Accelerated History: Chinese Short Science Fiction in the Twenty-First Century

By Niall Harrison. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

1. Introduction

This coming August will mark the tenth anniversary of Clarkesworld Magazine’s English-language publication of “The Fish of Lijiang” by Chen Qiufan. It’s the first-person account of a middle-aged businessman sent to a commercial beauty spot for some forced rest; he is recovering from “time sense compression,” an experimental procedure to make him a more productive employee. He meets a woman who has undergone the reverse procedure, enabling her to work as a carer for rich old men who are having their last days stretched out to subjective years. They bond; they go their separate ways. 

“The Fish of Lijiang” was not, of course, the first translation of genre science fiction from China into English — there have been occasional stories for decades; just a couple of years earlier, in the first Apex Book of World SF, Lavie Tidhar included stories by Han Song and Yang Ping — but it was still a milestone. It’s a neat if-this-goes-on commentary on class, wealth, and labour conditions, and as an ambassador story for Chinese SF, I think it was a smart pick: following on from novels like Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland (2008), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House (2010), its sardonic take on a near-future non-Western setting felt comfortably familiar. It went on to win the (short-lived) Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award the following year.

It also became the foundation for Clarkesworld’s ongoing collaboration with Storycom, a Chinese ‘story commercialization agency’ with a focus on SF; and it was the first published translation by Ken Liu. Many readers of Vector will be familiar with the outline of what happened next. Liu became a powerhouse of translation — according to his website, he has translated over 50 works to date — and when his translation of Liu Cixin’s novel The Three-Body Problem was published in 2014, it became not just the first translated novel to win a Hugo, but a genuine commercial success. A trickle of Chinese SF has become a healthy and continuous flow, with the volume of new stories, collections and novels probably exceeding the ability of most readers to keep up with it (Figure 1).

Continue reading “Accelerated History: Chinese Short Science Fiction in the Twenty-First Century”

Review: Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games by Andrew Reinhard

Reviewed by Kerry Dodd. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

From the dual-pistol wielding Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (1996-present) to the suave Nathan Drake from Uncharted (2007-2017), video games are replete with heroic archaeologists and their exploration of lost worlds. While surely a far-cry from its real-world counterpart, these is a certain pervasiveness to excavational practice within digital media that demands further attention. Can video games themselves be artefacts? How would we excavate a virtual world? Can this medium extend archaeological practice? It is precisely these questions that Andrew Reinhard engages with in his compelling and lucidly written Archaeogaming – a fascinating study of the ‘archaeology in and of games’ (2).

Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games

Throughout Reinhard identifies that this is not just archaeology within video games, but also a perspective which encourages the identification of games as artefacts themselves. Fittingly, then the first chapter, ‘Real-World Archaeogaming’, examines the significance of video game physicality – arcades, retro shops, and developer studios – alongside the field’s potential to scrutinise recent cultural products. As the author outlines, video games are irrefutably artefacts of material culture and offer a fascinating insight into such intersections as 1980s popular culture and nostalgia. Take, for example, the urban myth of Atari burying multitudes of E.T: The Extraterrestrial (1983) cartridges in the Alamogordo city landfill – after its wide-spread acknowledgement of being ‘the worst game ever made’ (23) – a perfect encapsulation of real-world archaeogaming at play. Reinhard narrates their own experience as part of the excavation team that dug up the ‘Atari Burial Ground’, a fascinating insight which unseats archaeology as merely the study of ancient history to suggests its applicability to the recent past. This archaeology of garbage – or Garbology – thus allows a more faithful appraisal of contemporary material culture and how the waste left behind is intrinsic to artifactuality. Reinhard then turns to the virtual, cogently examining how video games have their own historicity too, one which can instead be identified through version and build numbers.  

