03.09.2021 07:00 AM
Sci-Fi Writer or Prophet? The Hyperreal Life of Chen Qiufan
As China’s science fiction authors are elevated to the status of oracles, Qiufan’s career—and his genre’s place in society—have gone through the looking glass.
Chen Qiufan wants his writing to provoke a sense of both wonder and estrangement, like a “fun-house mirror, reflecting real light in a way that is more dazzling to the eyes.” Photograph: Yilan Deng
When Chen Qiufan took a trip to the southwest Chinese province of Yunnan 15 years ago, he noticed that time seemed to slow down as he reached the city of Lijiang. Chen was a recent college graduate with a soul-sucking real estate job in the pressure-cooker metropolis of Shenzhen, and Lijiang was a backpacker’s refuge. Wandering through the small city, he was enchanted by the serrated rows of snow-capped mountains on the horizon and the schools of fish swimming through meandering canals. But he was also unnerved by the throngs of city dwellers like himself—burned out, spiritually lost, adrift. He wove his observations together into a short story called “ The Fish of Lijiang,” about a depressed office worker who travels to a vacation town, only to discover that everything is artificially engineered—from the blue sky to the fish in the streams to the experience of time itself.
Chen has since gone on to pen many more stories, win virtually every sci-fi literary award in China, and establish himself as a leading voice among the country’s growing roster of acclaimed writers in the genre. But unlike Liu Cixin, the lionized author of The Three Body Problem, who grapples with the faraway grandeur of outer space, Chen is drawn more to the interior lives of characters struggling to anchor themselves in a moment of accelerated change—much the way nearly anyone in China struggles to anchor themselves today. His work is often described as “science fiction realism.”
At the beginning of his writing process, Chen says, he often tries to act like “an anthropologist conducting fieldwork.” Before writing his debut novel, The Waste Tide, a 2013 eco-thriller about a workers’ uprising in a futuristic dump called Silicon Isle, Chen spent time in the southeastern city of Guiyu, one of the world’s largest dumping grounds for electronic waste, observing migrant workers toil in the toxin-laden trash. Once he has a feel for a given landscape in the real world, he transports the scene into what he calls the imagined “hyperreal”—a zone where the fantastical and factual are so blurred it is unclear where one begins and one ends. (In the novel, one of his main characters transforms into a cyborg, having become subsumed into the world of waste.) He wants his writing to provoke a sense of both wonder and estrangement, like a “fun-house mirror, reflecting real light in a way that is more dazzling to the eyes.”
But in the past few years—a period that has seen China’s sci-fi authors elevated to the status of New Age prophets—Chen’s own career has become an object in the fun-house mirror. After The Waste Tide garnered widespread attention at home and abroad, reviewers began praising Chen as the “William Gibson of China,” and the tech industry has embraced him as a kind of oracle. An institute run by AI expert and venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee’s company has even developed an algorithm capable of writing fiction in the author’s voice. (Chen’s recent short story “The State of Trance,” which includes passages generated by the AI, nabbed first prize in a Shanghai literary competition moderated by an artificially intelligent judge, beating an entry written by Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mo Yan.) In China, it is the place of science fiction itself—and the status of writers like Chen—that have taken a turn toward the hyperreal.
Born in the ’80s, in the wake of China’s opening up and reform movement, Chen grew up during a moment of exhilarating upheaval: The market economy was introduced, state control over culture loosened, and Western ideas flowed freely into the country—from McDonald’s to rock ’n’ roll to Star Wars. He lived in the city of Shantou, in the culturally diverse, coastal region of Chaoshan, Guangdong, close to the Hong Kong border, with easy access to foreign entertainment. As a teen, he would devour golden-age sci-fi classics by Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov that his father, an engineer, brought home for him, and he would watch a movie a day, buying bootleg DVDs of Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I was a young boy who liked to ask, ‘Why?’ and so I turned to science for answers,” Chen says. “But when science couldn’t explain everything, I turned to science fiction.”
