From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2020

By Dev Agarwal, Focus editor

As 2020 recedes from us, we look forward to the world opening up and restarting from lockdown safely. While 2020 was obviously the year of Covid-19, it was also a year of community and solidarity. I hope that readers had those experiences as well.

Friend to Focus and writer, Leigh Kennedy, described the grip of Covid-19 as eerie and familiar, like “being in a science fiction novel we all read long ago.”

On top of the pandemic, 2020 was a year packed with political drama. The year started a month after a significant general election in December 2019 in the UK. By the end of 2020, the US had had one of its most important and defining presidential elections ever (where the election of a Black and Asian American woman as Vice President was one of many significant moments). And that’s without us even commenting on the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, the drone assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, major conflicts in Armenia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia and elsewhere, wildfires across Australia, the attempted violent overthrow in the US on 6 January 2021, and the ongoing fight to vaccinate the planet.

That’s a lot to process and a tough year for writers and artists to make their voices heard and their work noticed. For readers, the challenge was possibly to concentrate long enough to fully enjoy the fiction and art available. A further struggle for writers and artists was to create art in the first place. Despite these challenges there were many successes to celebrate.

Continue reading “From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2020″

Uyghur Folklore

Reviewed by Sandra Unerman. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

Uyghur Folklore & Legend, compiled by Abela Publishing, 2009. 
The Effendi and the Pregnant Pot, Uyghur Folktales from China, translated by Primerose Gigliesi and Robert C. Friend, New World Press, 1982. 

These books both contain collections of Uyghur folktales. Both have their limitations but it is very difficult to find translations of any speculative fiction from the Uyghur community in China. Some basic information about Uyghur history can be found in a few references in The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury, 2015). These outline Uyghur origins in Central Asia, their role during the Mongol Empire and their current position in Xinjiang province, but that is all. I know very little about the culture of the Uyghurs, so I hoped to learn something about them from these books.

A young man will only go near his bride in the dark and leaves the house before she can see him by daylight. But this is not the story of Cupid and Psyche and the resolution owes more to the man’s cleverness than an ordeal undergone by the woman. 

A sheep and her lamb travel from a valley in Tibet to a high plateau for the summer grass. On the way, they meet a wolf, who wants to eat them both. The sheep persuades him to wait until they are on their way back down, when they will be much fatter. They return according to their promise but trick the wolf, with the help of a hare, who pretends to be on a mission from the Emperor of China to collect wolfskins.

These examples indicate the range of stories in the 2009 collection and their similarity to folktales from other cultures across the world. There are fifty-eight entries, although some are variants of the same basic tale. The book’s title is somewhat misleading, in that no information is provided about folk customs or legends in the sense of tales about specific places or figures from history. The names of storytellers are given and dates, ranging from the 1870s to the 1920s, so presumably these were oral tales, written down by folktale collectors during that period. However, we are given no information about who the collectors were, the circumstances of collecting or the basis of selection of these particular tales. No editor or translator is identified. The similarities between these tales and those from elsewhere may result from universal human responses, the influence of the collectors or from long-standing historical connections among the people who told the tales. No introduction could have disentangled those strands completely but background information could have helped the reader understand the context and the kind of community to which the stories belong. 

The stories do read as versions authentically collected from oral sources, rather than polished up for literary purposes. This can be seen from the gaps and flaws in some of them. In the first, a fox brings grass for a lamb to eat and is betrayed by a wolf, on whom she takes revenge. It looks as though the fox has taken over the role which ought to belong to a sheep, at least in the opening action. Some of the references are difficult to understand, without further information, especially the figure of the ‘pyhrqan,’ who appears in several tales. This is translated in a footnote as ‘monk’ but the stories suggest a being with supernatural powers. 