Video game archaeological characters have a massive impact upon public awareness of the field, which Reinhard appropriately explores through their prominence of ‘Playing as Archaeologists’. Providing a brief, but informative, survey of the different roles which archaeologists plays in a multitude of texts, this study not only demonstrates the voracity of the trope but also its variance between back-drop setting and the implementation of excavational practice. The separation between archaeologist Non-Playable Characters (NPCs) and mechanical process poignantly queries how an ethical excavational practice can be deployed within the game format. For example, if we can study material culture through the waste left behind, how can this be translated to the digital? Exploring object looting and disposal in World of Warcraft (2004-present) and Elders Scroll Online (2014-present), Reinhard considers the historicity of virtual objects, how they each embody their own ‘fake’ and ‘real’ history while existing across multitudes of player-based instances. Crucially video game worlds can therefore become landscape to not only test and explore archaeological theory, but also one to challenge methodological practice. 

It is within this vein that Reinhard next turns to ‘Video Games as Archaeological Sites’ to explore the multifarious ways in which excavational practice can be applied to digital spheres. Utilising No Man’s Sky (2016) as the main example, the author identifies how the ‘No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey’ (NMSAS) – established by Catherine Flick with L. Meghan Dennis and Reinhard – is a platform that deploys a rigid archaeological structure to study the game’s procedurally-generated universe of over eighteen quintillion planets and its resulting material culture. Outlining an extensive and impressive background of archaeological theory, Reinhard’s meticulous approach offers a compelling framework through which the reader can also establish their own excavational study – the NMSAS’ ‘Code of Ethics’ are replicated in full at the end of the book, a compelling read indeed for interested parties. Certainly, one of the greatest strengths of Archaeogaming is its enthusiasm and openness to wider public immersion. I am particularly interested to see NMSAS’ future excavations now that No Man’s Sky has implemented full multiplayer features – arguably is applicability is as limitless as the procedurally-generated universe itself. Reinhard’s own documented landscape excavation of a Moon within No Man’s Sky is refreshing for its innovative approach, one which is not above commenting on the draw-backs and frustrations incurred from limited mapping mechanics in the game’s early versions. 

The final section, ‘Material Culture of the Immaterial’, engages with the complexity of studying the ephemerality of digital presence. Reinhard explores the importance of video game archives alongside the challenges of arranging these artefacts within a museum – are they categorised by genre, by publication date, are the games playable? Museums, of course, equally feature within games, a location which Reinhard interrogates similar to the previous archaeological character study. For indeed, while video games often point or gesture towards a narrativized history, often these are merely artificial or illusionary. In Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games no ‘past’ can be verified, as any traces of a player – such as discarded trash – are quickly eradicated. As Reinhard notes, although there may be no material trace to this intangible physicality, this does not preclude archaeologists from exploring the rich didacticism of these increasingly immersive frontiers. 

While some may challenge the validity of archaeological study within video game worlds, Reinhard steadfastly and convincingly presents their unique application for expanding excavational processes. To disregard this singular potential is thus to overlook the manners in which they enrich and challenge current practice, questioning our mediation of waste, artifactuality, and ‘presence’. Archaeogaming is by no means an exhaustive study of every excavational video game – and as the author notes, nor can it be – rather Reinhard provides a productive and compelling framework that indeed encourages the reader to enter the field and see what artefacts they too may uncover. 

Review: Vigil by Angela Slatter

Reviewed by Duncan Lawie. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Urban fantasy, as we now know it, is dominated by a few big cities and a few common types of nightmare creatures. Angela Slatter’s success with Vigil is to make such a style work in a place as seemingly mundane as Brisbane, Australia and to do so with a collection of Weyrd more subtly defined than the default vampires or were creatures.

Whilst it is a long time since I lived in Brisbane, the city I see in this book is familiar. Slatter makes good use of iconic locations. The book returns repeatedly to the cliffs of Kangaroo Point, which feels like a natural gathering place for flying mythical creatures. West End, always friendly to those of a Goth outlook, works well as a suburb for the Strange to be hidden amidst the merely strange. The ordinary city comes alive too, particularly the incessant driving to get from one place to another.