But the very reforms that brought intergalactic epics to China also ushered in the myth of capitalism—the belief that “to get rich is glorious.” Along with it came rampant corruption, pollution, and inequality. China transformed from a nation of communes and Mao jackets into a land of Gucci-wearing super-tycoons and migrant workers hustling in Nike sweatshops. While most people were dazzled by the bounty of China’s economic boom, Chen was ambivalent. In his first short story, “The Bait,” which he wrote as a precocious high schooler, aliens arrive on Earth, give humans an invaluable new technology, and eventually enslave them with it.
“I was a young boy who liked to ask, ‘Why?’ and so I turned to science for answers,” Chen says. “But when science couldn’t explain everything, I turned to science fiction.” Photograph: Yilan Deng
By the time Chen graduated from Peking University in 2004, China was perched on the edge of another revolution—the internet boom—and the Chinese people had bought into another myth: that technology had the power to change the world for good. After completing a dual degree in Chinese literature and film arts and enduring a brief and dispiriting stint in real estate, he left to work in the tech industry, first in advertising at Baidu, then in marketing at Google, all the while writing science fiction on the side. In 2008, Chen emailed the Chinese American science fiction writer Ken Liu to express admiration for his work. The two became online friends, and in 2011, Liu offered to translate “The Fish of Lijiang” into English. That small, serendipitous idea would kick-start Liu’s role as the preeminent English translator of Chinese sci-fi, and in turn set the stage for the genre’s booming global popularity. (Liu went on to translate not only Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem but also a diverse range of new voices, from Hao Jingfang to Xia Jia to Ma Boyong.)
Chen, still moonlighting as an author, kept taking jobs in tech into the 2010s. In 2013 he returned to Baidu to work in product marketing and strategy, then joined the marketing team at a virtual-reality startup in Beijing two years later. He was enchanted by the tech world’s wide-eyed idealism and its central belief that a product, if scaled and optimized, could transform the lives of billions. But he also intuited that those ideals were “ultimately hollow at the core,” Chen says. In 2017 he quit his job in VR to write full-time.
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By then, though, such a move didn’t exactly qualify as stepping off the treadmill. Indeed, in the past five years, China has become a nation obsessed with its own science fiction. What was once a niche subculture with a small circle of hardcore fans has blossomed into a full-fledged 66 billion yuan ($10 billion) industry of films, books, video games, and theme parks. In 2015, Liu Cixin had become the first Chinese writer to win a Hugo Award, for The Three Body Problem. The next year, Hao Jingfang became the first Chinese woman to win a Hugo, for her novelette Folding Beijing. The Wandering Earth, a 2019 film adaptation of a story by Liu Cixin, earned more than $300 million in its first week after release and would become China’s fourth-highest-grossing film ever. Once dismissed as frivolous children’s literature, science fiction now commands the attention of all kinds of enterprises hoping to profit from its popularity: film studios hungry for screenplay fodder, universities setting up sci-fi research institutions, talent agencies eager to jump on the bandwagon, tech companies keen to borrow the genre’s aura of profundity, and even government officials looking to ennoble the national project of innovation.
In hindsight, the ascendancy of sci-fi in Chinese literature seems almost inevitable. After all, walking the streets of Beijing today can feel like inhabiting a cyberpunk fiction: Bright yellow shared bikes line the streets, facial recognition cameras hang on street lamps, robot servers deliver hot-pot dinners to your table. Liu Cixin has compared present-day China to the US after World War II, “when science and technology filled the future with wonder.” It’s also a time when science and technology have filled the present with a sense of estrangement, ennui, and anxiety, and a writer like Chen is a natural chronicler of that tension.
But for the people working in the genre, the sudden crush of attention and esteem has been vertiginous. “None of us had the goal of taking over the world,” says Emily Jin, a translator and protégé of Ken Liu who has worked closely with Chen. “We’re just a bunch of nerds having fun together.” In China, where rapid technological change keeps transfiguring the world beyond recognition, “one of the most important qualities in a writer is sensitivity—the ability to capture the strangeness in everyday life,” Chen says. And it can be hard to maintain that sensitivity when you’re squinting under the spotlights.
