The rise of Chinese sci-fi: Part 2

Carly O'Connell January 16, 2017 1:44 PM (UTC+8)
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In my previous post, “The rise of Chinese Sci-fi: Part 1,” I discussed the history of science fiction as a genre in China, its roots in translations of Western works, and the first major Chinese sci-fi novel to hit it big in America: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. Today, I contemplate the future of American sci-fi with Chinese influences by looking at the American market for international literature as well as the directions taken by Chinese-American and other Asian-American authors in the sci-fi scene.

Only three percent of books published in the US are works in translation. At least, this was the case ten years ago, when the University of Rochester launched its international literature resource, Three Percent. It is reasonable to assume the scene has improved since then, but not by much. Think: when was the last time you read a modern work (not a literary classic) that was originally published in a language other than English? And how many do you see prominently displayed in your local bookstore?

American authors frequently top best-seller lists in other countries, but it is harder for foreign works to break into the American market. There are several reasons for this that others can discuss in more detail, such as economic cost of translation and a lack of infrastructure in foreign publishing houses to market to the US and in the US for vetting foreign works.

Ken Liu, translator of The Three-Body Problem, discusses this disparity in an interview with Locus Magazine, in terms of the Chinese reaction to the book’s success:

‘‘One of the things that surprised a lot of American readers is the fact that The Three-Body Problem being translated into English and then nominated for a Nebula Award was such a huge deal in China. It’s inconceivable for readers here. Some reporters asked me, ‘Why are Chinese readers so excited about the Nebula Award? American fans wouldn’t be so excited if one of their books was translated into Chinese and won some award.’ I said, ‘You wouldn’t care. You’re coming from the modern Rome, the core of world culture, whereas China is at the periphery. For Chinese fans, something they love in their language is being recognized by readers in America, who are perceived as the prestige readers.’ One of the aspects of being from a prestigious culture is that you don’t necessarily perceive yourself as having power.”

Ken Liu, and others like him, are helping to bridge this gap not only by translating foreign works, but also by incorporating his Chinese heritage into his own works. In this way, he sets a precedent for successful sci-fi works with Asian themes and roots, showing that American readers are interested in such stories. He also helps the foreign works he translates or endorses find a foothold by lending his prestige as an established American author.

Ken Liu was born in Lanzhou, China and immigrated to America as a child. His short story “The Paper Menagerie” blasted him to sci-fi stardom when it became the first work to simultaneously win three major sci-fi awards: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Sci-fi award. The story reflects Liu’s roots not only through Mandarin dialogue and a narrative about a half-Chinese boy assimilating to American culture, but also in its fantastical elements: creatures made through the Chinese art of paper folding, zhezhi, that are breathed to life by the boy’s mom.

Liu is currently working on the third novel of his Dandelion Dynasty series, in which he pioneers a new genre, dubbed “silkpunk.” Silkpunk is a variation on Steampunk, a sci-fi subgenre drawing inspiration from the steam-gears-and-brass aesthetic of Victorian England. Ken Liu’s version, in contrast, draws inspiration from the natural materials of importance to various East Asian and Pacific Island cultures: silk, bamboo, feathers, coconuts, etc. For example, his novels’ airships are steered not by propellers but by giant feathered oars. In writing style, Liu draws from both Eastern and Western tradition, introducing characters in the manner of Ming Dynasty novels, but also using tropes and techniques from Greek and English epics like The Odyssey and Paradise Lost. In this manner, Liu offers an alternative to the inherently Anglo-centric genre of Steampunk.

Liu isn’t the only author working to create a more inclusive version of sci-fi and Steampunk. Diana Pho, creator of the multicultural steampunk website Beyond Victoriana, describes her style as “bamboopunk,” inspired by her Vietnamese ancestry. More and more authors and fans are stepping forward and adding their own personal touch to the genre, making it reflect the diverse body of people who enjoy it.

Today is an exciting era for science fiction as a genre as it diversifies in two directions: what American authors write about/which American authors get heard, as well as what American readers read. I look forward to seeing how the genre continues to change and evolve through the influence of its Asian counterparts.

Carly O'Connell
Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.
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