Vigil

In common with much urban fantasy, we have a first-person female protagonist, a private investigator with a liminal role. In this case Verity Fassbinder has mixed blood. She was brought up by her normal grandparents after her Weyrd father died in prison for killing and butchering children. For the Weyrd of Brisbane, the old ways of preying on the normals are forbidden for selfish reasons rather than moral ones. Fassbinder Senior’s principal crime in their eyes was to bring them close to exposure.

There is an interesting theme here of fitting in, of being an immigrant community which needs to take up the apparent norms of their host society, but it seems a generation out of date. Both the Weyrd and regular human population of Brisbane we see here are immigrants from Europe to Australia and their descendants. I understand the nervousness most modern Australians feel about invoking the Aboriginal uncanny, but it seems a little odd that the waves of immigration of the last forty years aren’t visible.

Nevertheless, the Weyrd come from a broad variety of European ancestry – creatures of myth, fairy tale, nightmare. Many aren’t clearly identifiable types, which means they can take individual shape, whilst some “types” help to shape the plot. Amongst these are Sirens from Greek myth, though I am rather bemused that these are flying women, when I would have expected such to be called Harpies; perhaps that carries expectations of ugliness. The angels are dependent on the faith of the people for their power. The Three Fates run a cafe. 

The private investigator plot is a classic mechanism for explaining the city. There is every sense that this city, this community, has existed for a long time and that many stories are waiting to be told. Slatter throws several apparently unconnected mysteries into the mix and gradually shapes them together. Can the new boyfriend really be as good as he seems? Who is killing Sirens and why? How does The Winemaker connect to Verity’s father? Slatter builds up the intrigue, though there is never a genuine feeling of peril. Fortunately, Verity’s character convinces, to the extent that I found myself getting somewhat frustrated with Verity’s apparent obtuseness in chasing the clues placed in front of her. 

Perhaps this tells me that Slatter is a great writer, building the tension in her reader by showing us things which our protagonist has seen but not understood. There is clearly enough here to show that Slatter can plot well, but she needs a tighter edit. Verity’s relationship with her primary police contact is inconsistent, which makes it harder to understand either of them. Minor items would matter less except that the reader is trawling for clues – for example a conversation about taking a child to school the next day when that next day turns out, in the next paragraph, to be Sunday.

Beyond these gripes, Vigil is an entertaining read, particularly if you know the setting. 

Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Originally published as short stories in The New Yorker, and first collected in 1977, Kingdoms of Elfin was the last of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s books to be published in her lifetime. Although some of her books were among the first to be published as Virago modern classics in the late 1970s and her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), with its witch protagonist, is now well known, there was a period when Warner was chiefly remembered for her role in the anti-fascist generation of 1930s writers. Along with her life-partner, Valentine Acland, she joined the Communist Party and worked in support of the republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. Kingdoms of Elfin, with its enchanting and enigmatic tales of fairies scattered across Europe and beyond, seems far removed from such political concerns and yet under the surface there is something inexorable which gives these stories an exquisite, but nonetheless mortally sharp, edge.

Warner’s fairies are fascinated with the short-lived humans around them but not overly bothered about their individual welfare. In the first of these stories, ‘The One and the Other’, a changeling accidentally kills the human he replaces – who has already grown old and been evicted from the fairy kingdom he was taken by – while experimenting on his blood, but consoles himself with the thought that he can probably sell the body to the anatomists in Edinburgh. In ‘Elephenor and Weasel’, Elephenor finds himself working as the assistant to a travelling necromancer – involving, amongst other tasks, deploying his wings to imitate the devil – and loving every minute: ‘To have a great deal of power and no concern was the life for him’. In ‘The Occupation’, a group of fairies drive a Scottish clergyman mad by making a home in his manse and even attempting to clean it. In a rare but neat political twist, his wife leaves with the children ‘to live with her sister above a grocery shop in Glasgow, where she was much happier, just as dirty, and insisted on her standing as a Minister’s wife’. 