The narratives have the terse, direct strength of oral tales. The descriptions of settings are minimal but the background of sheep pastures and mountains evoke a landscape of open spaces and long journeys. A hare plays the trickster in several of the animal fables, reflecting the role of the hare as a significant mythological figure in many cultures, as discussed in Marianne Taylor’s The Way of the Hare (Bloomsbury, 2017). Other stories, set in villages or towns, provide glimpses of the daily life of ordinary people and their concerns, about family relationships, making a living and oppression by the powerful. They are set in what might be described as a timeless past, with a social and religious framework that appears to draw on more than one tradition.

Oppression of the workers by the powerful is the theme of the stories in the 1982 collection, which all feature Nasreddin, the Effendi of the title. As the translators explain in their introduction, he is a legendary figure widely known in traditions from Turkey, North Africa and Asia. They say that stories about him have spread from the Uyghur community to become popular throughout China. They are not themselves folklore collectors, so their versions of the tales are not directly taken from Uyghur oral tradition. Their translation is made from Chinese and was published in Beijing.

Visit to a Prison

One day the padishah took the effendi with him on a visit to the prison. “What crime did you commit?” the padishah asked the prisoners. 

“None!” yelled the men in unison. 

The padisha began questioning each by turn and, it seemed, there was only one guilty person among them.

“Protector of the Universe,” the effendi said to the padisha, “please order this man kicked out of here at once! How could he have gotten himself into this place? It is inadmissible that there are people like him in your prison!” 

The translators claim explicitly that the Nasreddin stories can help to create a new, socialist culture, because they highlight the abuses of rulers, together with the humour and wisdom of the poor. The sixty-five brief stories in their collection reflect these ideas accordingly. Like those in the 2009 collection, they are set in a timeless past but with a social structure more specifically focused on Moslem traditions. In most, the effendi gets the better of an important official, who attempts to insult or bully him. In one typical example, the padishah (the ruler) blames Nasreddin, who has accurately predicted the death of his prime minister. He threatens Nasreddin with death, unless he can say how long the padishah himself will live. The reply is that the padishah will live two days longer than Nasreddin, who is released as a result.

These stories are more polished than those in the 2009 collection and put more emphasis on urban life, although sheep and wolves do appear in several tales. They reflect one strand of the wider tradition about Nasreddin. However, he is a more complex figure than is expressed here, someone who can be stupid as well as clever and whose exploits are not always directed against the ruling classes. (His relationship to the traditional figure of the fool or jester is outlined in Enid Welsford’s The Fool, a social and literary history [Faber & Faber, 1935]). By reducing his ambiguity, this book flattens his character and reduces the implications of the stories to a single, basic message, although that is expressed with humour. 

Taken together, these two collections give an impression of one historical aspect of Uyghur culture, as it shares folk traditions from elsewhere. Both are readable and lively but tell us very little about that community today.

Sandra Unerman is studying for an MA in Folklore at the University of Hertfordshire. Her article about folklore and fiction appeared recently in Focus and she writes for the BSFA Review and the BFS Journal. She is the author of two fantasy novels, Spellhaven and ghosts and exiles, and is a member of london clockhouse writers. 
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Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction edited by Mike Ashley

Reviewed by Graham Andrews. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Q: Spot the year of first publication (+ or – 20 years):

“Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.”

A: It comes from an essay, ‘Darwin Among the Machines’, published in the June 1863 issue of a New Zealand magazine called The Press. Ascribed to ‘Cellarius’ but actually written by Samuel (Erewhon) Butler. Change ‘mechanical’ to ‘electronic’ and ‘machines’ to ‘computers’ and only the slightly archaic style would give the game away. Mike Ashley’s Introduction – nay, scholarly monograph – is full of half-forgotten facts like that. I enjoyed it even more than some of the stories, which were a tad over-familiar to an old-timer like me: ‘The Machine Stops’ (Forster); ‘The Evitable Conflict’ (Asimov); ‘Two-Handed Engine’ (Moore & Kuttner). Still good stuff, though.

Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction (British Library Science Fiction Classics) by [Mike Ashley]

The earliest anthology I know of SF stories about artificial intelligence in general as opposed to humanoid robots in particular is Science Fiction Thinking Machines (1954), edited by Groff Conklin. None of those stories appear in Ashley’s book, which makes it an interesting thematic companion piece.