Chen turns 40 this year, but at first glance—lithe and graceful, sporting candy-colored Adidas high-tops—he could easily pass as a man in his twenties. He is cerebral, wry, and soft-spoken. Chen lives in Shanghai but came to Beijing for two weeks in October, where I meet him at a café. He switches seamlessly between languages (English and Mandarin), dialects (Teochew and Cantonese), and names (Chen Qiufan and Stanley Chan). He moves with ease between conversation topics, from autonomous terrorism to his trip to Burning Man, and midway through our discussion of Taoist philosophy, he excuses himself to take a quick call from his investment adviser. He also reads voraciously—citing Aldous Huxley, the Chinese novelist Lao She, and a 10,000-word academic paper on asteroid mining.
When I see him next, he’s standing on a neon-lit stage in the banquet hall of the Grand Millennium Hotel, a slab of glass and steel in Beijing’s central business district, giving a speech titled “Mind Reset and Embracing the Unknown: The Way of Science Fiction” to an audience of suited-up professionals. The Financial Times organized the conference, inviting a lineup of modern-day oracles—the CEO of a health care startup, a professor of economics, a machine-learning expert, and Chen—to prognosticate about the near future. To dress up for the occasion, Chen put on a blazer but kept the high-tops.
His visit to Beijing in October was packed with similar engagements. Tencent, the tech monolith behind China’s super app WeChat, had invited Chen—again, a literature major—to predict developments in genetic engineering alongside a panel of world-class biophysicists, because he once wrote a story about genetically modified Neo Rats. Kai-Fu Lee summoned him to the glassy offices of his company, Sinovation Ventures, to join a panel on AI-human cooperation in the creative arts and to demonstrate the algorithm that writes fiction like Chen.
It is no surprise that Lee tapped Chen to participate in the panel. The two are collaborating on a book, AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future, to be published this fall. Pairing Chen’s speculative fiction with Lee’s real-life technical perspective, the book explores how artificial intelligence will transform humankind and the global order in the next 20 years, in areas ranging from contactless dating to natural language processing to job displacement. “Computer scientists and science fiction writers don’t speak the same language. If I describe how speech recognition works, it’ll go right over people’s heads,” Lee tells me in a glass-walled conference room called Back to the Future (all the rooms at Sinovation are named after science fiction films: Total Recall, Cloud Atlas, Star Trek). “I needed a writing partner who understands the technology but can also tell a good story.”
“I tend toward darker endings, and Kai-Fu toward the positive,” Chen says. “He thinks of the narrative as a step-by-step process, like a manual, and I prefer to preserve a story’s ambiguity.”
Given all the time he spent at tech companies, Chen is both insider and outsider in an environment like Lee’s; he’s fluent in the language of data and metrics and KPIs. But it’s not just that he’s at home in tech. I’ve noticed that in any new environment, Chen is observant and open-minded, careful to absorb its rules and rituals before synthesizing them as his own. Zipping from one engagement to the next, I watched him make a straight-laced professor feel at ease, charm a hippie Mongolian shaman over lunch, then pen an op-ed for a state-run newspaper at night.
This ability to move between disparate worlds has proved useful for navigating more perilous waters: Chinese politics. In China, writers have to be sensitive not only to commercial pressures but also to shifting political winds, evading the ever watchful eyes of the censors. They have to gauge what the government is thinking, pay attention to developments on the international stage, and discern what to play up and play down, what is OK to write, what is not, and when. In addition to capturing the attention of profit seekers, science fiction’s popularity has piqued the interest of the authorities, who are eager to use its skyrocketing profile to boost their own agendas. “If I’m speaking to the government, I emphasize the importance of sci-fi as a tool to strengthen innovation and promote creativity. I fill my message with zheng neng liang,” Chen says wryly, quoting a hackneyed catchphrase of officialdom. “How do you say that in English?”