Yet, if humans and their foibles are relentlessly subjected to dispassionate scrutiny, Warner’s fairies, themselves, are also often shown as the victims of capricious fate. Or, at least, that is how it appears when viewed from a conventional perspective, but perhaps Warner’s greatest achievement is to encourage readers to dispense with their pre-existing moral frameworks, which are made to look narrowly time-bound in comparison with a more fluid fairy temporality. In ‘The Five Black Swans’, the dying Queen Tiphaine (Warner’s fairies are not immortal but have lifespans of centuries) of the Scottish elfin kingdom of Elphane, relives her relationship with the human Thomas of Ercildoune, making love outside whether in the dew-drenched grass, rain or even hail: ‘Love was in the present: in the sharp taste of the rowanberries he plucked for her, in the winter night when a gale got up and whipped them to the shelter of a farm where he kindled a fire and roasted turnips on a stick, in their midnight mushroomings, in the long summer evenings when they lay on their backs too happy to move or speak, in their March-hare cuvettings and cuffings.’ Here, the pure moment contains all of existence and thereby encompasses eternity as opposed to the insubstantiality of the conventional human present, enslaved by causality and condemned to endless unfulfilling repetition.

It’s not that fairies don’t have their problems. There is rather a lot of overly formal court procedure and an annoying class system that constrains those of the higher ranks from some of the more bodily pleasures, such as flying. However, being fairies, these boundaries are frequently transgressed. Long after they find themselves ejected at the text’s end on to the cold hillside, the memory of these tales will haunt readers with the lingering sense that we could live differently.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

An Earnest Blackness

Eugen Bacon contemplates Black speculative fiction, and recommends the works of Suyi Davies Okungbowa and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Decades after the ground-breaking work of speculative authors such as Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany, and Octavia Butler, Black speculative fiction is more visible and more thriving than ever. Through invented worlds and technologies, and incursions of the supernatural or the uncanny, more and more Black speculative fiction authors are offering stories of curiosity, diversity and hope, possibilities, probabilities, even dire warnings about our place in the universe. 

There’s power in Black speculative fiction. In a continued response to global events, speculative fiction authors are increasingly curious and experimental, writing across genres in a rise of future forms and modes to tell radical tales that speak to our curiosities, to lost or forgotten cultures, to decolonising language, and to deconstructing and reconstructing self and identity. 

The first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Toni Morrison, saw narrative as radical. She wrote revolutionary stories, including her literary horror novels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved (1987) — with its unsettling scrutiny at the awful legacy of slavery, and a Black woman forced to make a terrible choice — and Song of Solomon (1998), with its genre bending across literary and speculative, and themes of resilience and belief: 

“What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?”

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“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”

Song of Solomon culminates with protagonist Milkman’s leap, a surrender to the air so he can ride it. And now, more than ever, people of colour are increasingly adopting Black speculative fiction — in stories of possibility — so they too can surrender to the air, and ride it. 

Continue reading “An Earnest Blackness”

Immediate Pasts and Soon-to-be Futures: Sinofuturism in Review

By Virginia L. Conn. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

This is an extended version of the essay that first appeared in volume 50 number 3 of the SFRA Review.

Like a snowball picking up speed, the last year has seen a growing aggregate of academic and popular interest in sinofuturism, both in China and abroad. Writing in a special issue of Screen Bodies on queer sinofuturism, scholar and designer Yunying Huang notes that as of 2020, the only results in Chinese for the term were a conversation between artists aaajiao, scholar Gabriele de Seta, and curator Xuefei Cao, and “a workshop on ‘Wudaokou Futurism’ (Space 2019) which convened a discussion of Sinofuturism in the geo-physical location of the Beijing region” (Huang 59). This Wudaokou futurism workshop, in fact, was the impetus behind the SFRA Review’s 2020 sinofuturism special issue, with many of the same speakers who participated in the workshop — including original workshop organizer Dino Ge Zhang — contributing articles that built on their prior presentations.

