to be differentiated from chenzhongcun, or “urban villages,” which were transient, dense, urban overgrowth in/around the city centres to accommodate migrants during the early phase of (re)modernisation from 1990s onwards. They were hastily demolished as junk space in the 2010s to pave way for erections of new urban architectures.3 In contrast, the urban-rural fringe constitutes semi-permanent settlements that serve an indispensable role between cities and the countryside as “a point of transit and transformation” (Gong 2012).

The urban-rural fringe is a “filthy disorder” (Gong 2012) of various settlements: small-to-medium scale factories/workshops that are mostly outcast by the city administrators, garbage recycle stations, the bastardized residential architecture that arbitrarily and incongruously mixes influences (i.e. stereotypes) from all over the world, main roads as the large trucks pass through with (often unfinished) subsidiary roads connecting the villages, unsanitary restaurants with trashy décor, dodgy home clinics (especially those specializing in illegal abortions), pink neon light hair salons (as brothels are further purged from the cities), internet cafes filled with underage dropouts who are bored stiff, and wet markets of fresh produce and various exotic meats which are chiefly blamed as “sources of hedonistic-cum-pathogenic peril” (Lynteris 121).

The urban-rural fringe processes the trash and various material and affective excess for the cities. It also accommodates the “humiliated people, the peasants [who have] lost their land yet been rejected by the city, the trash collectors” (Gong 2012). The term piao, or float, was used to accentuate migrant precarity in the first-tier cities.4 However, people don’t “float” here at the fringe; instead, people are mostly rejects being sedimented without future hope. It is not sedentariness in the sense of full modernisation as if the society will finally be rid of its “premodern” and transitory deformities. The fringe zone is not a temporary construct; even though some areas gentrify as the mega city expands, they will continue to exist on the new fringe as their existence is marginal but indispensable. It is not an alterity that transcends modernity nor an alienated “dead time” that was fiercely attacked by Situationism but being sedentary in the “never-ending everyday” (Thouny 114). Lawrence Lek summarizes it well in his video essay: “sinofuturism does not care about a dramatically better future as long as it survives.” Survival is the true fundamental “hard-lined principle.” People rather put faith in a tiny profit margin than uncertain futures; there is no morality or “values” where there is no time. Gong (2012) considers the stray dogs omnipresent in the fringe zone and their society formed around human waste “presents a portent of our future,” much like the “waste people” on Silicon Isle as described in Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide: it is a futurity arrested in multilayered dissolution and reconfiguration of pollutants and temporality.

Urban-rural fringe produces a no-futurity that symbolizes the “quotidianized apocalypse” (Thouny): “there is no departure, no aim to reach or home to return to” (Thouny 116). As a contemporary example, my current self-quarantine eerily resonates with the idea of a quotidianized apocalypse of the fringe. Wuhan, the original epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, was often disparagingly given the nickname chaoji da xiancheng or “supersized county town” for the city’s infamous image of being “unhygienic, disorderly, and dreadful” (zhang luan cha).5 Wuhan’s spatial texture, unlike the fulfilling aspirations of Shanghai, was accelerating and decelerating at an entirely different pace. To a large degree, despite being an immense city in size, Wuhan glorified the aesthetics of the urban-rural fringe as captured in the recent crime thriller Wild Goose Lake (2019). In an attempt to elevate itself from the stigma of “supersized county town,” the city hosted international events like the World Military Games 2019, through which the city centre was “rejuvenated” and its colonial past (the European concessions much like Shanghai) was refurbished and modernized. The expectation was high, much like Shanghai’s World Expo. However, the city only succeeded in garnering international attention due to the current pandemic situation.