Ashley takes a more chronological approach than Conklin, with Adeline Knapp’s ‘The Discontented Machine’ (1894) – about a machine that calls its own wildcat strike – being the earliest (and also one of the best). Along the way, we are treated to such reclaimed treasures as ‘Automata’ (S. Fowler Wright: 1929) and ‘Rex’ (Harl Vincent: 1934). J. J. Connington’s ‘Danger in the Dark Cave’ (1938) fuses Golden Age detective fiction with what would now be called AI: “My view is that once you give an organism – be it machine or anything else – the power of appreciating stimuli and coping with them, you produce something akin to intelligent life.” With the instinct of self-preservation, and the means to fight back. ‘Efficiency’ (Perley Poore Sheehan & Robert H. Davis: 1917) is a quirky little one-act play.

For what it’s worth, my favourite selection is ‘But Who Can Replace a Man’ (1958), by the late and always to be lamented Brian W. Aldiss. I’ll leave you to decide where ‘menace’ comes into it. The most recent – comparatively speaking – story, Arthur C. Clarke’s fiendish ‘Dial F for Frankenstein’ (1964), was read and well-remembered by the young Tim (www) Berners-Lee. But the most precociously prophetic story is ‘A Logic Named Joe’ (1946) which deals with ‘logics’ (i.e. personal computers) and something called the ‘tank’ (i.e. the Internet). If you’ll pardon the slightly archaic style:

“Does it occur to you, fella, that the tank has been doin’ all the computin’ for every business office for years? It’s been handlin’ the distribution of ninety-four per cent of all telecast programs, has given out all information on weather, plane schedules; special sales, employment opportunities and news; has handled all person-to-person contacts over wires and recorded every business conversation and agreement – Listen, fella! Logics changed civilization. Logics are civilization! If we shut off logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run! I’m getting hysterical myself and that’s why I’m talkin’ like this! [SEXISM ALERT.] If my wife finds out my paycheck is thirty credits a week more than I told her and starts hunting for that redhead – “

But it’s all extravagant fiction – right, fella? It couldn’t possibly become cold fact tomorrow! Excuse me, fella. My logic is calling me…

(c) Graham Andrews. All rights reserved.

From the archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy in Contemporary Hong Kong Cinema

By Colin Odell and Mitch le Blanc

First published in Vector 210 (in 2000)

Hong Kong is the third largest producer of films in the world after Bollywood and Hollywood, but most people think that its films are concerned only with kung fu. This could not be further from the truth, in fact it offers an enormous diversity of product and includes a large number of fantasy and horror films amongst its many genres. The perception of the output as ‘just’ martial arts presumably comes from the Seventies kung fu marketing boom and the fact that video availability in this country has yet to break away from this traditionally high-selling genre. To the uninitiated the world of Hong Kong cinema can appear bizarre, confusing and strewn with pitfalls. There is the frenetic pace of action, occasionally impenetrable plots, obscure humour and a completely different language (often with cheesy dubbing or minuscule subbing) to contend with. So why bother? The answer is simple. Entertainment. Hong Kong films have a kinetic energy that renders the rest of the world geriatric by comparison. The relentless action, comedy, pathos and range of ideas, and the fact that you never know how the story is going to end, leaves the viewer gasping for breath. Hollywood have latched on to this and in recent years have tried to imitate the Hong Kong formula with limited success. Many HK directors now work in the USA – The Matrix (1999) was choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, and the pace of the action is derived completely from HK cinema. Hollywood has also begun to approach the task of duplicating several Hong Kong genres; the Heroic Bloodshed genre (guns, cops, gangsters, slo-mo shooting and heavy casualties) has translated reasonably, but lost the emotional depth and characterisation of its Eastern counterpart. Its main innovator John Woo, who directed the sci-fi bloodshed film Face/Off (1998), is now exerting his vision on the Hollywood system with considerable success. The Swordplay genre has fared less well as the efforts generally seem lacklustre, although The Mask of Zorro (1998) was well executed and similarly owes as much to Hong Kong as Errol Flynn. In return Hong Kong has no scruples about raiding film ideas from anywhere – it just does it faster and, normally, better.

