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).

That, in part, is the impetus for this review. Here in front of me (physically or virtually) I have most of the collections of work translated from Chinese to English that have been published in the last decade. They include one academic journal issue (Pathlight [2013]); one anthology that is an expansion of a different journal issue (The Reincarnated Giant [2017, expanded from Renditions 77/78, published in 2012]); two anthologies from a genre publisher (Invisible Planets [2016] and Broken Stars [2019], both edited by Ken Liu); and three single-author collections (The Wandering Earth [2013/2017] and Hold Up the Sky [2020] by Liu Cixin, and A Summer Beyond Your Reach [2020] by Xia Jia). There is some overlap between the contents: in total they include 84 stories by 27 authors, accounting for perhaps two-thirds of the total number of stories that have been translated since 2011.

There is some time sense compression going on here for us as readers, as well. These collections, appearing over the course of eight years, include stories drawn from a twenty-year span, and obviously they have not appeared in their original order. The joint-most-recent translations are seven of the stories included in Liu Cixin’s second English-language collection, Hold Up the Sky, which was published in the autumn of last year: but in their original publication, five of them predate not just 2011, but the original publication of “The Fish of Lijiang” in 2006. They’re a bit like the cryogenic passengers on a slower-than-light starship who discover that they’ve been overtaken by FTL colonists while they were sleeping. So it struck me that it might be an interesting exercise to break up the collections into their component parts, and read the stories in order of departure date (that is, first Chinese-language publication), rather than arrival.

It’s important to be clear about the limits of this exercise. First: there are a large number of stories that are now available in English but have not yet been collected. (In particular I’m pretty sure Chen Qiufan has enough translated to publish his own single-author collection by now.) With a handful of exceptions, I didn’t have time to read any of them. Second, this is not an attempt to characterise the nature of Chinese SF, or even to provide a definitive history of Chinese short SF in the twenty-first century. By the time they reached the books under review, at least four or five filters had been applied: initial editorial selection in Chinese; reader reception in Chinese; selection for translation; initial publication in English; and, for those not commissioned directly for a book, English reception and editorial selection for inclusion. That’s far too many sieves to conclude much about the original mix, and wordcount is going to force me to be selective even within the pool I have read. Third, focusing on stories that have been collected imposes a lag factor: the sample includes no stories from 2018, and only one each from 2019 and 2020 (Figure 2). Fourth, although there are some exceptions, for the most part there aren’t enough data-points to comment on the careers of individual writers, and I’ve omitted biographical information except where it seemed particularly relevant (there are biographies in all the anthologies considered). Lastly, I’m not qualified to comment on the work of translators [1]; but I have allowed myself to comment on the choices made by editors.

What I hope that looking at the original chronology of stories does do, however, is provide another angle on the portrait of Chinese SF that has been presented to readers in English. To a limited extent it also makes it possible to contrast what was happening in English-language and Chinese-language SF at the same time; to think about the conscious and perhaps less-conscious choices made in the filtering process; and, most optimistically, to notice gaps, and provide a tentative framework within which future translations can be understood. In that spirit, in place of the original collections, I’ve organised my discussion into some rough periods, but I will revisit the books themselves at the end.

2. Liu Cixin Era

There’s nothing Liu Cixin likes more than a big picture, so let’s start there. With two single-author collections in the pile — The Wandering Earth (2013 / 2017 retranslations) and Hold Up The Sky (2020) — it’s not a surprise that he is the most-represented author, accounting for one-third of collected stories. In fact the skew is greater the earlier the period you look at. He accounts for over half of the 49 stories that first appeared before August 2011, and nearly three-quarters of the 28 stories that were first published in 2005 or earlier. In English, the story of Chinese SF in the early twenty-first century is overwhelmingly the story of Liu Cixin.

And to judge by the results of the best-known Chinese SF award, the Galaxy, which is awarded by readers of Science Fiction World, this is not without justification. Liu won nine Galaxy awards in eleven years; for comparison, Connie Willis’s eleven Hugo wins span from 1983 to 2011, and while Charles Stross received thirteen Hugo nominations in the first decade of this century, he only won two. That said, it’s worth noting that for an English-language audience there is some symbiosis at play. One could argue that in English, the Galaxy award is recognised because it has been so integral to promoting Liu’s work. The Wandering Earth, in both its 2013 Beijing Guomo Digital Technology edition and its largely retranslated 2017 Tor/Head of Zeus edition, has a prominent “Awards List” at its start, highlighting Liu’s wins in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2005; and the 2001 and 2004 wins appear in Hold Up the Sky. The remaining two awards are for The Three-Body Problem and Death’s End in 2006 and 2010, respectively — the latter of which also established his commercial dominance in China, and was one of the catalysts for the opening of the translation gates.

In an essay published in a 2013 special issue of Science Fiction Studies (co-edited by Wu Yan, probably the leading science fiction academic in China), Liu, who trained and worked as an engineer, offers this bracing opening: “Never did it occur to me that I would ever be this closely associated with the world of literature, especially as I to this day feel no particular fondness for it.” The cheap shot about his work is to say that this shows. Take the earliest story of Liu’s that is in these collections, for instance. “Contraction” (1999) is a pure idea story. A threshold is approaching — scientists and politicians are gathering to observe the moment at which the universe reaches its maximum expansion, and then begins to contract — and the story consists merely of talking heads explaining to each other what is going to happen and why it matters. As a result, there is a lot of dialogue like this:

Excitedly, the observatory head welcomes the governor and brings her to Ding Yi. “Why don’t we have Professor Ding introduce you to the idea of universal contraction…” He winks at Ding Yi.

“Why don’t I first explain what I understand, then Professor Ding and everyone else can correct me. First, Hubble discovered redshifts. I don’t remember when. The electromagnetic radiation that we measure is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum. This means, according to the Doppler effect, galaxies are receding from us …” 

That wink may as well be directed at the reader: I know you don’t care about characters, setting, or plot either; let’s just get down to business, shall we? This is indeed the method of someone with no particular fondness for ‘literature’ as it is generally defined. It’s also, of course, a very familiar science fictional method, part of a lineage of which the exemplar may be Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” (1941), and when the idea is big and striking and compact enough, the result can be potent. “Contraction” can be taken, in part, as a passionate statement of intent, an argument in favour of this method. Part-way through the story, the governor laments that she lives in a different world to the professor:

“My world is a practical one. No poetry. Bogged down with details. We spend our days bustling around like ants, and like ants, our view is just as limited. Sometimes, when I leave my office at night, I stop to look up at the stars. A luxury that’s hard to come by. Your world is brimming with wonder and mystery. Your thoughts stretch across hundreds of light-years of space and billions of years of time. […] To be frank, Professor Ding, I truly envy you.”

