Reading Chinese futures

In this age of communications and information technology, we take for granted that we have greatly expanded abilities to discover what other human beings are thinking and writing about the human journey. Often, however, a veil remains between continents and cultures. Too little translation is definitely an issue, but that may be just a symptom of too little listening to others outside our own comforting traditions.

I’m trying to break these habits, and I’m especially interested in reading more speculative fiction (SF) by female writers outside of the United States and Britain. What new visions and worlds do they reflect? What new solutions to problems or warnings or worries or hopes? I’d like to learn from their insights on the human condition, but I think the more interesting questions are out there on the far horizon. If we have more translations and access to SF works from other cultures, how will we influence each other and what perspectives will we hold in common regarding the shape of the future?

There are so many places one could start the pursuit of SF literature from other cultures, but why not start with China—a place with one of the oldest cultures and longest literary traditions–and one of the fastest-changing places in the world. A new essay at Clarkesworld by author and translator Ken Liu, “China Dreams: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction,” has some helpful insights to the streams of history affecting contemporary Chinese science fiction writers and their works even though Liu is quite clear that he cannot satisfactorily introduce and summarize all the work out there in a single essay. Still, it’s a good place to start if you want to identify a starting point for selecting Chinese fiction.

Liu’s essay quotes author, scholar and translator Xia Jia, reminding me that I had read one of her short stories quite some time ago, so I decided to start with her work. Here’s a summary of what you’ll find in three of her stories, translated into English by Liu.

A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” is a nice blend of science fiction and fantasy set in a deserted amusement park full of “ghosts” who are not exactly ghosts as we usually understand them, but are cyborgs or robots that contain the souls of human beings. The story is told from the point of view of a boy who is cared for by the ghosts and thinks he is the only human living in the park, having been abandoned there as a baby. The amusement park is perfect setting for the appearance of fantastic oddities, like a giant Yaksha demon as well as a very domestic cyborg who tenderly cares for the narrator as though he’s her child. There is reference to many things in the story that I’m sure I didn’t appreciate due to not knowing much about Chinese culture, but the story holds up even so. It’s a touching, painful story about life on different terms and life in death as well as death in life.

Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy,” is a series of vignettes about common people who are celebrating the spring festival. Again, elements of fantasy and science fiction are blended here and the characters wrestle with problems that vex us all, such as dating, reunions and reality TV. The author presents advanced technologies without judgment, keeping responsibility for actions in the hands of the human characters even though the characters exhibit traits that indicate they might not be as common as they seemed.

Tongtong’s Summer” is a sweet story about a young girl and her relationship with her sick grandfather. Virtual reality technologies provide the setting for examining the possibilities for the care of the elderly. The story’s narrative holds true to the understanding one would expect from a young protagonist, but the infodump about the motion sensitive body suits and the robots are a bit clunky. The positive perspective on the use of the technology makes this story a good fit for Project Hieroglyph.

These pieces of Xia Jia’s SF work are all human-scaled and hopeful. Her futures are ones we can be fairly confident of navigating, and I was intrigued by characters who seemed very normal at first, but then become just a little more than human. A few more twists in the plots would have increased the tension in the stories, but I enjoyed her visions of a fantastic future.








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