Because the market for Hong Kong films is confined predominantly to Asia, its genres are tailored to that market. As a result, there are few pure science fiction films made in Hong Kong and they tend to aim for either the international market (Black Mask, 1997), for the Japanese market (City Hunter, 1993; Wicked City, 1992) or just turn out to be financially unsuccessful (The Heroic Trio, 1993). Generally science fiction elements occur as a peripheral to the main plot or are used as a McGuffin. Far more common is the fantasy film, of which there is an abundance of superior examples. For example: Name three decent Hollywood fantasy films made in the last decade. Okay, name one decent Hollywood fantasy film made in the last decade. Movies such as Moon Warriors (1992), Blade of Fury (1993) and Burning Paradise (1994) are so far in advance of any Hollywood fantasy film as to render English-speaking fare futile. Conan The Barbarian (1982) and Willow (1988) don’t come close and it is only really the Ray Harryhausen films that stand up to scrutiny. There are also abundant numbers of ghost stories and vampire films, which are completely different to their Western counterparts and all the more exciting and stimulating for it. It is impossible to cover all the films served up by HK, so here are a few pointers to hopefully whet your appetite for further Far Eastern dishes.

Continue reading “From the archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy in Contemporary Hong Kong Cinema”

The Evolution of Nüwa: A Brief “Herstory” of Chinese SF

By Regina Kanyu Wang. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

If you listen to a lecture on Chinese science fiction (SF), or check a list of representative authors of Chinese SF, eight or nine times out of ten, you will hear the names of male authors first. There is Liu Cixin, Wang Jinkang, Han Song and He Xi, the “Four Heavenly Kings.” Or Chen Qiufan, Baoshu, Zhang Ran and Feidao, the leading post-80s writers. If the list goes on, you may finally hear of Xia Jia, Hao Jingfang, Zhao Haihong and Ling Chen, the female authors who are equally extraordinary but less mentioned. During a panel at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki in 2017, the moderator Xia Jia, who is also a prominent scholar, gave a short introduction to Chinese SF. For the first time in such major occasions, she decided to present the female writers before the male ones. Her efforts emphasized that Chinese female SF writers are not inferior to their male counterparts, and questioned the routine of male writers always being the first and the dominant.

Despite the growing popularity of Chinese SF both inside and outside of academia, far less attention is paid to female authors’ works compared with male authors’ works. Research on Chinese SF from a gender perspective is even more rare. This article intends to re-narrate the “herstory” of mainland Chinese SF in the larger historical background of China and hopes to invite more discussion on this topic in the future.

Continue reading “The Evolution of Nüwa: A Brief “Herstory” of Chinese SF”

Chinese SF industry

By Regina Kanyu Wang et al. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

According to Science Fiction World, the concept of “science fiction (SF) industry” was first proposed in academia in 2012, when a group of experts were brought together  by the Sichuan Province Association of Science and Technology to comb and research SF related industry, and put together the Report of Research on the Development of Chinese SF Industry. Narrowly defined, the SF industry includes SF publishing, SF films, SF series, SF games, SF education, SF merchandise, and other SF-related industries, while a broader definition also includes the supporting industries, upstream or downstream in the industry chain.

According to the 2020 Chinese Science Fiction Industry Report, the gross output of the Chinese SF industry in 2019 sums up to 65.87 billion RMB (about 7.4 billion GBP), among which games and films lead the growth, with publishing and merchandise following (check out more in Chinese here). The SF industry plays an important part in China’s cultural economic growth.

We have invited sixteen organizations, companies, and projects that play a role in China’s SF industry to introduce themselves to the English readers. You can see the diversity and vigour from the texts they provided. We’ve tried to keep editing to a minimum in order to show how they posit and define themselves in the SF industry. Here they are, ordered alphabetically.

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