Liu’s stories are absolutely full of attempts to convey the world that Professor Ding lives in, most literature is not, and if you’re not at least a little bit sympathetic to that project, you’re probably reading the wrong journal. But if that’s all you require from your reading, you’re also probably reading the wrong journal, and for me at least, “Contraction” falls flat. Most readers, I suspect, will work out what’s going to happen before the official big reveal, and it’s not an original enough idea (even in 1999) to carry me away by itself. It’s not the only story to fail in this way; others are let down by casual worldbuilding sexism; and a few are more strikingly obnoxious.

So reading Liu is, for me, a hit-and-miss affair. When he hits, it’s because he’s presenting a big idea with the poetic force the governor dreams of; or sometimes literal poetry. In “Cloud of Poems” (2003) [2], a dinosaur-alien takes one of their livestock humans to see a god, to ask why dino-culture seems so technologically stagnant compared with free humanity [3]. The answer is art: the human’s citing of classical Chinese poems intrigues the god to the point where he insists he will master the form, first by reincarnating Li Bai, and then, when that doesn’t work, by brute-force writing every possible poem using quantum computing, a process which, as side effects, requires repurposing most of the matter in the solar system and turning the Earth into a hollow sphere. It makes for a majestic vista, at least:

In place of the solar system was the Cloud of Poems, a spiral galaxy a hundred astronomical units across [… ] It wasn’t that the Cloud itself was made to glow, apparently, but rather that cosmic rays would excite it into silver luminescence. Due to the uneven spatial distribution of the cosmic rays, glowing masses frequently rippled through the Cloud of Poems, their varicolored light rolling across the sky like luminescent whales diving through the cloud. Rarely, with spikes in the cosmic radiation, the Cloud of Poems emitted dapples of light that made the Cloud look utterly unlike a cloud. Instead, the entire sky seemed to be the surface of a moonlit sea seen from below.

This is a little laboured (the repetition of luminscence/luminescent is ungainly), but spectacular nonetheless and, for me, such moments of science-engineering rhapsody are the most consistent pleasure of reading Liu. “Cloud of Poems” finds spiritual companionship in stories like “Sea of Dreams” (2002), in which an ice-sculptor inspires an alien traveller to create a vast and wonderful monument out of the Earth’s oceans, or “Mountain” (2006), in which another alien visitor is so massive that they pull the Earth’s water into a peak that reaches to the top of the atmosphere, challenging a swimmer to climb it. 

But all three stories also highlight competing tendencies in Liu’s writing, namely that as often as he is drawn to portraying the impersonal scientific-romance grandeur of the universe, he undercuts it by insisting on the Campbellian primacy of humanity. The whole of “Mountain” is a paean to the outward urge, the necessity of humans in space. In “Sea of Dreams,” the ice-sculpture results in an environmental crisis that requires humanity to master mega-technology to save their planet: the purpose of art is to provoke development. And in “Cloud of Poems,” the god is ultimately forced to acknowledge he cannot surpass Li Bai because, although he has created every possible poem, he has no way of finding a specific poem in his massive database, and so his efforts have been effectively meaningless.

This belief in the righteous human ability to not just know the universe, but to solve it, arguably reaches its apotheosis in “Moonlight” (2009). An energy minister receives three calls over the course of one night, all from future versions of himself. The first is from a drowned world, and offers improved solar technology to avert climate disaster — wonderful, we think. But the second call is from the new future that has been created and reveals that the fix, which involves using nanotechnology to convert sand into tiny solar cells, has led to widespread desertification and a different climate collapse. So this time they offer geoelectricity … but you’ve guessed it, the third call reveals this has led to the collapse of the magnetosphere, and an earth whose surface is scoured by cosmic radiation, forcing humanity to live underground. So the third caller begs our minister to go back to the original timeline: “The choice presented to you the first time may also be the best, but there’s no way to know without traveling down other timelines.” The moral, clearly, is that technological solutions should not be avoided on the basis of negative effects, because every intervention may have negative effects; the point of technology is to enable progress, so humanity should grasp the opportunities it provides and sort out the secondary problems later; and very literally, anthropogenic climate change is a price worth paying for abundant energy. This would be annoying enough in any context, but as one of the very few Chinese stories to tackle anthropogenic climate change at all, to read an argument so transparently rigged with junk science (geoelectricity just … stops working one day, without warning) is infuriating.

I framed the effect of the Clarkean/Campbellian tension as ‘undercutting’ earlier, but that’s partly because I’m a Clarkean sympathiser. In Liu’s best stories — which tend to be novellas, such as “The Wandering Earth” (2000), in which the entire planet is re-engineered as an interplanetary spaceship to escape the sun’s growth into a red giant, or “The Village Teacher” (2001), in which a pure golden-age space opera is collided with an attempt at rural Chinese realism — the canvas is big enough, and the vistas are extraordinary enough, to make the exceptionalism easier to swallow, and even to make the tension productive. 

His very best, perhaps, is “Sun of China” (2002), a near-future history seen through the life of one farmboy from a Northern province. Shiu migrates urban-wards in search of a better life, and at first his goals, stated at the beginning of each chapter of the novella, are humble: earn a little more money, see brighter lights. But he progresses rapidly through hard work, fearlessness, and lucky contacts, from a shoe-shiner to a skyscraper window-cleaner, and from there, in a dramatic leap, to one of a team recruited to clean a giant geostationary mirror, the sun of the title. It’s framed as a great breakthrough in the industrialisation of space, ‘normal’ people proving they can do space-set jobs. But Liu does not end the story there. In the late 21st century, when the sun is due to be decommissioned, having been instrumental in the creation of a better world, Shiu helps to retrofit the artefact as the solar sail of an interplanetary vessel. Strikingly, Shiu is a passenger in the story: he is not, as he perhaps would be in the equivalent twentieth-century US SF story, the driver of his own destiny. He is admirable, and has ideas, but many things happen to him, or are enabled by the society he lives in. It’s part of Liu’s point, I think: humanity has extraordinary potential, but good societies are required for that potential to flourish. In his foreword to Hold Up the Sky, Liu states that his goal is “to imagine and describe the relationship between the Great and the Small”; “Sun of China,” despite being (relatively!) constrained in time and space, does that as well as anything else he has written.

