The revival of science fiction in China
Science fiction isn’t new to China, as Cixin Liu explains in Invisible Planets, an introduction to Chinese sci-fi by some of its most prominent authors, but good science fiction is. The first Chinese sci-fi tales appeared at the turn of the 20th century, written by intellectuals fascinated by Western technology. ‘At its birth,’ Cixin writes, science fiction ‘became a tool of propaganda for the Chinese who dreamed of a strong China free of colonial depredations’. One of the earliest stories was written by the scholar Liang Qichao, a leader of the failed Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898, and imagined a Shanghai World’s Fair, a dream that didn’t become a reality until 2010. Perhaps surprisingly, given the degree of idealistic fervour that followed Mao’s accession, very little utopian science fiction was produced under communism (in the Soviet Union there was plenty, at least initially). What little there was in China was written largely for children and intended to educate; it stuck to the near future and didn’t venture beyond Mars. By the 1980s Chinese authors had begun to write under the influence of Western science fiction, but their works were suppressed because they drew attention to the disparity in technological development between China and the West. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when Deng’s reforms began to bite, that Chinese science fiction experienced what Cixin calls a ‘renaissance’.
Cixin himself has been at the forefront of the scene since the 1990s. He is the first Asian writer to receive a Hugo award (in 2015), and the author whose work best captures the giddying, libidinous pace of the Chinese economic boom. His monumental Three-Body Trilogy – first published between 2006 and 2010, and recently translated into English by Ken Liu, a Chinese-American sci-fi writer – is Chinese science fiction’s best-known work. Barack Obama is a fan, and the forthcoming movie adaptations are already being described as ‘China’s Star Wars’. The trilogy concerns the catastrophic consequences of humanity’s attempt to make contact with extraterrestrials (it turns out that the reason we haven’t heard from aliens yet is that we’re the only species thick enough to reveal our own location in the universe). It is one of the most ambitious works of science fiction ever written. The story begins during the Cultural Revolution and ends 18,906,416 years into the future. There is a scene in ancient Byzantium, and a scene told from the perspective of an ant. The first book is set on Earth, though several of its scenes take place in virtual reality representations of Qin dynasty China and ancient Egypt; by the end of the third book, the stage has expanded to encompass an intercivilisational war that spans not only the three-dimensional universe but other dimensions too.