During the lockdown, time itself is quarantined in a state of continuous waiting. Cai Bo (2020) writes on his experience during the lockdown, “time itself is a burning anxiety; my mum used to tell me, days seem to be long but short when they are lived; she complains recently, whatever is plenty, nothing is more plentiful than days.”6 Linear time, or calendar time, becomes irrelevant, and cyclical time also malfunctions as I sleep and wake up during arbitrary hours. A week in, time was spent in between spasms of violent emotions provoked by the videos circulated on WeChat: terror, anxiety, and fury. The quarantine time is “severed forwards” (Cai 2020) as it is torn between stacks of temporalities: the viral acceleration choked, quite literally, the health care system; desperate and panic-stricken patients waiting eight hours in long queues outside the hospital and risking another round of nosocomial infection; waking up day after day filtering fake news and dubious WeChat screenshots only to find out the official Hope is plastic and melts instantly with the flaming anxiety; staying up until midnight to order groceries online before they’re instantly sold out; even the most politically unmotivated realize that poetics of heroism and stories of machinic efficiency (of tracking the infected) merely covers the unknown number of bodies that went into the furnace without any rituals and countless others who live in unresolved temporal anxiety. The imagery of the pandemic is thus “a cyclical plot of meaningless endlessness… [it is] a poetics not of death and resurrection but hollowed out of hope and inhabited by omens and signs of an ‘end indefinitely postponed” (Gomen cited in Lynteris 127).

The “viral alarm” caused by the untimely death of Dr Li Wen-Liang did not last long as rage was quickly soaked and dissipated in idleness and lethargy. Zizek (2020) had hoped for the “unintended consequence” of “dead time” self-reflection: being stuck in quarantine at home briefly forced people to realize the sedentariness and precarity in “look toward money” that replaced the official slogan “look to the future” (Cockain 2). However, the miserable populace never cared about progress nor regression, as it had been already waiting for an “apocalypse that never ceases to come, and pass” (Thouny 2009, p.126). The urban-rural fringe should not be seen as the disintegration behind the glorious façade of Shanghai but rather one of the sinofuturisms we can all, but are too reluctant to, viscerally experience. My hope is that the already fermenting immiscible condition of sinofuturity won’t be entirely eclipsed by ungrounded theoretical speculation.


NOTES

1. This essay is written on the quarantined grounds of Wuhan amidst a provincial lockdown.

2. It would be naïve to juxtapose the urban and rural but it’s largely true that until quite recently, rural villages were largely left alone in the developmental discourse as the major cities absorbed the most capable—village life was sapped of its vitality; migration to the city via cheap labour or university entrance exam was the only upward mobility possible. Gong Jian and Li Jinghu’s art project Urban Rural Fringe Group (2012) is a great source of inspiration for this essay. For another example, the animation film Have a Nice Day (2017) by Liu Jia also captures the aesthetics of the urban-rural fringe very well (Da).

3. In some recent cases, Chinese city planning has learnt to build upon and gentrify these sites that are supposed to be outmoded by continuous modernisation itself instead of outright demolition.

4. Anna Greenspan has described Cara Wallis’s Technomobility as a relevant ethnographic account of this sociotechnical precariousness of “the floating population.”

5. Xiancheng is a different geographical concept from urban-rural fringe but the two concepts are almost identical in their imageries of aesthetics and sociality.

6. Chinese translation is my own.


WORKS CITED

Cai, Bo. “Wuhan Time is Torn Forward by Seconds” (originally in Chinese). ARTDBL, 27 Feb. 2020, mp.weixin.qq.com/s/6HLh3N5r-iEiAvNZTPa9TQ

Cockain, Alex. “Regarding Mr. Wu, a Dragon and Conversations in Traffic: Social Acceleration, Deceleration and Re-acceleration in Shanghai.” Time and Society, vol. 27 no. 3, 2018, pp. 363–383.

Da, Mengna. “A Darkly Comic Animated Film Set on China’s Urban-Rural Fringe.” Hyperallergic, 26 Jan. 2018.

Gong, Jian and Li Jinghu. “What is the Urban-Rural Fringe, and why is it the Urban-Rural fringe?” Urban Rural Fringe Group, 2012.

Goodman, Steve. “Fei Ch’ien Rinse Out: Sino-Futurist Under-Currency.” Pli, vol. 7, 1998, pp. 155–172.