So that’s what Chinese SF of the first part of the twenty-first century looks like to an English-language reader: large-scale imagination, written for true believers. At the same point, UK and US SF were debating the New Weird (can unmixed genres even be interesting any more?) and New Space Opera (can conventional storyforms even be interesting any more?). Perhaps the most striking juxtaposition for me is with Ian R. MacLeod’s “New Light on the Drake Equation” (2001), which is, in a sense, about how Liu Cixin’s dreams have not come true for the West. In 2002, “Sun of China” would have found itself in dialogue with novellas such as Neil Gaiman’s dark YA fantasy Coraline; John Kessel’s lunar-matriarchy in “Stories for Men”; and Paul di Filippo’s weird urban fantasy, A Year in the Linear City. I think it would have made for an interesting conversation.

3. The Chinese New Wave

The first year for which translations of stories by Liu Cixin are outnumbered by translations of stories by other writers is 2004; and one of those translations is of “The Demon-Enslaving Flask,” by Xia Jia, who is to date the only other Chinese science fiction writer to publish a full-size single-author collection in English [4]. The story is a bit of an oddity in Xia Jia’s bibliography: it is a thought experiment about thought experiments. What if James Maxwell had been visited by a literal demon, and Maxwell’s speculation about how the second law of thermodynamics could be violated by a creature small enough to sort high- and low-energy gas molecules was actually a wager with that demon? As the story goes on, we learn that the demon has visited physicists down the generations — and, somewhat endearingly, almost always lost the wagers it agrees to. The best thing about the story is its lightness of touch: it’s enough to clearly differentiate it from Liu, who is almost always earnest. 

So for English-language readers of these anthologies, 2004 is a moment of transition for Chinese SF. In the larger context, the extent to which Liu Cixin is a solo act, or part of a wave, is debated. He has certainly achieved the most substantial commercial success, and has not obviously inspired a cohort of similarly-minded writers (at least, not that have been translated). However, Mingwei Song has grouped Liu Cixin with not just Xia Jia, but other writers such as Chen Qiufan, Fei Dao, and Zhao Haihong, as part of a “Chinese new wave,” seeing “subversive, cutting edge literary experiment” in their work that echoes the anglophone new waves [5]. He acknowledges the term as “controversial,” and I do think anyone who comes to their work expecting to read the next Delany, Russ, or Ballard is likely to be disappointed; most of the stories that have been translated are quite conventional in form. 

Nevertheless it seems clear that something has happened in Chinese SF over the last two decades, as a generation of writers born in the late 70s and 80s have entered their pomp; a “new wave” is as good a way as any to characterise it; and for English readers, the arrival of Xia Jia feels like the next milestone. So the next period I’m going to look at is 2004-2011: the new wave before translation. The 34 stories translated from this period are by fifteen different authors; Liu Cixin is still the most-represented (nine stories), but Xia Jia is not far behind (six stories), and four other authors are represented more than once: Chen Qiufan (three stories), and Hang Song, Ma Boyong, and Cheng Jingbo (two each). 

The most obvious thing to say about this cohort of authors is that many of them do clearly feel a fondness for the world of literature. Xia Jia is the archetype here: it’s an easy move to position her at the opposite end of a spectrum from Liu Cixin, but it’s hard to resist. Compared to Liu’s work, the horizons of a Xia Jia story are typically smaller; its characters more rounded; their narrative challenges more conventional. One of my favourites, “Heat Island” (2011), is another of the very small number of stories to address climate change, and the comparison with Liu’s “Moonlight” is instructive. “Heat Island” is told in the first person — a rare choice for Liu, who needs the breadth of perspective that third-person can provide. The narrator is a woman who can’t sleep on a hot night, recalling a time years ago, when she was a student preparing for her thesis defense. “So many things happened over that summer,” she muses, like a Kazuo Ishiguro narrator. She worked in a meteorology lab alongside a male student studying Beijing’s heat island. By the end of the story, it becomes clear that he is actually building a system to control the weather: in Liu’s hands, that would probably be the cue for a superstorm, but for Xia Jia the accomplishment is more neutral, its final impact unspecified. The focus is primarily on emotional texture: the tentative and unconsummated navigation of the two characters, the wistfulness of age for youth. Consequently, when the story does focus on its science, the emphasis is on its subjective impact on the narrator:

The model was now far more impressive than it had been two weeks ago. Gradually, I shifted the perspective, feeling as though I was entering a giant metropolis: everywhere around me coordinates and numbers flashed in phosphorescent green; the sky was a web woven from isobars and isotherms, like the dense peaks of overlapping mountains or a sea of clouds and mist; tiny arrows in various hues dashed and darted hither and thither; flow fields, temperature fields, divergence and vorticity, latent heat flux and vapor flux — everything was connected to everything else through the most rigorous set of equations, order constraining chaos.

I was awed by the harmonious and intricate spectacle, grand and stately. Everything was so beautiful, so beautiful that I held my breath, an artistic soul wearing the guise of a scientific investigator.

“A harmonious and intricate spectacle, grand and stately” could come from a Liu story, but the rest is much more embedded within a perspective than Liu ever gets: Professor Ding’s world from the inside, the poetry of the technoscientific mind, not just the poetry of technoscience.

Somewhere around the mid-point of my specious Liu Cixin-Xia Jia spectrum is Chen Qiufan. His aesthetic, as mentioned earlier, feels familiar, jaded, demotic and contemporary. Here’s how Lijiang, the rest resort in “Fish,” is described:

The ancient city at night is filled with the spirit of consumerism, but we can’t find anywhere we want to go. She has no interest in hearing Naxi folk music played by a robot orchestra: “Sounds like a braying donkey with its balls cut off.” I don’t want to see a folk dance demonstration by a bonfire: “Like a human barbecue.” In the end we decide to lie down on our bellies by the side of the street, watching the little fish swimming in the waterway.

