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Building Big Brother: China’s new frontier

Science+fiction+author+Stanley+Chan%2C+Chinese+Studies+Program+head+Li+Jin%2C+Associate+Dean+John+Shanahan+and+School+of+Computing+professor+Xiaoping+Jia+discuss+fiction+and+innovation.
Science fiction author Stanley Chan, Chinese Studies Program head Li Jin, Associate Dean John Shanahan and School of Computing professor Xiaoping Jia discuss fiction and innovation.

Science fiction author Stanley Chan, Chinese Studies Program head Li Jin, Associate Dean John Shanahan and School of Computing professor Xiaoping Jia discuss fiction and innovation.

Cody Corrall | The DePaulia

Cody Corrall | The DePaulia

Science fiction author Stanley Chan, Chinese Studies Program head Li Jin, Associate Dean John Shanahan and School of Computing professor Xiaoping Jia discuss fiction and innovation.

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Students and faculty gathered in the Levan 100 auditorium on Wednesday night for a panel on China’s relationship between science fiction and technological innovation – and how they manifest in different cultures. The panel, hosted by the DePaul Chinese Studies Program, featured Stanley Chan, a prolific author with nine Chinese Nebula Awards for science fiction writing under his belt.

“I was in Chicago in 2012 so it’s like I’m coming back, virtually,” Chan said with a laugh, his face projected on the wall as he Skyped in from Beijing.

The panel also featured John Shanahan, Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Associate professor of English and Xiaoping Jia, professor of software engineering at the School of Computing.

In 2015, Liu Cixin’s science fiction novel “The Three-Body Problem” won the Hugo Award for best novel – skyrocketing a mainstream science fiction market previously unheard of in China. According to Chan, China has a complicated history with science fiction that dates back to the late Qing dynasty when Chinese writers would translate popular Western novels into classical Chinese. Liang Qichao’s translation of Jules Verne’s “Fifteen Little Heroes” put him at the forefront of the science fiction movement in China.

Verne’s work was influential to China’s popularization of science fiction. In 1903, Lu Xin translated “From the Earth to the Moon” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and would later translate the works of H.G. Wells.

During the cultural revolution of 1966 – 1976, anything that resembled Western capitalism was seen as harmful to the People’s Republic of China. Because of this, literature was scarcely printed and science fiction was nearly eradicated in Mainland China. There were movements to bring it back into social consciousness in the 1980s with the magazine “Science Fiction World” and the first Chinese science fiction movie “Death Ray on a Coral Island,” but they were condemned by the republic and were deemed “spiritual pollution.”

Cody Corrall | The DePaulia
Students and faculty gather in the Levan 100 auditorium for the panel “China’s New Frontier” hosted by DePaul Chinese Studies Association.

Chan hopes that because of the genre’s recent mainstream popularity, Chinese authors can further expand the landscape of science fiction and bring Chinese works to a worldwide audience. “Younger generations of science fiction writers from China can have their works be seen and read by Western readers,” Chan said. “I think in the future, we’ll see more diverse and more characterically Chinese science fiction.”

Shanahan believes that there are more similarities than differences between Western and Chinese science fiction, as Chinese authors are often inspired by the West. They both utilize foundational components of science fiction: dynamic world building that adds or takes away from an environment and defamiliarization of what the reader takes for granted, like time and space.

Science fiction across cultures has a similar responsibility to document the world as it is now. “Science fiction is being called the realism of our times,” Shanahan said. “It’s the form that is best at capturing what it’s like to live in 2018.”

The ways in which they differ often stem from cultural differences. China is a collectivist nation while the United States is individualistic, and this translates into their respective storytelling. “(Western science fiction) is purely individualistic, maybe family at most, but it’s always individualized” Shanahan said. “The horizon for Chinese storytelling comes from a kind of statism … and many of the stories seem to show collective ways of figuring things out.”

Shanahan notes that a flaw within Western science fiction is a failure to think about the genre in a global context. While Chinese authors are well-versed in Western science fiction and literature, the same can’t be said for the United States. Western science fiction writers are often unaware of the elements of Chinese storytelling, which can limit the scope of an inherently limitless genre.

Science fiction narratives in both cultures are inspired by advancements in technology and are more connected because of it. “We’re both dealing with a fictional world,” Jia said. “We don’t work with a real physical world when we write fiction. When I write computer code I can, to some extent, create my own world.”

Similarly to how Chinese authors are inspired by Western science fiction, the same can be said for technological innovations. China invests in its tech industry to compete with the tech titans of Silicon Valley. This often comes from imitation: “The younger generation of Chinese IT workers is more American than Chinese,” Jia said.

Chinese science fiction writers are inspired by real-world technological innovations, but the reverse is also true. In 2017, Cixin was invited by the Chinese Academy of Sciences to see a new radio dish that was built to hear extraterrestrial messages; he deemed it as something “out of science fiction.”

In their attempts to best Western technological advancements, China is taking pages out of the science fiction books. “I think it’s important to build a bridge so we can learn,” Chan said. “I think that writers and people in the tech industry are trying to close the gap between humanity and science.”

The world of science fiction can be dark and dystopian, especially as it tries to better represent life in the modern era. Against it all, authors like Chan are still hopeful for what’s to come and the innovations yet to be discovered. “I can see a bright and optimistic future,” Chan said.

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