“Positive energy,” I respond.
Although Chen’s The Waste Tide can be read as a dark and scathing critique of the government’s failure to deal with ecological destruction, the novel can just as easily be interpreted as a criticism of American hypocrisy, a manifesto against global consumerism, or simply an apolitical exploration of post-human consciousness. “With science fiction, I can probe real-life issues through an imaginary narrative,” Chen says, “without explicitly arguing who is right or wrong, good or evil.”
Lately, though, the leeway afforded to cultural expression seems to be tightening even further. In recent years, authorities have scrubbed the internet clean of not only sensitive political content such as the Three T’s—Tibet, Tiananmen, and Taiwan—but also anything the party deems immoral, from tattoos and one-night stands to hip hop. Last summer, film authorities issued a set of guidelines on how to make sci-fi films, urging filmmakers to “highlight Chinese values,” “cultivate Chinese innovation,” and “thoroughly study and implement Xi Jinping thought.” These measures have made writers and publishers more paranoid about making a misstep. (Last year, Chen wanted to write a story about Californian independence, but he was advised against it by his publishers for fear that it would not get past the censors. “It wasn’t even about China,” he exclaims, rolling his eyes.)
Abroad, China’s science fiction writers find themselves caught in a tug-of-war between competing geopolitical agendas. The Western world has always perceived China as a monolith, reading Chinese literature through the lens of Western dreams and fears and viewing Chinese authors as either romantic dissidents clashing with the regime or soft-power tools parroting the Party’s agenda. Recent developments—the US-China trade war, conflicts with Huawei and ZTE, closed borders, and China’s aggressive posture as a technological superpower—have only exacerbated the situation. Hawkish academics pen reductive op-eds with subtitles such as “To Know What the Chinese Are Really Up To, Read the Futuristic Novels of Liu Cixin,” as if one novel could demystify a nation of a billion people. Whereas five years ago President Obama touted The Three Body Problem as a must-read, last September, Republican senators condemned its Netflix adaptation, criticizing Liu for his politics.
“We do the works a disservice when we focus on the geopolitics alone,” Ken Liu has written. But as much as China’s science fiction writers aspire to transcend the boundaries of nationalism, they find themselves swept into a whirlpool of forces outside of their control. According to Chen, the timing of The Three Body Problem’s publication was crucial. If it had come out today instead of in 2008—the days of bilateral relations, economic cooperation, and the Beijing Olympics—perhaps it would be censored by the Chinese government or condemned by the American one, targeted by both. “I stay away from politics, because—what do I know?” Chen says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just being pulled along by the strings of history.”
Sunday evening, at the end of Chen’s jam-packed time in Beijing, we share a Didi ride from the Tencent headquarters back to the city center. I can tell he’s exhausted. “Nap a little?” I ask. He nods, and we both pull out our headphones. I listen to Bon Iver; he tunes in to a meditation app, carving out a rare period of stillness after a long day.
For a moment, I’m reminded of a passage toward the end of “The Fish of Lijiang,” when the protagonist discovers schools of fish swimming in the waterways. At first sight, they seem to be hovering calmly in the water, but as he looks closer he sees they are struggling to maintain their position. Once in a while, a fish gets pushed out of formation. “But soon,” the passage continues, “tails fluttering, they fight their way back into place.”
Late last year, 15 years after his first visit, Chen returned to Lijiang to find that it had transformed. The city had morphed into the fictionalized Lijiang of his story—a digitized tourist hub where self-driving cars shuttle smartphone-toting visitors around town and local delicacies are served up by automated bots.
“Today we live in a world dominated by technology,” Chen says. “Where everything is driven by data, productivity, metrics.” In China, with a swipe of a touchscreen, you can order a Luckin coffee that appears wordlessly at your doorstep and hail a nameless Didi driver whenever you want to go somewhere. We turn to algorithms for all the answers: where to eat, what to watch, who to love. The tech industry has learned how to monetize not only consumer goods but also experiences, attention, relationships. In many ways, we’ve become just like our devices—efficient, optimizable, operating faster than ever, caught in the endless churn of increasing productivity. But nobody knows to what end.