On its original publication, “The Fish of Lijiang” appeared in the same year as Ian McDonald’s “The Djinn’s Wife,” and Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Yellow Card Man,” and makes sense in that company. The slightly earlier “The Year of the Rat” (2005) does as well, although it’s closer to conventional military SF, and suffers for it: the working-class narrator, his squad-mates of varying types (the smart one, the cruel one), the literally inhuman enemy (“neo-rats”) who turns out to not be as inhuman as the narrator has been told, the girlfriend who exists purely as a symbol (and “really had a way of capturing a man’s soul” when she took off her makeup) … it’s all there. More interesting is “The Endless Farewell” (2011), perhaps because it doesn’t have to worry as much about human interaction. A man who has had a stroke, and been paralyzed, is offered a deal by the military: they’ll give him an experimental treatment, if he will repay them by mind-melding with what appears to be a sentient deep-ocean worm. He takes them up on it, and the story is about his exploration of their differences or similarities in perception: they experience time physically, and they have interpenetrative hermaphroditic sex, but they share class-based emotional responses to different places. 

“Farewell” is also an example of one of the more common themes in the translated stories: the transfer of minds or, sometimes, entire brains. Wang Jingkang’s “The Reincarnated Giant” (2005) tackles the topic as a horror-inflected fable, in which a Japanese (“J-nation”) captain of industry recruits a neurosurgeon to research and enable a brain transplant to an infant body. Through legal shenanigans, this gets defined as a body transplant — on the basis that the brain is the consistent seat of identity — which means the businessman can continue to administer his financial empire. However, after the operation, a flaw is discovered: the operation has, somehow, disabled the normal limit on human physical growth, with the result that the businessman grows to a gigantic size, eventually collapsing and dying under his own weight. This comes across as a kind of satire on capitalist overconsumption, but there is an odd coyness about the way sex and human biology are described throughout that, I think, limits the story’s impact. Meanwhile, Fei Dao’s “The Demon’s Head” (2007) tackles a similar scenario but as a moral conundrum. This time the brain-in-a-jar is a war criminal whose body is destroyed in an ambush; when he realises whose brain he has, the operating doctor is horrified, but feels unable to kill. Over time, he finds a way to communicate with the brain, and an intellectual rapport develops: it seems that freedom from embodiment has led to freedom from desire, and hence the brain no longer has the same cruel urges. This is quite provocative: uploading/transfer stories tend to assume (as “The Reincarnated Giant” does) that identity is severable from embodiment, and even those that insist on the value of bodies tend to focus on their positive aspects. In “The Demon’s Head,” the brain ends up on trial, with the court debating to what extent it is culpable for the original human’s crimes. The resolution is not comforting. Lastly in this period, in Yang Ping’s “Chronicles of the Mountain Dwellers” (2011), we get a more familiar treatment of upload as escape, but within an overall nostalgic frame. The narrator reminisces about hanging out in a “recon” (nerve reconstruction) shop as a teenager; run by a local celebrity, it felt like the future; when he returns as an adult (and as a journalist) he finds it cramped, small, and selling fried chicken as a side-hustle to make ends meet. It turns out the owner has a terminal neurological disease, and made a terrible bargain as a result. The contrast between future potential and melancholy reality is effective.

“Chronicles of the Mountain Dwellers” is also an example of another recurring theme: the consequences of rapid development. It’s there in everything from Liu’s “The Village Teacher” to Qiufan’s “The Fish of Lijiang,” but the masterpiece of this subgenre, at least up to 2011, is Han Song’s “Regenerated Bricks” (2010). The narrator is the son of a family in an area devastated by an unspecified disaster [6], and one of a number of people who begin making the titular bricks out of the disaster rubble, following the method of an architect whose work has been received internationally (in a savage burn) as a kind of artwork. It transpires that — somehow — the voices of the dead echo from the bricks after their creation; new buildings are filled with ghostly noises. But this is not framed as fantasy. Here’s Song’s equivalent of the technoscience raptures by Liu and Xia Jia that I quoted earlier:

But what is regenerated brick? Around this question, the academic world produced any number of definitions, which were often contradictory. […] In order to resolve this vexing issue, regenerated-brick studies developed into an interdisciplinary field, not restricted to architectural studies. It absorbed the most recent achievements of physics, chemistry, and biology, among others. Regenerated brick came to be understood as a kind of composite material, a kind of helix based on the energy of shock waves, or even a kind of effect of a Bose-Einstein distribution. It perhaps had to do with high dimensional space, a wormhole in time-space. Regenerated brick had reordered the electromagnetic and gravitational fields, transformed some of the qualities of physical space, and renewed its geometry. All this produced extraordinary results, allowing us to hear the voices of dead relatives.

What I notice here is the uncertainty; not just that how the bricks work is not known, but a sense of postmodern hesitancy that it will ever be known. And despite the mention of Bose-Einstein distributions, this is obviously not rooted in real science in the way that Liu pretends to be and Xia Jia often is; it is science as a human and political process, inseparable not just from immediate human activity (the rebuilding work), but also culture (bricks as artwork), and later on, a cruel commerce (‘artisanal bricks’ become sought-after). A conceptual acceleration towards the end of the story takes the narrative to some extraordinary, haunting places: “Regenerated Bricks” has a heft that few of the other stories can match.

And Han Song’s earlier story in this period, “The Passengers and the Creator,” is very nearly as good, a classic metaphoric dystopia that retools some aspects of generation-ship stories to a more immediate context. The nameless narrator has a seat in Economy class of the World, which (it is quickly apparent to us) is a Boeing aircraft that seems to have been in the air for years, flying through continuous night. The World is tightly regimented: a holographic instructor provides education; Economy never visits Business or First (except when women are taken up, and then return pregnant). When, as the result of a birth nearby, the narrator is moved to a new seat, he encounters “18H,” a good-looking young man who starts to reveal the true nature of the World. (The queer subtext is never consumated but is notable for even existing). First the cannibals in the luggage hold (!); then the 20,000 other planes in the sky with them; then, finally, the narrator’s original identity. The nature of the catastrophe is never fully explained, but it doesn’t need to be, the story sustains its weird logic. And there is no advocacy for intrinsic human potential here: the achievement is technological, but not social, and that matters.

