In this cross-interview, we have two prominent writers interview each other about their respective debut novels. Maggie Shen King is the author of An Excess Male, one of The Washington Post’s 5 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels of 2017, a James Tiptree Jr. and Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) is the author of Waste Tide, which has been praised by Liu Cixin, China’s most prominent science fiction author, as “the pinnacle of near-future SF writing.”
Maggie interviews Stanley
Maggie: For those of us who recycle diligently, it’s easy to become complacent and forget about the magnitude and consequences of our consumption. I really appreciate that Waste Tide brings to the fore the sheer volume of the Western world’s electronic usage and creates in the process a twenty-first century waste land in its electronic recycling center. I understand that you grew up near Guiyu, the town that inspired your novel. What do you hope to accomplish in elevating this issue to center stage? As China becomes a superpower and increasingly begins to turn away this sort of work, what are your thoughts and hopes for the emerging nations of the world?
Stanley: I try to stir up the awareness of the truth that all of us are equally as responsible for the grave consequence of mass pollution happening across the globe. In China, the issue escalated during the last four decades along with the high speed of economic growth. We try to live life as Americans, but we have 1.4 billion people. China has already replaced the USA as the largest producer of e-waste simply because we are so after the consumerism ideology. All the trash that China fails to recycle will be transferred to a new trash yard, perhaps somewhere in Southeast Asia, Africa or South America. If we continue to fall into the trap of consumerism and blindly indulge in newer, faster, more expensive industrial products, one day we may face trash that is untransferrable, unavoidable, and unrecyclable. By then, we would all become waste people. Technology might be the cure but fundamentally it’s all about the lifestyle, the philosophy and the values we believe in.
M: You’ve woven together a wonderfully comprehensive tableau. There is an American corporation trying to introduce a new order and technology to Silicon Isle, overseas eco-terrorists executing a stunning intervention, “waste people” processing the poisonous electronics and repurposing them, on the side, into body art and mind-altering hallucinogens, a government eager to keep its waste migrants under its thumb, and local controlling interests operating like the triads of old. Beneath it all, there lies a tale as old as time — one propelled by good old-fashioned greed. Why was it important to tell this story on an international scale? Over the last decade, more often than not, China has been in the shoes of the American corporation in your story, financing infrastructure projects in developing countries all over the world. How best should a wealthier overseas commercial entity or government come into a less affluent market such as the Silicon Isle?
S: Waste is profoundly shaping and changing our society and living. Our daily mundane world always treats the waste, garbage as the hidden structure together with its whole ecosystem beyond our sights. To maintain the glorious outfit of contemporary life. But unfortunately, someone takes advantage from it while others suffer from it (like NIMBY). Just like class distinctions, economic exploitation, international geopolitics in e-waste recycling procedures for example. There is no stand-alone social repertoire lying in the background to be reflected off, expressed through, or substantiated in, interactions. We have to see the reality. So it has to be on an international scale.
You are right and I don’t have the clear answer either, it seems to me sustainability and respect for diversity naturally go against the bloodsucking national capitalism whatever you call it.
M: Kaizong and Mimi formed the moral center in Waste Tide. Why did you choose a Chinese American and a migrant/waste person — two outsiders — as the heroes of your story? Kaizong’s and Mimi’s self-sacrifice and kindness toward their enemies offered hope for the fundamental goodness of people. And yet our waste person was able to make a difference only after the improbable acquisition of god-like powers that later left her with the mental capacity of a three-year-old. Tell us about your idea and the plight of the modern Chinese hero.
S: This is a sharp one. Actually looking back in Chinese history, perhaps there is only one way to achieve social progress and revolution. To be sacrificed with pain, violence (physical, mental as well as power structures), and coercion. There may be a very strong aftermath after the enlightenment. This aftermath may be a schizophrenic existence that switches between different personalities, for it retains the imprint of the old times, both ethically and emotionally.
