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On the Algorithm Behind Reality, Religion and Science Fiction Writing

(Read in Italian here).

Born in 1981 in China’s Guandong province, Chen Qiufan is one of the major representatives of what in Mainland China has been called the “young generation” of Chinese science fiction authors. His work has been influenced by the Chinese writers of the Nineties, whose works are defined by a multiplicity of styles and forms, united by their common influences from Western science fiction, and by the culture of the Eighties that nourished them all. Chen Qiufan, dubbed “China’s William Gibson” for his stylish narrative and for the social and psychological themes embedded in his Sino-cyberpunk novel The Waste Tide, centers his stories on the relationship between humans and technology. During his latest Italian tour, he agreed to answer some questions.

Chiara Cigarini: Your first novel, The Waste Tide, will be available for Anglophone readers in April 2019 (translated by Ken Liu and published by Tor Books/ Head of Zeus) and an anthology of your short-stories, L’Eterno Addio, has just been published in Italian by Future Fiction. After Liu Cixin, you are one of the most translated and read Chinese writers worldwide. How does it feel to be part of what Professor Wu Yan called a “two-way communication” with the Western world?

Chen Qiufan: During the first two waves of Chinese science fiction, in the Late Qing period and at the beginning of the New Era, China imported a lot of Western sf via translation, that’s why many Chinese science fiction writers, me included, have read stories by the pioneers of European sf, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and have been largely inspired by authors from American “Golden Age” sf like Arthur C. Clarke, and by New Wave writers such as J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson. In recent times, thanks to the translation of many works of Chinese science fiction made possible especially by Ken Liu, writers like Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang have won the highest Western literary prize for sf, the Hugo Award. This has meant that this genre in China has gained world attention as a literary product which is not just an imitation of Western models, but as a narrative which has strong national characteristics; a depiction of Chinese cultural roots together with a highly technological present, which is especially Chinese. I think it’s wonderful that, thanks to translation, East and West have found a platform for dialogue, made possible through the sf language.

CC: Ken Liu, the American writer who has translated most of your stories into English, has played a significant role in spreading contemporary Chinese science fiction worldwide. How did you two meet and what role have you played in the translation process, if any?

CQ: Besides being a great writer himself, Ken is an American with Chinese origins, and he is very passionate about science fiction; he has the perfect profile for a literary translator from Chinese to English. We met each other by email, some years ago; I was reading a lot of sf and I bumped into one of his short stories, “The Algorithm for Love”; I thought it was really beautiful and I wrote him an email. He answered immediately and we started talking about science fiction, our works, translation, and all kinds of different topics; we’ve been really good friends since then. Later on, one of my short stories “The Fish of Lijiang” was translated into English and I asked his opinion about the translation’s quality. He offered to re-translate it for me for free, just driven by passion and by our love for this genre. After the translation was published in Clarkesworld, he won a big translation prize for it, thus realizing that he could become a bridge between Chinese sf and the Western English readers. He then translated many of Liu Cixin’s works and helped numerous Chinese writers to get to the English readers. If it wasn’t for him, The Three Body Problem and “Folding Beijing” probably wouldn’t have won the Hugo Award.

About the translation process, I speak English, and that’s why it was very interesting to read Ken’s translations and to observe the transfer of meaning from one culture into another. An interesting example is represented by Chinese tenses; just like some sort of verbal spaghetti, the Chinese language can mix past, present and future without having to specify any tense; on the other side, from an English-language editorial perspective, Ken had to be really precise in defining a specific tense for each verb. I thought this linguistic difference was really fascinating.

CC: You once mentioned “science fictional realism” and Baudrillard’s conception of hyperreality. In what way are these two concepts related to your production?

CQ: In China the relationship between science fiction and mainstream fiction has often been complicated. Although Chinese sf has been promoted in the late Qing period by intellectuals like Liang Qichao and Lu Xun (known as the father of Modern Chinese literature), in Chinese sf’s long history this genre has often been criticized or considered “not literary enough”; in this sense Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem is emblematic. That’s why I once mentioned the concept of “science fictional realism” in order to stress the literary qualities of this literature which is able to represent the highly technological reality of Chinese daily life. This was an idea which became more nuanced when I started considering Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreality, which relates to the fact that in contemporary China, technology has become a part of people’s life to the point of replacing reality with technological simulacra, which are simple imitations of that reality. In this sense, I believe reality has surpassed people’s imagination, and science fiction is uniquely able to represent this kind of transformation.

CC: “Spatial fracturing” and “temporal desynchronization” are, according to scholars Arif Dirlik and Zhang Xudong, the defining characters of a uniquely Chinese postmodernity, a state that they believe to be different from the Western one due to the coexistence, in China, of pre-capitalist, capitalist and post-socialist conditions. Also your novel The Waste Tide, seems to be marked by spatial fracturing (China, America, overseas Chinese) and temporal desynchronization (in Silicon Isle and its system of clans, the pre-modern, modern and post-modern seem to coexist). Do you agree with this view? Is your Chinese sci-fi mirroring a Chinese postmodern present?