“The Passengers and the Creator” was published in 2005, which is the first year from which we have enough stories — eight — to say anything at all about context. It is contemporary with a pair of Liu Cixin stories, “Taking Care of God” and “For the Benefit of Mankind” that read like a try-out for some of the ‘dark forest’ morality developed in The Three-Body Problem and its sequels; Ma Boyong’s “The City of Silence,” a more conventional and 1984-like dystopia; “The Year of the Rat”; “The Reincarnated Giant”; and a couple of others. “The Passengers and the Creator” is head and shoulders above all of them, and together with “Regenerated Bricks,” indicates that a full collection of Han Song’s work is overdue. 

4. The Big Bang

Between 2010 and 2014, things happened very quickly. The catalyst seems to have been the commercial success of Liu Cixin’s Death’s End in China, which led to a broader interest in Chinese SF, both in the media and at conferences. In his essay “A New Continent for China Scholars: Chinese Science Fiction Studies,” which is printed in Broken Stars, Mingwei Song describes a major event on Chinese literature in Shanghai:

Almost nobody had heard of Chinese science fiction before this conference concluded with a late-afternoon roundtable discussion that gave two SF authors, Han Song and Fei Dao, ten minutes to talk about their genre. […] I remember I was sitting in front of Yu Hua and Su Tong, two literary giants who kept chatting in low voices. But they suddenly became silent, and they listened attentively when Han Song began to talk about the amazing new development of SF over the past decade, and when Fei Dao strategically linked the contemporary authors’ artistic pursuits and social concerns to Lu Xun, the founding father of modern Chinese literature, who was also an early advocate for ‘science fiction’ (kexue xiaoshuo) at the turn of the twentieth century, I could say that the entire audience, during the ten minutes, kept silent and listened with great interest to Han Song and Fei Dao.

It was a moment that changed the field. July 13, 2010, 3:30pm.

In his remarks, Fei Dao compared Chinese science fiction to a “lonely hidden army,” powerful but unrecognised; but it hasn’t stayed that way. Following the round-table, Theodore Huters commissioned Song to co-edit an issue of Renditions to be dedicated to translations of Chinese SF, which appeared in 2012 (and in 2017 was revised into The Reincarnated Giant); Chen Qiufan approached Ken Liu for an opinion on a translation he had commissioned  of “The Fish of Lijiang,” and Liu offered to re-do the translation, leading to its publication in Clarkesworld in 2011 — and in autumn 2012, leading to a request for Liu to translate The Three-Body Problem. The Chinese Nebula Award — a public vote followed by a panel selection of winners — was also established in 2010. Other projects were also in train, and in Spring 2013 two journal special issues appeared, one of fiction (Pathlight’s “The Future” issue) and one non-fiction (Science Fiction Studies #119), and later that year Beijing Guomi Digital Technologies released a first edition of Liu Cixin’s collection The Wandering Earth. In other words, by the time The Three-Body Problem appeared in English, in November 2014, the stage had been set.

Of the 84 stories I read for this project, about a quarter were first published between 2012 and 2014, in the window when Chinese SF was just beginning to receive sustained English-language attention. None are by Liu Cixin. Five are by Xia Jia; there are two each for Chen Qiufan and Hao Jingfang; and thirteen authors with a single story, making it the most varied few years so far. There is more work by Han Song and Fei Dao: from the former, “Submarines” (2014), a strange short piece in which huge shoals of submarines appear in the Yangtze river and are taken up as temporary housing by the poor of a nearby city; and from the latter, “The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales” (2014), a picaresque that ranges through space and time to make an argument for the power of imaginative play. And there is more by Chen Qiufan: “The Flower of Shazui” (2012), notable for near-simultaneous publication in English and Chinese, is a pendant to his novel Waste Tide (2013 Chinese/2019 English) and shares its flaws [7]; and the much better “A History of Future Illnesses” (2012), which is a striking collection of short-shorts, some of which are a bit If This Goes On —  (iPads lead to neurodivergent communities, social media leads to fragmented personalities) and some of which are more radically strange (the arrival into Earth’s orbit of a second moon gives rise to a generation with altered metabolism). It’s notable that most of the diseases are psychological, or human-transformative in some way, and that (despite what my synopses may lead you to believe) they mostly avoid easy morals.

Xia Jia’s stories stand out for starting to develop a shared future history, known as “The Sinopedia,” in which ubiquitous AI, VR, and telepresence are collided with existing ways of living. The connections are never the most important aspect of an individual story: “Tongtong’s Summer” (2014), for instance, probably one of her better-known stories, works well alone. A young girl watches as a carer robot is brought into her home to help her grandfather. She is the one who figures out that it’s not actually a robot, but is instead remotely operated by a human; and over time this leads to a more two-way relationship. It’s a fine example of Xia Jia’s approach, alert to the nuances of human relationships; and if you later recognise the unnamed narrator of “Goodnight, Melancholy” (2015) as a grown-up Tongtong, undergoing AI therapy for depression, it adds a layer of resonance, but is not essential [8]. Xia Jia’s stand-out story from this period, however, is probably “A Time Beyond Your Reach” (2012), a standalone novella, a doomed romance, and an interesting companion-piece to “The Fish of Lijiang.” 

The story is told by the narrator to her love, in three acts, and until the third, it’s not clear that it’s speculative at all. In act one, the narrator is a child in a small village in Southern China, and is captivated by a boy she encounters who plays beautiful, somehow time-distorting music, and who lives recklessly even after breaking a leg and starting to use a wheelchair. In act two, a decade later, the narrator has gone to university, and finds that the boy is now there: he has grown up to be something like a demi-god, handsome, smart, popular, athletic, lucky. She describes him as living fast while she is living slow. After a few passing encounters, they share something resembling a date, and a kiss. The language is heightened (“there were fireworks again, resplendent, one bloom after another unfurling in the dark of night, glittering jewels of light and shadow spilling inside, casting wildly across the faded plaster walls […] Neither the past nor the present existed; there was only this one, eternal, moment”). It should all be soundtracked by Lana del Rey. Eight years on again, and in act three they meet on a highway, eat at a diner, hook up in a motel. (The evocation of American road movies is clearly deliberate). There are two revelations. First, the narrator has spent the past eight years researching metabolism-accelerating technology, which she is using to bring herself up to her boyfriend’s speed. Second, he is on the run from the police. She helps him escape. It’s a high-wire act, and perhaps not every reader will find it successful. But it worked for me as a character study, of obsession and the yawning gap that can exist between two people when only one of them is desperate to be truly in sync. 