Also, all heroes eventually become martyrs. Mimi would surely be sacrificed, whether intentionally or unintentionally, because she was the tipping point in the whole systematic change. It seems to me that she couldn’t have been able to withstand the tearing tension, so she would have ended up as a victim anyway.
M: Punished by the government for something which was never officially explained, Silicon Isle was forced to operate on restricted bitrate. In an age where the speed of information was everything, the lockdown essentially deprived its inhabitants of a viable future. I love that when Mimi was ready to lead, she summoned Anarchy.Cloud — a freedom-, equality-, and love-embracing server that belonged to no nation, political party, or corporation. It is powerful commentary. What is your view of the job and responsibility of a writer?
S: As a writer, I can only write what I believe in. I want to emphasize the responsibility and the values that science fiction should have through my own writing. I was strongly influenced by the tradition of “literature is the way to carry the Tao,” but this practice may be seen by others as “toxic” or too much “propagandizing.” The Tao or message itself might be absurd or biased, but this self-awareness of influencing the reader and interfering with reality is critical and unshakable to me.
M: I was very much intrigued by the floating waste islands at the close of Waste Tide and the possibility of people living on them. Is this a story idea that you plan to tackle in the future? What is your next project?
S: The waste islands will be the trigger of the sequel, which still awaits in the pipeline.
There are two projects I am working on currently during the COVID-19 lockdown time. One is co-authoring a book entitled AI:2041 with Dr. Kai-Fu Lee. It’s a combination of science fiction and tech prediction about how AI would change our world in all aspects according to solid research. Another project is my second novel, A History of Illusion, set in an alternative history in which the Apollo project failed and the human race turned to psychedelic entertainment, where a young man with designer-drug talent tries to explore the secret truth behind his family. Both might come out in 2021.
Stanley interviews Maggie
S: In your extraordinary debut novel An Excess Male, I felt so connected to my own private Chinese life experience: one-child policy generation, patriarchal social system, homophobic atmosphere, et cetera. Especially in reference to the current debate of the “Calm down period” for divorces and single women fighting for the rights to freeze their eggs. Why would you choose speculative fiction as a genre to address all these complex issues, and how did it help you to extend and amplify your message?
M: As a result of the one-child policy and the cultural preference for sons, China now has 30 million more men than women of marriageable age. This population policy which was initially intended to be a one-generation fix lasted nearly forty years. It became the world’s longest lasting and most radical social engineering experiment. For the Western audience, it is difficult to fathom or accept this level of intrusion and violation of one’s reproductive rights. Stories of the state’s monitorization of individual women’s menstrual cycles; forced, late-term abortions; and baby confiscation and kidnapping by the police possess a near dystopian, sci-fi quality. I attempted to recreate that feeling of incredulity and shock in my novel by taking the problem of balancing the gender ratio to one of its logical extremes.
S: Speaking of the characters setting, it seems to me Wei-guo is like an outsider coincidentally stepping into a polyandry family of May-ling, Hann and XX. Where he is the only straight male who can execute the role of reproducing as the government wants everyone to do. This gave him an ambiguous perspective on everything while keeping us guessing what his real stand is. Could you tell us more about how you built up all these relationships, like organic growth or running as a road map? Any moments out of control?
M: Historically, polygamist situations — emperors’ courts and wealthy families with multiple wives living under one roof — were rife with power struggle, jealousy, and intrigue. Even the traditional multi-generational Chinese household often had a difficult time escaping that dynamic. In my novel, I wanted to subvert that expectation. On the surface, it appeared that by marrying into a household alliance of two brothers sharing a wife, my excess male protagonist would be at a disadvantage in addition to being the lowest man in the social strata. He would discover, however, that even with the deep abiding love in that family, neither brother cared to be truly in the marriage. My protagonist would come to provide the glue that held this problematic family together. The conflict within this strong family could be resolved with love and respect, whereas their difficulty with a State that necessitated their situation would prove much more difficult to reconcile.