CQ: This idea is really interesting. Actually I feel I experienced this kind of “spatial fracturing” and “temporal desynchronization” since my early childhood. I was born in small city of Guandong province, where ancient beliefs and the latest technological devices where both part of our daily life. At that time, and now even more, the pre-modern, modern and post-modern way of life seemed to co-exist in our everyday life, and I think this sort of fragmentation is kind of represented in The Waste Tide, where I put together different spatial and temporal elements. In fact, in its familiarity with past, present, and future, science fiction may be particularly able to mirror these kind of different and co-existent times and spaces, produced by rapid technological and economical change.

CC: In one of your stories, "Coming of the Light" (translated into English by Ken Liu), you depict a futuristic and highly technological world, which is represented as ultimately mysterious and impossible to grasp rationally, precisely by the genre that in the past had played an important role in promoting science and reason. Is this transit from a scientific explanation to a magical uncertainty rooted in the traditional culture of Buddhism, in the effects produced by an incredibly rapid introduction of technology (which according to Arthur C. Clarke, if sufficiently advanced is “indistinguishable from magic”), or is it both?

CQ: Nowadays I think that science has become a sort of new religion; we believe in science and technology blindly because most of us don’t understand the whole process behind it. Technology is just a black box; we don’t have proof of its functioning, we don’t know how it works. To this extent, technology is something very similar to religion and magic back in the old days, just as Clarke said. So on the one hand, there’s a lot of irrationality in the process of accepting science and technology, and that’s why it becomes a sort of superstition. On the other hand, I think that science and the principles of the universe, together with religion and magic, are all connected – they may all be run by the same algorithm, we just haven't got there yet. The connection between Buddhism and technology is very interesting, and a very 'Eastern' way to understand science fiction. The environment I grew up in was almost completely Buddhist; people’s lives were based on following rituals, the principles and the guidance of Buddhism… everything took shape from a religious level and affected the mechanics of the world; that’s the idea behind “Buddhagram”. Just like in Roger Zelazny’s masterpiece, Lord of Light, I believe Chinese science fiction must be related to Eastern philosophy, which informs the roots of Chinese culture and has a legacy spanning thousands of years.

CC: The Waste Tide has been considered “cyberpunk”, a literary sub-genre that has a strong connection with American culture of the 80’s. As a 'balinghou' writer (a Chinese writer born in the 80’s), what’s your relationship with that decade, both American and Chinese?

CQ: I was very influenced by the culture of the Eighties and its products, like video games, movies and TV series such as Star Trek, as well as manga and animations from Japan like Ghost in the Shell. All of these things gave me an understanding of what cyberpunk is, and that’s why The Waste Tide includes some cyberpunk elements. The difference is, I think, that the protagonist of my book didn’t win the war against corporations, and that’s because right now the whole technological system is running not only on the level of society, but also in our consciousness, in our cognition, in our body; it’s deeply embedded in ourselves. There’s no 'punk' in Chinese cyberpunk, because there are no winning heroes, everyone has to go against not only the big corporations and companies but also against themselves. This cybernetic system is running within us, just like a biological clock, and that’s what I try to express and explore in my novel; how cyberpunk can be refreshed in this new age when there’s nothing concrete.

CC: About cyberpunk writers, you have been called “China’s William Gibson” and your prose seems to be a driven both by ideas and by language. What’s your writing process like? How do these two elements combine in your writing?

CQ: In China, right now, science fiction as “the literature of ideas” has a big market among readers and writers, but to me sf is more than just ideas, it has to be embedded into the history and tradition of literature, classical or mainstream. There must be some development at the level of the storytelling, of character, of setting, and everything should be integrated into the story. I learned a lot from William Gibson and I may have stolen something from him; I think his stylish writing inspired me a lot, also because his science fiction is more than just a story based on a good idea: he creates a unique atmosphere made by subtle feelings; he gives the reader a sense of what the future is, somewhere and something that is cognitively estranging. I think that’s the beauty of science fiction,  and the very essential element of what good science fiction is. The reader must be shocked by the text, by the narrative itself, and must perceive a whole new world. That’s why to me both ideas and literary style are very important.

CC:The Waste Tide’s protagonist is implanted with an artificial eye for augmented reality; besides being kind of “mirrorshades” employed to connect with the cyberpunk tradition, as suggested in this article by Cara Healey, is it some kind of new device you are developing right now in your work, something you think will enter soon in our lives? What’s your relationship with technology?