The other major writer to have two stories translated and collected in this period is Hao Jingfang. This is a retrospective judgement: I’m confident identifying her as major based on the erudite yet guileless critical-utopian novel translated into English as Vagabonds (2016; published in English in 2020), which describes a period of challenge and change for a Martian colony that in the late 22nd-century has been independent for forty years. Her stories share the same careful, compassionate approach to exploring how we should try to live. “Folding Beijing” (2014), a deserving Hugo-winner, is the best known: a dystopia in which Beijing has been reorganised to apportion time and geography according to wealth. Third space is active from 10pm to 6am, and responsible for waste processing; second space exists in the same geography, but from 6am to 10pm, and is blue-collar and administration; and first space, which has a fraction of the population of the other two, is white-collar and has a full day at its disposal. At each transition, the inhabitants of a given space go to sleep, and their buildings fold down and away to let the next inhabitants wake up. So for English readers, it’s another critique of urban divisions reminiscent of The City & The City but — very notably, and characteristically of Chinese SF — confident enough to apply its transformation to an actually existing place.

Very nearly as good, “The Last Brave Man” (2013) [9] is Jingfang’s take on the consciousness-transfer tale discussed above. It begins with a man on the run: first in eerie quiet, then under fire. He reaches and takes shelter in a warehouse, where he has a conversation with a worker. It turns out they are both clones. The man on the run is the 47th clone of a man who espoused the banned political theory of “independent individualism”  —  that is, clones have their own identities, separate from that of their progenitor — and the authorities are trying to eradicate his genetic profile. (Savour the ironies in that situation). The worker is the 32nd clone of a worker. They debate the limits of identity, what they are capable of, and what they owe their progenitors, intellectually and morally. End scene. In the morning the 47th clone is handed over to the authorities and executed. Then the narration skips a couple of generations: the world has hardened further into dystopia. “Genetic selection means that differentiation between personal abilities becomes even more pronounced […] everyone feels content within their role and thus blends into the world.” Under a waterfall, the 35th clone of the warehouse worker tells the 36th a great secret: that warehouse workers have been selected for memory and the ability to retain information; and then he passes on the 47th clone’s genetic profile, orally, to await the day he can be recreated. The reversals and revelations are expertly paced, and leave enough space for a serious-minded depiction of clone identity. As with Han Song, I’m impatient for a collection.

5. Convergence

The hidden army is now fully visible. Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015; Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” won Best Novelette in 2016 [10]. Rapid translation and anthologisation of new work is common. There are fourteen stories in my sample that were first published in Chinese between 2015 and 2020, and all of them — by definition — have appeared in English in the same timeframe; a couple of them have even appeared in English first. Once again, the most-represented author, with six of fourteen stories, is Xia Jia; there is one from Liu Cixin this time, but it’s a chapter adapted from The Three-Body Problem (the one with the medieval soldier-computer, which if you haven’t read it, is exactly as neat as it sounds). The remaining seven are a grab-bag, but more Xia Jia-like than they are Liu Cixin-like.

There is a short, nastily ambiguous tale about dreams and destiny by Tang Fei (“Broken Stars,” 2016); there are minor stories by Han Song (“Salinger and the Koreans” [2016], which probably requires me to know more and care more about J.D. Salinger than I do) and Hao Jingfang (“The New Year Train” [2017], about how we perceive our progress through time) and there is a short, effectively ambiguous consciousness-transfer story by Regina Kanyu Wang (“The Brain Box,” 2019). There’s also one of Chen Qiufan’s better stories, “The Coming of the Light” (2015): an antic anti-heroic piece which starts out with the marketing manager protagonist coming up with a profoundly sexist campaign for an image-authentication app (advertise to ‘loser’ men by showing them how the app can reveal the ‘truth’ about retouched photos of women), and via a backlash that doesn’t quite ring true (women are said to object to “the hoary trope of treating a woman’s right to pursue beauty as a twisted form of narcissistic deceit”) escalates into some much more interesting techno-Buddhist weirdness. 

Xia Jia’s entries range from “Night Journey of the Dragon Horse” (2015), which is an evocative post-apocalyptic fantasia inspired by an actually existing metal-and-resin mechanical creature created as an East-meets-West tourist attraction in Nantes, through a couple of short sharp riffs such as “Tick Tock” (2015), which imagines the recursive use of personality copies as workers (an actor who thinks he’s real but is a copy of a director who thinks he’s real who is a copy of etc.), to a pair of lovely, low-key emotive tales. 

“Duet of Love” (2019) is the more recent story, and an effective summing-up of Xia Jia’s strengths and weaknesses. The biological/chemical basis of love is now understood, and a “love lock” is applied to children, who can decide whether or not to remove it when they reach eighteen (and not everyone does). They still form bonds; they still have feelings; they still have sex; but the specific emotional vortex we call romantic love is absent, which, everyone believes, make chilldhoods and teenage years calmer and healthier. The story is epistolary, and begins with a student asking her professor about old art: is that really how the world was? But over the course of their correspondence, she admits there is more going on. She had agreed to open her lovelock on the same day as a male childhood friend, on their shared birthday, but he wants to delay. Should she wait for him, as a marker of their friendship? She thinks the professor will have the answer because of his own happy relationship — but it turns out the professor never unlocked. Love escapes biology; or in Greek terms, there is more to love than eros. The correspondence is Xia Jia at her best; but the ending perhaps appeals a little too much to the ineffable human spirit for my taste.

“Light of Their Days” (2015) is set in 2025, the 80th anniversary of the end of the second Sino-Japanese war, and is written with the self-investigative feel of autofiction: the narrator’s veteran grandmother is being publicly celebrated, but the narrator isn’t sure how to handle it. So, in search of understanding, she sifts through the public timeline of her grandmother’s life; visits a virtual memorial and talks to an old man there; and finally visits her grandmother, who turns out to be enjoying an app that brings old photos to life, with motion and depth, and finding a measure of peace through it. This story, more than any other, embodies the shift in feel over twenty years of stories, from Liu Cixin to Xia Jia, from cheerleading for the abstract concept of progress to the work of understanding its concrete impact.

