Jun 29 2017

Civilizations in Crisis: Chinese Speculative Fiction

Darren Huang



In the Chinese literary world, speculative fiction has long been a necessary means of critique and protest against an overbearing regime. Science fiction authors create new (often dystopian) universes as one of the few ways to criticize the government and contend with the legacy of the cultural revolution. In China, the state presides over most of the publishing houses, so when writers want to explore forbidden ideas about progress, humanity, and the balance between individuality and the greater good, it’s often safer to package them in the guise of speculative fiction. Still, the authors’ critiques of contemporary Chinese society are not hard to discern, as these books ask pointed questions: Is giving up spiritual life and individual will in the name of “progress” worth the benefits to society? Is the distortion of truth and the revision of history justifiable if it promotes peace and unity? And is the quest for progress just a delusion?

In the overtly political works, the reigning governments have sedated most of the population into allegiance through the manipulation of truth, a perversion of values, and the creation of a cultish, unassailable ruling class. The protagonists are often independent-minded subversives who seem like the only lucid individuals in a world where people’s minds have become hopelessly clouded. Here, the guarding of individual will, when threatened by so many invisible and insidious undermining forces, becomes a heroic act.

The following list serves as an introduction to five audacious works in this genre. These soulful books show that sometimes the clearest picture of a civilization comes from its wildest imaginings.

Cat Country by Lao She

Cat Country

by Lao She

Penguin Books China

$12.95 List Price

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Cat Country

by Lao She

Penguin Books China

$12.95 List Price

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This acerbic, dystopian satire represents a departure from the lauded writer’s comic tales and realist portraits of twentieth-century Chinese life. In Cat Country, a space traveler crashes on Mars, where he encounters the Cat People civilization. Like in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the outsider visits the planet’s cultural institutions and meets prominent members of Cat Country while gloomily reporting on the civilization as it breathes its last gasp. He finds that the Cat People are almost indiscriminately lascivious, indolent, and hypocritical. They lack basic integrity and devote their lives to accumulating money and chasing pleasure—either sex or reverie leaves, an opium-like substance that both satiates hunger and induces a happy delirium. The Cat People neglect their spiritual and intellectual life in favor of keeping up appearances and pursuing material comforts. The educational system is a farce—students receive their college diploma after a single day of school—designed to allow the country to boast a 100 percent graduation rate. Civilization has decayed to a point of no return; annihilation is the Cat People’s only salvation.

Although the book relies on traditional devices of satire, the precision and depth of its social insight make it still seem fresh. The novel mocked the political corruption, absent morality, and rapid Westernization of 1930s China, and the same uncompromising vision can be applied to the country today—or really to any capitalist state. The novel makes a painfully relevant point when it argues that integrity is the essential characteristic of an effective political regime. Serialized in 1932 and published in 1933, the novel’s uncanny prophetic power was confirmed by the events of the Cultural Revolution, during which “subversive” individuals, including Lao She himself, were purged for their opposition to Party agenda. In Cat Country, thirty years before the fact, Lao She foretold his own death.

The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung

The Fat Years

by Koonchung Chan

Anchor

$16.00 List Price

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The Fat Years

by Koonchung Chan

Anchor

$16.00 List Price

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Chan’s 2009 novel was banned in the mainland for its explicit criticism of the administration. In this intricate Orwellian alternate reality, the Chinese Communist regime has expunged an entire month of social unrest and Party violence from all historical records. The narrator, a novelist, has discovered that the vanished month preceded the 2011 implementation of the Party’s economic reform program, a late response to the 2008 global economic crisis. In essence, the Party has rewritten history to exonerate itself from any wrongdoing during this turbulent period. Inexplicably, the majority of the population appears to be suffering collective amnesia, and live in a sustained state of cheer and optimism.

The novel pieces together an elaborate and well-engineered puzzle of a government conspiracy. The frightening rationale given by a Party figure for his administration’s historical revision is based on a sort of irrefutable logic: The Party, he insists, has “chosen the best option in the real world.”