In any new environment, Chen is observant and open-minded, careful to absorb its rules and rituals before synthesizing them as his own. Photograph: Yilan Deng
Of course, this is happening everywhere, but in China the transformation has been faster, vaster, and more bewildering. There’s even a word for this sense of sped-up purposelessness today—an arcane, academic term that has exploded on Chinese social media and popped up in Chen’s speeches: involution. The opposite of evolution, a process of involution spirals in on itself, trapping its participants. Originally used by anthropologists to describe the dynamics that prevent agrarian societies from progressing, the term has become a shorthand used by people from all walks of life: tech workers clocking long hours at the office, delivery workers hustling from one gig to another, high school students toiling over college entrance exams. Technological progress has humanity caught in an inward-turning shell. Fifteen years after “The Fish of Lijiang,” everyone, like the story’s burned-out wanderers, is lost, adrift and desperately looking for something to hold onto. “The times have changed,” Chen says. “And the story needs to be renewed.”
So Chen has returned to the drawing board, doing what he does best: going out into the world and observing, gathering material for his next project. Lately he’s been interested in shamans. He’s gone on several field trips, interviewing and shadowing shamans, in hopes of understanding the rites, rituals, and traditions of China’s Buddhist and Taoist past. Last summer he met a shaman named Aodeng Toya through a WeChat group, and the two became fast friends. He stayed with her in Mongolia and spent a night at the foot of the sacred Bogd Khan mountain, where thousands of villagers gathered to pray to the mountain gods—drinking, eating, and dancing under the stars. For most of the year, Toya practices in Beijing, helping urbanites through all kinds of spiritual ailments. “Depression, overwork, bad luck with love, to ward off evil spirits, to commune with the dead,” she tells Chen and me over lunch. “I’m booked up every day for the next month.”
In our accelerated transition to a technological culture, Chen believes that we’ve lost so much—our relationship to our bodies, to nature, to our roots, to our faiths—and he has set out in search of them. “Shamans used to predict the weather, prevent disease, counsel leaders, show us how to coexist with the natural world,” he says. “Today, technological tools have replaced those functions, but not all. Why do we still go to them? What are we looking for?” We thought we could divine, precisely and quantifiably, where we’re headed, but instead find ourselves hurtling toward an increasingly precarious future: skyrocketing housing prices, soaring unemployment, deepening inequality, accelerating climate change, and a shattering global pandemic.
It’s not surprising, then, that people are turning to shamans—and to science fiction. “They are treating sci-fi as an anchor to reality and science fiction writers as prophets, to help them make meaning of an unfolding future and navigate a treacherous world,” says Emily Jin, Chen’s translator. How do we reclaim meaning and purpose in the age of computers? What does spirituality look like when everything is mechanized and mass produced? When our lives are so deeply embedded in our devices, how do we preserve what makes us human? “As a result of all this attention, science fiction writers have been given a burden,” says Jing Tsu, a professor of comparative literature at Yale. “To be the soothsayers of technological salvation.”
But Chen is not a soothsayer, he’s a writer. And writers need time to write. “With all these panels and talks and attention, Chinese science fiction writers could find themselves stretched thin, eviscerated of their creative energy,” Tsu says. “If science fiction is to have a future in China, they need a space to create and keep maturing.”
Chen has ambitious goals for 2021: to wrap up his collaboration with Kai-Fu Lee, continue his research on shamans, and write a sequel to The Waste Tide. But he also wants to go home to Shantou to visit his parents (he didn’t get to see them much during the pandemic), find a few months of quiet in the Cangshan mountains, and maybe return to rock climbing. Like the rest of us, he has no idea where things are headed. What he does know is that he needs to slow down, find things to hold onto, and remember what makes him human: taking the time to swim against the current, fighting his way back into place.
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