I want to end as I began, however, by discussing a time-inversion tale. Baoshu’s “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” (2015) is the lengthy, witty, fully-realised, literary counterpart to Liu’s schematic “Contraction.” It’s one of the stories that appeared first in English (in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction), but puts paid to any notion that such convergence might diminish the distinctiveness of Chinese SF. The idea, originating from an online message-board discussion and summarised by the author in a note appended to the story, is that “while each person lives their life forward, the sociopolitical conditions regress backward.” It begins when the narrator is born on a day when “strange flashing lights appeared in the sky all over the globe [but] in the end, nothing happened.” And for a few pages we might agree with the narrator’s assessment of the situation. But then, while the narrator is a child, the Arab Spring is followed by the financial crisis, is followed by the SARS pandemic [11]; and by the time the Irag/Afghanistan war ends with 9/11, we’ve figured out what’s going on. 

Obviously the premise requires a certain amount of hand-waving — the concept of “history” as it exists in this timeline is not very clearly examined; Marxism exists even though Marx is in the world’s future) — but it’s consistently clever enough to forgive, as when the USSR emerges from the failures of ‘reforming’ capitalist governments, and rich enough in the detail of the narrator’s personal life that it’s easy to feel the reality of events. And there are jokes, not just a litany of regression: a remake is deemed superior to a childhood favourite, despite the worse special effects; and while on a visit to New York, the narrator gets to see Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope: “to re-experience the wonder of my childhood memories, I bought an expensive ticket. But Episode IV turned out to be far less spectacular than the previous three …”

The kernel of the story is reached when Sartre visits China after the Cultural Revolution, and discusses the condition of history with the narrator: the world, he says, is absurdist, progress is not a given, and so on:

Whatever direction time takes, what meaning does all this have? The world exists. Its existence precedes essence because its very existence is steeped in nothingness. It is absurd regardless of the order of events within it. Perhaps you’re right — had time picked another direction, the universe would be very different […] but such a universe would not be any better. In the end, joy belongs to those who are born in times of joy, and suffering belongs to those born in times of suffering.

Perhaps for this project I should have read all the stories in reverse order from 2020 back to 1999. I wonder what patterns would have emerged then.

6. Conclusions

I promised to bring it back to the books in the end. Of the single-author collections, it’s probably not a surprise that I prefer Xia Jia to Liu Cixin. I don’t actually think A Summer Beyond Your Reach is that well-organised — it opens with a trio of stories I think are among her weaker efforts — but the core of the collection is a suite of thoughtful, humane near-future stories after the fashion of Maureen McHugh, and there’s never enough of that to go around. If you do like the sound of Liu’s fiction, I’d probably go for The Wandering Earth over Hold Up the Sky, on the grounds that it includes “Sun of China,” plus the title story. In addition, you can get the “The Village Teacher” and “Cloud of Poems” — albeit in perhaps slightly less polished translations — in The Reincarnated Giant, which is my pick for the best of the anthologies.

That might be a contentious statement, so it deserves a bit of justification. I think the Spring 2013 Pathlight is probably only for completists, although it does include good work by Chen Qiufan (“The Endless Farewell”), Yang Ping (“Chronicles of the Mountain Dweller”), and Hao Jingfang (“The Last Brave Man”). But it was a surprise even to me to find that when I made my list of recommended stories, there were barely any from Ken Liu’s anthologies, Invisible Planets and Broken Stars. More than that, only four of the fourteen were actually translated by Liu — significantly out of proportion to his actual contribution.

In one sense, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising. Reading by language isn’t (or shouldn’t be) like reading by theme, subgenre, or author; there is no particular reason to expect that just because I like one story in English, that I will therefore like all stories in English. So anthologies built around translation from a specific language should be treated even more than most anthologies as a sampling buffet: it’s not a knock on the spread if you don’t like everything. The Reincarnated Giant includes three novel excerpts, none of which really work for me; but it also includes two of the most notable Liu Cixin stories,  Xia Jia ‘s debut (“The Demon-Enslaving Flask”), the two magisterial Han Song stories (“Regenerated Bricks” and “The Passengers and the Creator”), plus more that I haven’t discussed: a delicate historical by Zhao Haihong (“1923: A Fantasy”), a short but rich post-human ecology (“The Rain Forest” by Chi Hui), and a brazen far-future riff on nationalism (“Songs of Ancient Earth” by Baoshu). It ranges broadly and deeply; it’s a challenging and rewarding book to work through.

Invisible Planets is, deliberately, not challenging. It is framed as “an introduction,” and opens with three stories by Chen Qiufan, the writer whose rhythms are most familiar to an anglophone audience. (The Reincarnated Giant throws you straight in with “Regenerated Bricks”). In his introductory notes, Ken Liu is also at pains to tell his readers how not to read the stories: to resist framing them as ‘representative,’ and resist understanding them through a specific, national framing. This reaches a state of near-parody when it comes to Ma Boyong’s “City of Silence,” where we are urged to avoid reading a dystopian tale of language and thought censorship, which was itself altered to avoid Chinese censorship, as being about Chinese censorship. Obviously it is not only about that, because no story worth reading is only about one thing. But Liu’s framing of it borders on denial.

And here’s the rub of it: not only do I think I understand why Liu felt he had to do things this way, I think he was right, because I think it worked. He was introducing work to a field not known for its literary adventurousness [12], and that was at the time in a peak of racist backlash against the progress of writers like Liu himself, and he got the writers he was promoting two Hugo awards. The framing he had to use to get us to accept what he was offering is on us, not him; but for me, reading it now, in Invisible Planets, his approach resulted in a somewhat milquetoast collection, with only a few high-points (notably “Folding Beijing,” which is not in any of the other anthologies). By the time of Broken Planets the tone has loosened up a bit, and he has a larger page-count to play with: it’s still a little frustrating, however, that he frames “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” as a risky, challenging tale for English-language readers, rather than simply introducing it as the magisterial piece it is.

