In 1873 Jules Verne described the remarkable possibility of a journey made around the world in only eighty days in his pioneering eponymous science fiction novel of that title. Less than a century later the same journey could be made in less than eighty hours. The facility of science fiction to help us absorb the future-shock of such radical and high paced technological change goes someway to explaining its influence in the contemporary culture of the developed world. And as developing nations are swept in the tsunami of new technologies shaping the 21st century, they culture of science fiction becomes a global language describing our shared experience.
China is managing a technological revolution on a scale unprecedented in human history. In just a few decades it has navigated stages of technological development that proceeded over centuries in Europe. As is well documented, it now challenges in economic and industrial might that other behemoth of high-speed technological development – the United States of America. So it’s not entirely surprising that among the many models for development China has imported from America, is the cultural influence of science fiction.
In October 2012 the World Chinese Science Fiction Association will award it’s annual Xingyun (Galaxy) Awards for SF. The Xingyun are similar to the American dominated Hugo awards, and will be given in Beijing, at a convention only slightly smaller than the WorldCon at which the Hugo awards will be announced just two months earlier. But in other regards Chinese SF fandom dwarfs its American counterpart. SF World magazine claimed at its peak a circulation of over 300,000 copies, with millions of readers receiving the magazine second hand from friends. It’s a scale no American SF publication has reached since the Golden Age of magazine fiction publishing in the 1950s, when Amazing Stories defined Science Fiction as a genre.
Liu Cixin is unarguably the leading voice in Chinese science fiction. An eight time winner of the Xingyun award, his work has been celebrated for setting the positive, forward looking character of Chinese SF. It’s another notable echo of America’s Golden Age, when writers like Robert Heinlein expressed America’s post-war future as a global super-power. By the 1980’s with the emergence of cyberpunk authors including Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, American science fiction reflected a far darker vision of technologies impact on the human condition, one dominated by hyper-capitalism and political corruption. Will Chinese SF take a similar turn in to darkness and cynicism? For now it is content on the whole to explore the manifold wondrous possibilities technology holds for our future.
Liu Cixin shares a background in the hard sciences and computer technology with the majority of the readers of his stories and of Chinese SF as a whole. As a literary genre SF does little to please the reactionary audience for contemporary literary fiction. But through the 20th century it emerged as the culture of choice for the people doing the hands on work of making the future happen – the engineers, programmers, designers and various creatives most exposed to future-shock. It’s the geeks who love SF, in books, comics, films and video games. And as geeks have taken over the world, geek culture has become inextricably part of mainstream culture, so that now ideas born in SF, of space travel, intelligent machines and cyber-enhanced humans, have become common place.
What in the West evolved as an outsider culture has in China been embraced as an essential component of technological development. In a 2011 talk at the British Library world famous author Neil Gaiman explained his perspective on the transformation of science fiction from subversive outsider art to government approved culture in Chinese society. China has established itself as the powerhouse of global manufacturing. But it also wants to invent and design the products it manufactures, and to capture the creative ingenuity that still resides primarily in the United States. The geek culture that powers that creativity is a culture in love with science fiction, and to encourage one means implicitly to encourage the other.
The century ahead of us promises to deliver only more and faster technological change. And China is, all agree, where that change will come fastest. The culture of science fiction will undoubtedly become a culture influenced and perhaps dominated by Chinese creators. The role of science fiction then is to continue to communicate the accelerating rate of change shaping the world we all share.
Damien Walter is a writer of weird fiction, Guardian columnist and activist for reading and literacy. His stories have been published in genre and literary publications including the Hugo award winning Electric Velocipede and broadcast on BBC Radio. He is course director of Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.