Greenspan, Anna. Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Greenspan, Anna and Mikkel Bindslev. “Zones of Experimentation.” ŠUM: Journal for Contemporary Art Criticism and Theory, vol. 13, 2020, pp. 1873–1884.

Hui, Yuk. The Question Concerning Technology in China. Urbanomic Media, 2016.

Land, Nick. Shanghai Times. Urbanatomy Electronic. 2014.

Land, Nick. “Re-Animator.” 2011.

Lek, Lawrence. “Sinofuturism (1839–2046 AD).” https://zkm.de/en, 2016.

Liu, Jia. Have a Nice Day. Produced by Nezha Bros. Pictures and Le-joy Animation Studio. 17 Feb. 2017.

Lynteris, Christos. “The Prophetic Faculty of Epidemic Photography: Chinese Wet Markets and the Imagination of the Next Pandemic.” Visual Anthropology, vol. 29, no. 2, 2016, pp. 118–132.

Thouny, Christophe. “Waiting for the Messiah: The Becoming-Myth of Evangelion and Densha otoko.” Mechademia, vol. 4, no. 1, 2009, pp. 111–129.

From the Editor



From the Editor

Sean Guynes
Senior Editor, SFRA Review


The previous issue of SFRA Review appeared in February of this year. Then, there weren’t even a dozen cases in the U.S. Now, the U.S. is once again a world leader in deaths caused by political leaders’ stupidity and the need by citizens to rebel against authority. Huzzah to this America-made-great and, well, really sorry about those tens of thousands dead. Despite the shittiness of our times, I’m convinced this double issue of SFRA Review (the spring issue delayed by COVID) will bring some smiles even as many readers return to universities while administrators look away, put fingers in ears, and shout “LALALALA” in an effort to pretend it’s all going to go fine, just fine, nothing to see here.

New Review Website

As has become the chorus of the editor’s note the past few years, this issue brings with it the announcement of several changes—all, we hope, for the betterment of the Review. To begin with, you’ll hopefully have discovered our new home on the web at http://www.sfrareview.org.

Prior to the creation of this website, SFRA Review had made the important transition in the mid-2000s to an online publication, providing the PDF of each issue online for free; by the mid-2010s, the Review had gone entirely online, with no print option. But, even if a PDF is freely available, presenting a PDF as a downloadable link poses significant issues for contemporary journals publishing—and for the tens of authors published in each issue. For one, PDFs put on a website as a downloadable link are not text-searchable, even if the PDF, once downloaded, is. Say a scholar, reader, fan, or whomever is searching online for an essay on Israeli SF or a review of a certain work of scholarship. That’s how most of us begin our scholarly reviews. But an article in a 100+-page PDF (hosted as a downloadable file no less) won’t show up in your search. Moreover, at a time when the discoverability and shareability of scholarship is tied to a scholar’s ability to promote herself, to be “known” in academia, and thus to get further writing commissions and/or relevance in an increasingly irrelevantizing job market, the inaccessibility of a full-issue PDF impedes discoverability, makes shareability next to impossible (unless you cut up the PDF and host just your article on a personal website), and ultimately dissuades folks from contributing to a journal. I could go on, but you’re already bored.

Tl;dr—ours is a scholarly ecosystem in which digital presence makes or breaks a journal (often regardless of the content of the journal!). My day job is spent as the editorial coordinator for Michigan Publishing, part of which means managing a journals program with more than 35 online open access journals. And yet until last month I was helming a journal that, quite frankly, I’d have been embarrassed to have in the program I manage. But no more! We are online, our website looks not bad, and each article and review has a permalink (not a DOI yet, sadly) that ensures authors can share their work on social media and elsewhere. SFRA Review has stepped into the present (of online journals publishing). And we’re excited to see how this will augment and help our growth in the coming years.

Speaking of growth, some announcements.