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth's Past)

by Cixin Liu

translation by Ken Liu

Tor Books

$25.99 List Price

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The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth's Past)

by Cixin Liu

translation by Ken Liu

Tor Books

$25.99 List Price

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The first volume in the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy, The Three-Body Problem has been called one of the most accomplished works of Chinese science fiction ever written. It is a meticulously mapped introduction to a conflict between man and alien that began after first contact during the Cultural Revolution. A highly advanced civilization on the cusp of extinction plots a conquest of Earth. It has surpassed human science to such an extent that many of Earth’s greatest scientists consider their enslavement inevitable. In response to the imminent visit, opposing camps begin to form: those who welcome the aliens as redeemers and those who want to defend humanity. In the first volume, a science researcher has been reluctantly ushered into investigating a colleague’s suicide and discovers that an enigmatic scientific organization devoted to inquiries into the fundamental nature of matter is, in fact, a religious cult welcoming the arrival of the alien civilization.

The novel is cogent, scientifically rigorous, and ambitious in scale. Liu elevates the work from a conventional thriller and adds metaphysical heft by creating a compelling ideological conflict between the opposing human factions. A subtle work of environmentalism, the book also asks us to consider the ethics of our rapid consumption of earth’s resources. In the novel, technological progress is often analogous to a cancer—it exhausts the earth of its nourishment and condemns it to an early death.

Zero and Other Fictions by Huang Fan

Zero and Other Fictions

by Huang Fan

translation by John Balcom

Columbia University Press

$28.00 List Price

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Zero and Other Fictions

by Huang Fan

translation by John Balcom

Columbia University Press

$28.00 List Price

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Huang Fan has become a pioneer in Asian letters: His forays into postmodernism, political satire, dystopian science fiction, and experimental realism have initiated literary movements in his native Taiwan. In the first collection of Huang’s work to appear in English, editor and translator John Balcom has assembled a diverse and representative body of work. The debut story, the precocious “Lai Suo,” written in stream-of-consciousness, is about a political pawn abandoned by his former idol. In “The Intelligent Man,” an absurdist parable of immigration and ambition, a Taiwanese businessman struggles to conceive an heir despite multiple wives.

The science fiction novella, “Zero,” is the most accomplished story in the collection. A descendant of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the work follows the life of Xi De, an office worker in an enigmatic communistic dystopia, where citizens work in assigned, highly-specialized jobs and are vaporized when they're made obsolete by technological advancement. They are indoctrinated with the idea that individual life is trivial and that one only exists to serve the common good. In a nightmarish repurposing of Darwinian natural selection, the civilization progressively destroys undesirable segments of the “inferior” population.

Huang’s fictions are often slow courses of disenchantment. Cruel realities serve to punish and correct idealism and innocence. Though these are certainly not uplifting stories, they possess trenchant insight into the dislocation and disappointment of immigrant life, and the anomie and soullessness of an increasingly mechanized world.

Vertical Motion by Can Xue

Vertical Motion

by Can Xue

translation by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

Open Letter

$13.95 List Price

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Vertical Motion

by Can Xue

translation by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

Open Letter

$13.95 List Price

For more info visit:
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“If China has one possibility of a Nobel laureate,” Susan Sontag has said, “it is Can Xue.” Can has been a fixture of the Chinese literary world since the 1990s. Despite her family’s long history of persecution during the Cultural Revolution, she denies any political meaning in her work, a stance that reflects her own disillusionment with the realist novel. She has always been maddeningly prescriptive about the way in which her work should be read and understood. “Reading my fiction requires a certain creativity,” Can wrote on the intellectual demands of her work. “This particular way of reading has to be more than just gazing at the accepted meanings of the text on a literal level, because you are reading messages sent out by the soul, and your reading is awakening your soul into communication with the author's. Contact between souls is possible; that is my conviction.”

Of the books listed here, Can Xue’s collection of stories is the most experimental. An heir to Kafka, Schulz, and Borges—and perhaps even more cryptic than her predecessors—Can has written that in her fiction, she wants to unleash the subconscious. The dream-like plots of her stories make this aim clear: A desert worm dreams of the open air and inches upward from deeper layers of the earth. A cat records the distress of his night-walking owner. A narrator joins a strange girl on a trip to a hospital, where babies (both living and dead) lie underneath a rose garden. These difficult, highly abstract fictions rebel against conventional readings. Can doesn’t use psychology to explain her characters’ inner lives and they rarely “grow” or change. Instead, they are simply ciphers for her philosophical inquiries. These challenging works demand inventive reading and rereading but the rewards—a deep engagement with elemental emotions of love and hope, stripped of the usual intervening trappings of realist fiction—are worthwhile.

Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in Manhattan. His recent work has appeared in Kenyon Review and Pleiades.

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