The Wudaokou alternative futurisms conference itself was held in December 2019, when China was already in the grips of the pandemic that would soon engulf the United States, the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world. I participated from a dark hotel room at 5 am, Skyping in (this was before Zoom became an omnipresent part of our connectivity — a lifetime ago!) to talk about alternative modes of temporalities to an audience that was, themselves, temporally and geographically disparate. Since then, the technology that sweeps us along towards an increasingly interconnected future has also come under the same orientalist scrutiny that informs so much sinofuturist anxiety in the first place: from then US president Donald Trump’s abortive move to ban both TikTok and WeChat in the States, to the widespread conspiracy that Covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon deliberately engineered to destabilize Western nations, to the fear of surveillance technologies deployed in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the role technology plays in China’s place in the future is as central to Western perceptions and fears of global power relations as it ever was.

As I wrote in the introduction to the SFRA Review special issue on sinofuturism that grew out of the Wudaokou workshop, the theory itself has largely emerged as a concept applied externally to China by Western observers. By compartmentalizing sociocultural development as a form uniquely tied to the nation-state while also seeking to maintain both distance and otherness, sinofuturism differs from theorizations such as Afrofuturism (to which it is often compared) through its application to, not development from, the subjects it takes as object. As a result, the very label of “sinofuturism” developed out of the same orientalizing impulses that previously relegated China to a space of backwardsness and barbarism (Niu, Huang, Roh 2015) and which now attribute to it a projected futurity. Yet this Western label is one that Chinese authors and artists have appropriated and weaponized for their own creative ends, without necessarily sharing unified goals.

Authors of science fiction in China have uniquely grappled with this impulse, especially insofar as digital technologies — such as the growing e-publishing industry and networked media platforms — allow for the proliferation of new voices historically barred from traditional publishing venues (Xu 2015). What’s more, contemporary science fiction in China functions as a transnational form that centers a technoscientific process or material object as a means of introducing social change, rendering the aim of science fiction inherently future-oriented even when relying on the past or focused on the present. Because potential future ontologies are expected to be relevant to present extrapolations, they fundamentally rely, to some degree, not only on realistic depictions of possible technologies and circumstantial realism, but also the familiar perceptions of the extant material and digital worlds — a central tenet of sinofuturism’s omnivorous inclusion of technology, labor, art, and the visions it makes possible (Lek 2016).

Lawrence Lek, Geomancer , 2017. Poster from CGI Film. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

The globalizing effect of the internet and the subsequent rise in wide-scale digital exchange, in particular, has created a space for production in which Chinese authors are writing for an increasingly global audience and shifting their goals correspondingly. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, authors and public reformers in China (such as Liang Qichao, who, in his 1902 unfinished novel The Future of New China, described a utopian 1962 in which China was the dominant global power) were envisioning sinofutures in which China was preeminent on the world stage. The idea of China as a dominant force in the world yet-to-come continues through much Chinese science fiction today, from standout international sensations such as The Three-Body Problem to anonymously published digital short stories like “Olympic Dream.” For science fiction authors describing the Chinese future (or the future as Chinese), an awareness of the fact that American and Western media largely paints China as a place of repression and censorship is an integral part of the worlds they depict.

Continue reading “Immediate Pasts and Soon-to-be Futures: Sinofuturism in Review”

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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

There’s a blurb on my copy of Gnomon where Warren Ellis explains how much he hates Nick Harkaway for having written it. I can relate: the ambition of this book would be enviable even if the execution weren’t very impressive. And the execution is very impressive indeed.

I need to capture Gnomon’s essence in not many more words than it has pages: a daunting challenge in its own right, made harder by my heaping praise on it in my opening paragraph. Readers familiar with my reviews will know I hold no truck with the Spoiler Police, but I’m nonetheless hesitant to reveal too much – not because outlining the plot would spoil your enjoyment of it, but because it’s effectively immune to summary. There’s just too much going on.