Editorial Collective

First, as of this issue, SFRA Review has rethought the relationship between the editor and editorial staff. From now on, we are operating as an editorial collective divided into two groups: the general editors and the reviews editors. The reviews editors are the heart and blood of the journal, which properly retains the review focus of the publication in its title and endeavors to publish an increasingly number of fiction and media reviews in the coming year alongside the considerable number of nonfiction reviews we already publish. The main change is that, rather than attempting to divide editorial duties between a “managing” editor and “associate” editors—and recognizing that duties often overlap and that work tends to unfold more as a collective effort than as a neatly oiled machine—the general editors will all take the title of “editor,” with the lone exception of the lead editor whose goal is to guide the overall direction of the journal and ensure timely publication (when the world makes that possible). That person (this is awkward, but: me) will be called the senior editor, with the acknowledgment that this is not a position “above” other editors but rather a recognition that the journal needs an official representative to the SFRA. We have also begun discussing a process for replacing the senior editor, which will involve members of the editorial collective (general and review editors) nominating themselves and submitting their reasoning to the whole collective, which will vote for a new senior editor that must ultimately be approved by the SFRA Executive Committee. Collectivity rules; rules drool.

Active Calls for Papers

SFRA Review has endeavored these past few years to engage the wider scholarly SFF community through two means: (1) special issues on topics of particular relevance and importance to contemporary SFF studies, and (2) symposia collecting papers originally presented in person or virtually at conferences, institutes, symposia, and other scholarly gatherings of SFF studies nerds. The present issue provides an excellent example of what a solid special issue in SFRA Review can look like, thanks to the wonderful editing chops of Virginia L. Conn (recently PhD’d!).

At present, we have two calls for papers active.

Us in Flux: Community, Collaboration, and the Collective Imaginations of SF

The first is a special issue being edited in collaboration with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, which started the Us in Flux project in April to curate flash fiction SFF stories about the near-future ends of current crises and has included stories and interviews with authors like Nisi Shawl, Kij Johnson, Tochi Onyebuchi, Sarah Pinsker, Usman T. Malik, Ernest Hogan, and others. We have issued a call for papers for a special issue that builds on the Us in Flux stories through critical thinkpieces that address how SFF can help us figure out our shit and build a better future. The CFP can be found here: https://sfrareview.org/2020/07/31/51-1-cfp/. Abstracts for thinkpieces are due October 4, with full drafts of 2,000-3,000 words due November 29. Please consider joining this exciting collaboration!

Mormonism and SF

Much further in the future, and which I’ll plug more in a later issue, is a special issue edited by Adam McLain on Mormonism and speculative fiction. The CFP can be found here: https://sfrareview.org/2020/08/11/51-3-cfp/. Abstracts will be due March 1, 2021, with full drafts of 2,000-3,000 words (or more) due May 15, 2021.

In the future, please look out for a special issue CFP on Hungarofuturisms to be co-edited by Beata Gubacsi. The next issue, 50.4, will have two symposia, one spinning out of Lars Schmeink’s cyberpunk conference and the other from the German organization Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung’s annual conference in collaboration with German Popular Culture Studies Association.

SFRA Review is actively soliciting future special issues and conference symposia. Please reach out to the general editors to discuss possibilities for collaboration: https://sfrareview.org/submissions/.

In this Issue

In this issue, the editorial collective is happy to present not only an incredible article by former fiction reviews editor Jeremy Brett on information science in Fran Wilde’s Fire Opal Mechanism, plus the usual range of features, including Rachel Cordasco’s regular column on SFF in translation and an interview with up-and-coming scholar Julia Gatermann, but also a wide-ranging special issue on Sinofuturisms offering the brilliant insights of a dozen scholars from all over the world! Thanks to editor Virginia L. Conn for putting this together and editor Amandine Faucheux for helping with copyedits. Because the summer issue of each Review typically follows the annual SFRA conference, this issue features some Executive Committee musts, including the Treasurer’s report on SFRA’s financial situation and the Secretary’s report on the annual Executive Committee meeting. Moreover, although we couldn’t celebrate them in person, this issue presents to you the winners of SFRA’s annual awards, along with awards committee statements and the letters from each winner. Finally, but never least, you’ll also find an incredible number of reviews of recent works of SFF scholarship, and several fiction and media reviews.

