Healthy Words

Science Fiction from China

In 1902, Lu Xun translated Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon into Chinese from the Japanese edition. Science fiction, he wrote in the preface, was “as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time.” Not any more. The Three-Body Trilogy by Liu Cixin has sold 500,000 copies in China since the first volume was published in 2006 (it will come out in English in the autumn). Liu, an engineer, is one of the so-called “three generals” of contemporary Chinese science fiction, along with Wang Jinkang and Han Song.

“Sci fi,” Han says, “can express a lot that can’t be expressed in other literature.” His most recent collection of stories, High Speed Rail, begins with a train crash that recalls the politically sensitive rail collision in Wenzhou in July 2011. In an earlier novella, Taiwan Drifts, Taiwan has broken free from its moorings and is on a literal collision course with the mainland. Unsurprisingly, much of Han’s work isn’t published in the People’s Republic.

Nor is The Fat Years (2009) by Chan Koonchung. Set in 2013, it depicts an “age of Chinese ascendancy” following a massive global financial crash. But the month-long crackdown that launched the golden era is missing from the population’s collective memory, and the water supply is probably spiked with a drug to keep everyone mildly euphoric. “The people fear chaos more than they fear dictatorship,” a high-ranking Party official says.

But not being published in China doesn’t mean not being read. A lot of “unpublished” sci fi is freely available online, and censors are engaged in a permanent game of cat-and-mouse with allusive writers and readers alert to disguised meanings. “For a long time,” Chan told me, “Chinese intellectuals used history as a fable to talk about the present. Now, the newer generation is using science fiction to write about the present.” (There are a few venerable precedents: Cat Country by Lao She was published in 1932; an English translation came out last year. It’s set in a Martian civilization of cat-like people addicted to “reverie leaves,” oppressed by both physically stronger foreigners and the architects of “Everybody Shareskyism.”)

Many of China’s science fiction writers are relatively young. The 32-year-old Chen Qiufan won two Xingyun awards (the equivalent of the Nebula) last year for The Waste Tide, set in the 2020s on an electronic waste recycling island off the Chinese coast called Silicon Isle, modeled on recycling villages such as Guiyu in southern China. The novel also features a wealth gap and environmental problems that have spiraled out of control. “If you wrote these things in the mainstream,” Chen told me, “they couldn’t be published.”

The political charge of the genre shouldn’t be exaggerated, however. There is a well-established mainland market for sci fi, and the bulk of it is straightforward tales of robots and aliens. Many of them appear in Science Fiction World magazine. Founded in 1979, it has around 200,000 readers, most of them schoolchildren and college students. Its circulation has halved over the past decade as readers have migrated online.

The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong appeared in Science Fiction World in 2005. It’s set in an authoritarian state in 2046 where life is lived almost entirely online, with all communication restricted to a rapidly diminishing “list of healthy words.” The protagonist stumbles on a “talking club” where unhappy citizens meet in secret to speak freely (and have sex with each other). The story has been reposted in various places online since the recent crackdown on web freedom, including measures last summer against “rumor spreading” on the Weibo microblogging service.

In another satire posted by a netizen on a social media site, an upgrade of the Great Firewall called GFW Turbo becomes self-aware and starts to censor keywords uncontrollably. A national ministry is established to resist the renegade software, but fails. The story is written in the form of a diary, and the last entry, from 2025, ends with the announcement: “Comrades, in all online language there is only one term left: ‘sensitive word’!”