CQ: Kaizong’s artificial eye is definitely connected with Molly’s mirrorshades in Gibson’s Neuromancer, I think the whole idea of cyborgs perceiving the world in new ways is very fascinating; through some sensory enhancement they can expand the way they see, hear, and touch, they can even get some new senses. But this is also something under development right now in reality: even if it hasn’t got that far yet, I believe it will become real in the near future. Actually, technology is also part of my daily working life; besides writing, I was previously employed at Google and Baidu, and now I work for a VR startup company, which is why I’ve had frequent discussion with those R&D guys. We tried to figure out how to translate language and technology into something that’s comprehensive and attractive for the users and the market. This process, in a way, is similar to science fiction writing; you need to understand how technology works and you have to translate this understanding into vivid and attractive storytelling.

CC: Cyberpunk, which is considered to be the literary sub-genre that mixes the high-tech field of technology with modern underground pop culture, also presents a literary combination of the two idols of the Eighties, the hacker and the rocker. Talking about idols, in contemporary China many young authors like you seem to enjoy rock star status. How do you manage to be a famous sci-fi writer, a screen-player, the CEO of a VR company and the president of a Chinese science fiction society?

CC: It’s all about time and energy. Sometimes I just feel that in China, science fiction writing is getting too much attention. After Liu Cixin, some people have unrealistic expectations of Chinese science fiction writers; they invite us to attend to different kinds of events, to have conversations with scientists, politicians, scholars… they want to hear our thoughts on the future, hoping they'll find something inspiring in our words. But science fiction writers are not prophets, they’re just story-tellers, that’s why there’s both good and bad things coming from the attention we receive. On the one hand, we have the attention of the national and international media, on the other hand, this just keeps us away from the state of being alone, and this can be really hard for a writer. Da Liu for example, is like a nonstop superstar who has to go from one event to the other. Sometimes I think we should step back from all these highlights and stages, and shed ourselves of all this attention; we have to keep sober and think about what are we going to do as writers. You can have many different identities, but you always have a major one and a minor one; having to deal with all these questions sometimes can make you feel exhausted. In my case, I would love to have a period of time to be alone and write something without any interruptions.

CC: What do you think about possible synergies between science fiction and other media, such as video games, cartoons and animation?

CQ: I think they will definitely represent the future. Right now people find it more and more difficult to finish a book, because it takes energy and time, but for media like video-games, animation, and comic books, which are easier to approach since you get information directly from the image, the situation is different. This is especially true for young readers, who are already used to a new kind of perception and storytelling. I’ve been exploring some of these synergies lately, for example, I’ve been working on the graphic novel adaptation of one of my short stories, “Buddhagram”. It can be complicated because, as a writer, you have to change the way you write in order to adapt your own story to a media which has both a different timeline and a different perspective; to me these synergies represents a totally new but fascinating challenge.

CC: How does it feel to be part of the end of the era “when human writing is independent from the artificial intelligence”? Can you tell us more about your story “The Fear Machine” and how it was created?

CQ: I know some other people did this kind of experiment before; Liu Cixin for example created a program that can automatically generate poems, and someone in Japan invented an AI novelist, although I’m not sure how deeply it engaged with the writing process. In my case, one of my colleagues back at Google helped me develop an AI deep learning program that could learn from my writing style. We filled it with all of my stories and it came out with an automatic generator, where you can input a keyword and a subject and the program automatically generates several paragraphs of narrative. The interesting thing is, sometimes the AI produces some kind of avant-garde poetic fragments, very stylish and surprisingly close to William Gibson’s sentences, although these paragraphs have no logic and are somehow irrational, they are just like a flow of consciousness. Since this is not really story-telling on its own, I had to embed these sentences into my own writing; I developed some stories around these automatically generated phrases, and that’s how I became the one helping the machine to write the story, instead of the other way around. This also reflects the theory of cybernetics: it looks like the machine is training me to write something for it. “The Fear Machine” is about the relationship between AI and post-humanism; in the story there’s an AI, and its sentences actually came from a real AI. It’s a kind of wordplay, a game between literature and technology. I'm looking forward to trying out net ways of doing it in the future!

Chiara Cigarini is a Ph.D student in modern and contemporary Chinese literature at Beijing Normal University. Her research deals with contemporary Chinese Science Fiction, focusing in particular on Han Song’s experimental production. She translated a short story by Wu Yan into Italian for the dual language Chinese SF anthology Nebula, published by Future Fiction (2017), and she is currently working on the translation of the novella “Zhuansheng de juren” by Wang Jinkang.
Chen Qiufan (aka Stanley Chan) is a representative member of China's new generation of speculative fiction authors. He is known for his stylistic combination of realism and New Wave,and has been called China's William Gibson. His works have been translated into many languages and received multiple domestic and international awards including nine Chinese Nebula Awards (China's counterpart to the Hugo Award), three Galaxy Awards and a World F&SF Translation Award. His works include the novel The Waste Tide (translated by Ken Liu) and the short story collections Censored and Future Disease. He previously worked for Google, Baidu, and other corporations for nearly ten years. At present, as Vice President of Noitom Ltd., he focuses on the fields of motion capture and virtual reality.

Thank you very much for this interesting in depth conversation! Chiara has done really good research.

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