This book started from a short story which later became most of the first chapter. I wrote this book without a road map, so yes, I felt more often than not out of control. The novel started out as a family drama. The governing question was whether my excess male would marry into this household. My writing group kept encouraging me to show the world outside. My excess male protagonist was already involved in simulated war games, but it wasn’t until I added his scene with its governing board at the Ministry of Defense in the first chapter that I felt the stakes heighten and change for the entire book.
S: It really interests me that you create the live-action military role playing games to keep 30 million excess males busy. Which reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, you can barely see a female Fight Club member there. Does that implicitly express the assumption that males, in any time and cultural context, are incapable of handling their extra energy or libido correctly or internally that might ultimately lead to violence and self-destruction?
M: I tried to present two opposing views on this issue in my novel. The State perceived the 30 million excess men as a highly problematic source of societal dissatisfaction and disorder. Any organized activity involving this crowd — especially their simulated war games — was a potential threat that needed to be carefully managed and controlled.
From the perspective of my excess male and his fellow participants, Strategic Games was more akin to wilderness survival training, a chance to exercise and learn about the great outdoors. Strategic Games was a self-governing group organized by the unmarried men to provide recreation, emotional support, a sense of belonging, and a framework to help them stay positive as they wait for a turn at marriage that may not come. When given a chance, these men opted for community, optimism, and order.
It was an uneasy détente. Trouble arose in my book when the State overstepped and tried to cull the Strategic Games ranks by demanding that teams meet a 5% mental health quota and cut those “unstable” members.
S:I believe you must’ve been asked many times about the comparison between your book and The Handmaid’s Tale. I can’t help but ask more about how you think the Confucian belief system plays a role in your story, while leading to a totalitarian, patriarchal future similar to Gilead? Any possibilities we can avoid that from happening?
M: Filial piety to one’s parents, loyalty to one’s country, and hierarchy as the way to establish social order certainly play a part in my book. The individual’s urge to conform and a reticence to challenge authority are some of the fundamental building blocks of Chinese society. The rise of totalitarian patriarchy in my book, however, required much more than Confucian beliefs. It needed a State with a chokehold on its populace.
Totalitarianism regimes count on the tacit consent of the masses. It is vital that we do not submit quietly. Civil resistance and persistent non-violent group action are essential. Decentralized leadership in local communities, free elections, a multi-party political system, and a government with built-in checks and balances are some preventative measures.
S: It feels to me like we are both issue-driven storytellers. Which means we need to balance the key messages, plots and characters in a very subtle way. Try very hard not to voice-over too much on preaching ideologies. Tell us the best and worst part when writing your first novel? What are you working on right now and next?
M:I agree. With issue-driven stories like ours, it works best to dramatize conflict, to let characters and situations present moral dilemmas, and allow readers to come to their own conclusions.
For me, the best part of writing is stumbling upon a strong idea and puzzling together the myriad and often far-flung story elements. When everything fits well, the story takes on a life of its own. I’m a slow writer, and the hardest part can be the day-to-day of it when the writing is not coming easily. I’m not one of those who can formulate big chunks of work in my head. The challenge for me is to show up regularly, fingers on keyboard, and persist when it is difficult.
I’m in the process right now of revising the draft of my next book. The story is based on another unintended consequence of the one-child policy — the thirteen million girls who were born illegally and could not be registered. Often second children or illegitimate, these girls do not have the right to schooling, medical care, or work. Set in modern-day China, my new novel tells the story of a multigenerational family that in asserting its reproductive rights chose to defy its government. It is also the story of a young woman’s discovery of self-hood and political power under a State that refused to recognize her existence.
Maggie Shen King is the author of An Excess Male, one of The Washington Post’s 5 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels of 2017, and a James Tiptree Jr. and Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Her short fiction has appeared in New York Times, Ecotone, ZYZZYVA, Asimov's Science Fiction, and elsewhere.
Chen Qiufan (Stanley Chan) is the author of The novel Waste Tide. His award-winning short fiction has been translated into many languages, and appears in English in F&SF, MIT Technology Review, Clarkesworld, Year's Best SF, Interzone, Lightspeed, and elsewhere.