Gnomon

But still, let’s give it a go. For the setting, we have a dystopian future UK of the algorithmic-panopticon type: cameras and sensors everywhere, AI running all the things, democracy driven by mandatory online plebiscites covering everything from local disputes to major reforms of the legal apparatus. (It’s like the blockchain-enabled Society Of Tomorrow™ that features in TED talks, which is of course the point.) There are no police any more, only the Witness, one of whom – Meilikki Neith – is our viewpoint character. 

Neith has to investigate a high-profile case: the death in custody of a suspected dissident. Dissidents like Diana Hunter are routinely identified by the System and brought in for questioning; more often than not, their dissidence is diagnosed as some incipient or as-yet-unnoticed mental illness or social dysfunction, and is treated before they’re released to go on with their lives in a happier, more well-adjusted manner. The treatment and diagnosis are performed by the same means: a combination of innovations that make it possible to read human mindstates with an astonishing level of fidelity, and also to edit them. It is during such a questioning that Diana Hunter, minor novelist and luddite recluse, died. The rarity of such deaths merits Neith’s investigation – she’s one of the best – because it’s important that the System be seen to be fair, that due process is followed. 

The procedure is for Neith to review the memories retrieved from Hunter’s mind, so as to check whether she was the dissident that the System considered she might be, and whether her death was thus akin to the suicide of a captured enemy agent – to see if she had something to hide, in other words. Hunter’s memories are duly dumped into Neith’s mind. But while she’s waiting for them to settle, she decides to go gumshoe around in Hunter’s anachronistic house. The place is a Faraday cage, lined with books, devoid of cameras and sensors, and thus effectively off-grid in panopticonic terms. There, Neith meets an oddly-named androgyne who asks her a series of confusing questions, before roughing her up and doing a runner. In the aftermath of this assault, Hunter’s memories begin to surface in Neith’s consciousness… only it seems that they’re not Hunter’s memories at all, but those of a succession of other characters.

These could almost be treated as novellas in their own right: first-person accounts which bring the experiences of their narrators into sharp and immediate (if deliberately foreshortened) focus. Kyriakos the stock-market whizz-kid gains a god-like ability to see where the markets will turn, only to see them – and the rest of the world – turn sharply downwards. The alchemist Athenais is assigned to solve a Byzantine murder mystery that occurred in an occult contraption of her own fraudulent invention and ends up on an inter-planar vision-quest. Berihun, a feted artist in the last years of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, finds his creativity revitalised when invited by his games-designer daughter to contribute to her latest project, a dystopian surveillance-society RPG that presses all the wrong political buttons in a very Brexity contemporary Britain. And in a post-human far future, the book’s eponymous character takes up a tainted offer that might let them bring an end to all things, now, then, and forever more. As we move through these accounts, interspersed with Neith’s attempts to make sense of the mind they tumbled from, we realise that they are not mere nonsense that Hunter had hidden in her head, but something larger and stranger and more interconnected than that.

The central notion isn’t exactly original – it’s rather Strossean, in fact. I doubt I was the only reader who, a third of the way through, had a solid notion of Harkaway’s intended trajectory, not to mention an inkling of why he was going there. Perhaps this is a thing that only a writer would say, but there’s a sense in which the real protagonist of Gnomon was Harkaway himself: much tension came from wondering how, if ever, Harkaway was going to land this thing without tearing off the undercarriage and ploughing into a passenger terminal. I was prepared for (and would have forgiven) a moderately bumpy or abrupt landing, an ending that tried to play the game straight while using a doubled deck of cards. Heck, I’d have probably forgiven a hammer-it-home boot-on-a-face-forever conclusion – though that’s almost the exact opposite of what you get, even if things are far from happily-ever-after. 

But I never imagined Harkaway would have the audacity to have the book itself address me so directly and plainly in its final pages, to state its metafictional purpose while simultaneously claiming its own success… and yet he did, and it does, and it works (at least for me, shameless postmodernist that I am).

There’s so much more I could say, so much more I want to say, so much more I don’t know how to say. So I’ll just say: you should read it, it’s a masterpiece.

Copyright Paul Graham Raven.