Enjoy, share, and join us, won’t you?

Special Issue CFP / Mormonism and SF (March 1, 2021)


Mormonism and SF

Special Issue of SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3, Summer 2021

Edited by Adam McLain


Background

Since its inception in the early nineteenth century, Mormonism has shot for the stars. With angelic visitors, planetary afterlives, and astronomical texts written by ancient patriarchs, the theology and history of Mormonism is ripe for analysis and criticism through the lens of SF. In addition to the beliefs, practitioners of the religion—the largest denomination of which is formally known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with various smaller sects that use or engage with the same history and scriptures—have been and remain actively involved in the history and growth of SF. From staple science fiction authors like Orson Scott Card to contemporary authors like Brandon Sanderson and Shannon Hale, the genre has been shaped and will continue to be shaped by those who are practitioners and those who are adjacently connected to Mormonism broadly.

Submissions

SFRA Review seeks essays of c. 2,000-3,000 words for a special issue interrogating, analyzing, and critiquing the intersections of Mormonism and SF, where SF and Mormonism are understood in their broadest and most inclusive senses.

Submission should address but are not limited to:

• Early Mormonism and 19th century SF

Examples: Parley P. Pratt’s “A Dialogue between Joseph Smith and the Devil”, Nephi Anderson’s “Added Upon

• Mormonism and Latter-day Saints/Mormons represented in SF

Examples: The Expanse (Spaceship Nauvoo), Starcraft (Zarahemla Starport and Helaman Colony in Tracy Hickman’s Speed of Darkness), Battlestar Galactica, Angels in America

• SF texts by Mormon/Latter-day Saint authors

Examples in Literature: Orson Scott Card, Brandon Sanderson, Shannon Hale, D. J. Butler, Stephenie Meyer, James Dashner, Ally Condie, Brandon Mull, Chris Heimerdinger, Jessica Day George, Obert Skye, J. Scott Savage, Aprilynne Pike, David Farland/Wolverton, Tracy Hickman, Charlie N. Holmberg, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Richard Paul Evans, and more.

Examples in other media: Glen A. Larson (Battlestar Galactica), Justin Santistevan (Dragon Prince), Sanderson board games (The Reckoners; Mistborn: House War; Call to Adventure: Stormlight Archive), Mormon versions of classic board games (Settlers of Zarahemla, Count Your Blessings Monopoly, Missionary Risk, Trek to Zion), Sandy Petersen (a creator of Doom), and more.

• History of Mormon fantasy and science fiction institutions

Examples: The Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium; Leading Edge Magazine

• Mormon theology as SF

Examples: Planetary afterlives, angelic visitors, astronomy in the Book of Abraham, Saturday’s Warrior

For further reading on this topic, to help shape and springboard ideas, the editor suggests reading:

Michael R. Collings, “Refracted Visions and Future Worlds: Mormonism and Science Fiction,” Dialogue

Liz Busby’s recent five-part series on Mormon speculative fiction for the Association for Mormon Letters

Abstracts of c. 250 words and short author bios should be submitted by email to the special issue editor Adam McLain at adam.j.mclain@gmail.com using the subject line “Mormonism and SF Submission / Name Surname” by March 1, 2021.

Abstracts should clarify how the essay will engage with the intersections of Mormonism and SF, but prospective authors are encouraged to be creative in their approach to the questions raised by this special issue of SFRA Review. Authors will be notified of acceptance (or rejection) within two weeks.

If you are interested in writing an article for the special issue and would like to discuss it with the editor before submission of the abstract, please do so.

Accepted drafts of 2,000-3,000 words will be due in mid-May and should be prepared in MLA style with a Works Cited in MLA 8th edition. A full project timeline is listed below.

Timeline

March 1, 2021 = Abstracts due
March 15 = Authors notified of acceptance
May 15 = Drafts due to editor
June 15 = Edits on drafts returned to authors
July 15 = Second/Final draft due to editors
Early August = Publication of special issue in SFRA Review 51.3