Interview. We spoke with Chen Qiufan, one of the most prominent contemporary Chinese science fiction writers. Sometimes called the ‘Chinese William Gibson,’ his work explores ‘the strangeness in everyday life.’

In the kaleidoscope of Chinese cyberpunk

The success of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (published in Italy by Mondadori) has brought with it great interest in Chinese science fiction, including from the international media. However, while Liu—in his main work—comes across as an author of sci-fi pure and simple (what is called “hard science fiction”), in China a new generation of authors, the balinghou (“those born in the ‘80s”), increasingly connected and able to recognize and follow international trends, are affirming themselves through works that explore “possible presents,” short stories and novels which show a future that in China is already a reality.

This is a new wave of great impact: these authors are in the privileged role (but not without its pitfalls) of investigating a reality like China’s, already dystopian in many of its features (for instance, social credit scores, video surveillance, the use of robots in factories).

Chen Qiufan—in whose work one finds cyberpunk elements, to such an extent that he has been called “the Chinese William Gibson”—is one of the most important of these authors at the moment. His body of work (composed so far of one novel and short stories) deals with real problems: the evolution of apps, the consequences of pollution, the control of information, all inserted into futuristic plots and developments. This kind of “augmented realism” is able to describe the anthropological complications inherent in the process that is transforming China into an increasingly technological society: instead of describing possible futures, Chen investigates the potential changes at the human level arising from facing a world—the Chinese world—that is now becoming accelerated in every aspect.

In his first novel, The Waste Tide, he describes the dystopia of a state able to impose itself on a global scale, but not to ensure the well-being of its population, where workers are transformed into cyborgs so that they are perfect workers without making too many “human” demands.

How has China, which at times seems to have already gone into the realm of science fiction, influenced your work?

The pace of Chinese society has seen an incredible acceleration in the past 20 years, and although now it seems to have slowed down, the momentum was enormous. We will see a swelling tide of changes in all fields: technology, economy, culture, social structure and ethics. People appear to be anxious about these changes, which are not easy to grasp.

As science fiction writers, we are good at simulating different scenarios created by exploring the question of “what if?” and thinking through it accordingly. The changes that we are seeing now, we have already tried them out many times in imagined worlds. On the other hand, it is difficult to describe the whole of China from a single starting premise. Today, the country is very unbalanced in many aspects. Going from the most developed megalopolises like Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen to the most rural provinces in the northwest is like travelling between different planets. One thing is certain: the Chinese are very flexible regarding emerging new technologies, and they can use all these services comfortably to manage tasks or improve their quality of life. But conflicts will arise between the totalitarian state and the self-realization of individuals, and the tension can be built up, or dissipated, by the application of technology.

There is talk of a “new wave” in Chinese science fiction. How would you describe your own work, in which one also finds features typical of cyberpunk?

I would never put a particular label or a specific name on my work. “Science fiction realism” is an expression that I find a bit unfortunate. I think for the most part it’s just a shorthand for the media to interpret the message we are trying to convey. Compared to traditional “realism,” which seems maladapted or insensitive toward a life influenced by technology, “sci-fi realism” is more critical of reality and more able to reveal the complex relationship between technology and contemporary life, such as the transformation of individual and human nature and the consequences of such a transformation.

In “The Smog Society,” which I wrote in 2006, I predicted the possibility that Beijing would suffer from air pollution, imagining the effects on people’s lives and psychology. However, I do not want to be called a “writer of science-fiction realism.” All I want is to write good stories that move readers, regardless of whether they are “science fiction” or not. Labels are very important to the publishers, the media and critics. My goal has always been to surprise the reader.

How can your work help one understand contemporary China?

I never tried to emphasize the political and social metaphors in my work. I write about the aspects of Chinese life that I see and that I experience myself, some good, some not so good. I am often surprised by how critics can read a deeper meaning in my stories, one that I had not thought of. I think one of the most important qualities in a writer is sensitivity: the ability to capture the strangeness in everyday life. This is especially important in contemporary China, where it is easy to get lost in the kaleidoscopic confusion of lives that are constantly changing. We all grew up in an international environment, especially myself, as my hometown is very close to Hong Kong. And now I live in Shanghai, another international city. So everything that we learn and live through there is mostly quite similar to what one encounters in New York, Paris, Tokyo. We must be very careful not to lose our uniqueness.

In “The Fish of Lijiang”—but also in other stories—you write about people doing very hard work. It is a defining trait of your generation: self-realization only through work, dealing with the pressures. How you use these elements to describe the alienation of young Chinese people today?

My generation includes the workers at Foxconn, who, day after day, repeating the same movements on the assembly line, are now indistinguishable from robots. But it also includes the sons and daughters of the wealthy and high-ranking Communist officials, the “princes” who treat luxury as their birthright and have enjoyed every advantage in life. It includes the entrepreneurs willing to leave behind guaranteed salaries of millions of dollars to pursue a dream, and the hundreds of graduates who compete ruthlessly for one important job. It includes the “foreign lackeys,” who worship the American way of life so much that their only purpose in life is to emigrate to the United States, as well as the “50 cent party” of xenophobes who denigrate democracy and place all their hopes on a more powerful and rising China. I don’t think it is correct to put all these people under one label.

You are working on the TV series Eros, which will air in 2019—what can you tell us about it?

It will be set in the near future, in a society that allows people to find their romantic counterparts only through an algorithm. Otherwise one will be punished with a low social credit score. I would say it is a series of exciting and original Chinese science fiction that could change the rules of the game, since not many people in the film industry have confidence in our science fiction.

Which writers inspire you?

The works of Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke had a great influence on me when I was a child; and since then, I read the works of George Orwell, Cormac McCarthy, JD Salinger, William Gibson, Paul Bacigalupi, Ken Liu, David Mitchell, Peter Hessler, Alan Moore, Chuck Palahniuk, Dan Simmons, JG Ballard, Don DeLillo, Laoshe, Liu Cixin and Zhang Dachun.

I am a Cantonese with a healthy appetite, and I can swallow up anything.

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