All of which is really a way of reiterating one of the limitations I highlighted at the start of this piece. What I’ve discussed here is not a portrait of Chinese SF; it’s a filter of a filter of a filter of a filter of Chinese SF. There are writers we are told are significant in China, who have not been translated in sufficient volume or with sufficient impact to achieve equal significance in English (Han Song would be one; Wang Jingkang, even more so). The sample is not as gender-imbalanced as you might fear, with thirteen different women translated against sixteen different men, which compares favourably to a background rate of about 33% of translations being by women [13]. However, nine of the men are represented by more than one story, against only four of the women. Queer representation is almost entirely absent, although that is due to be partially rectified by Tor’s next major anthology, in 2022 [14]. Climate fiction is also, as noted earlier, a striking gap: although on that front the same could be said of much English-language SF of the last twenty years.

So will my periodisation hold up? Probably not, except in the broadest strokes. That 2010 conference really did happen, after all; Liu Cixin really did win nine Galaxy awards in eleven years. But that’s why what I’m looking forward to most is not just finding out what happens next — and I do think the speed at which contemporary work is being brought to us in English is incredible and admirable — but filling in more of the gaps.


Thanks to John Coxon for layout of figures, and to Regina Kanyu Wang for suggestions of additional reading and resources. Errors, infelicities or omissions are of course mine. 

Niall Harrison is an occasional critic, and a former editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons and of Vector.


[1] With apologies, I’m not even going to mention every translator for every story, although in cases where a story has been translated more than once, I’ll specify which version I’m discussing. Suffice to say that although Ken Liu dominates with 39 attributed translations (plus, more than likely, some from the 2017 edition of The Wandering Earth that are not individually assigned), I counted 32 other individuals who translated one or more stories, and as readers we are in their debt: Adam Lanphier, Adrian Thieret, Brian Holton, Bruce Humes, Cara Healey, Carlos Rojas, Carmen Yiling Yan, Chen Zeping, Cheuk Wong, Chi-Yin Ip, Christopher Elford, David Hull, Emily Xueni Jin, Holger Nahm, Jesse Field, Jiang Chenxin, Jie Li, Jingling Chen, Joel Martinsen, John Chu, Karen Gernant, Katherine Poundstone, Linda Rui Feng, Nathaniel Isaacson, Nicky Harman, Pang Zhaoxia, Petula Parris-Huang, Poppy Toland, Rebecca Kuang, Theodore Huters, Thomas Moran, and Zac Haluza.

[2] I am here considering the 2020 translation by Carmen Yiling Yan in Hold Up the Sky, not the 2012 translation by Chi-Yin Ip and Cheuk Wong in Renditions / The Reincarnated Giant, which was titled “The Poetry Cloud.” In addition, unless otherwise specified, all references to stories collected in The Wandering Earth are to the 2017 edition, not the 2013 edition.

[3] “Cloud of Poems” is, for reasons that are unclear, written as a very loose sequel to the silly and nihilistic “Devourer” (2002), which is a military adventure describing how humanity is conquered by the aforementioned dino-aliens and their great planet-devouring ring machine. It can be safely skipped.

[4] A short collection by Han Song, A Primer to Han Song, was published by Dark Moon Books in September 2020, but not seen in time for this review. It contains six stories (three reprints, three new translations by Nathaniel Isaacson), as well as a comprehensive bibliography of Han Song’s fiction (in both Chinese and English).

[5] See Song 2015 and Song 2016, as well as the introduction to The Reincarnated Giant.

[6] The story is likely inspired by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed over 69,000 people, injured nearly 400,000, and left at least 4.8 million people homeless, and was followed by a massive investment plan (worth about US$146bn) to redevelop the affected areas.

[7] This is not the place for a full review, but Waste Tide is a visceral near-future thriller, set on an island where electronics recycling has led to both human and environmental ruin. The setting is compelling: the narrative less so, and the struggle that some of Qiufan’s short stories have to depict rounded female characters seemed to me unpleasantly exaggerated in the novel.

[8] So far as intertextuality goes, “Goodnight, Melancholy” also contains a footnote about Liu Cixin that I’m pretty sure is an in-joke about “Cloud of Poems,” but does also sound like something he might do.

[9] “The Last Brave Man” appears in the Spring 2013 Pathlight. my ebook edition does not provide previous publication attributions for any of its contents. Based on a cross-check of the Internet SF Database ( and the Chinese SF Database (, I’m reasonably confident that it’s original to the anthology and thus a 2013 story, but not certain. 

[10] It’s hard not to look at the Hugo ballots of 2015 and 2016 and note that both Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang were competing against Sad Puppy-blighted shortlists, with only one genuine alternative to each. But both The Three-Body Problem and “Folding Beijing” are, in themselves, notable works; they would have been worthy winners even in a full-strength field.

[11] “During those months in the shadow of SARS, the adults had gloomy expressions and sighed all the time. Everyone hoarded food and other consumables at home and seldom went out — when they did, they wore face masks.”

[12] You may question my focus on Liu here as the driver of this effort, given that I am simultaneously championing The Reincarnated Giant, much of which was first published in 2012. The simple truth is that an academic journal, or an anthology from an academic publisher, do not have as much impact as a string of translations from an already high-profile writer in one of the most prominent online magazines and from one of the most prominent genre publishers.

[13] This is a number for all literary translations, based on “Women in Translation by Country” data collated by the Three Percent blog.

[14] The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, edited by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang, will be published in Spring 2022, and focus on women and nonbinary creators. The announced line-up looks strong, with stories by Xia Jia, Zhao Haihong, and among others Chi Hui — although sadly no Hao Jingfang.

Works Cited

Pathlight, Summer 2013 (Paper Republic 2013: ISSN 23280018)

The Wandering Earth by Liu Cixin (Head of Zeus 2017: ISBN 9781784978518; first edition Beijing Guomo Digital Technology Ltd 2013: ISBN 9781489502858)

Hold Up the Sky by Liu Cixin (Head of Zeus 2020: ISBN 9781838937638)

A Summer Beyond Your Reach by Xia Jia (Wyrm Publishing 2020: ISBN 9781642360394)

Invisible Planets ed. Ken Liu (Head of Zeus 2016: ISBN 9781784978808)

Broken Stars, ed. Ken Liu (Head of Zeus 2019: ISBN 9781788548106)

The Reincarnated Giant eds. Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters (Columbia University Press 2018: ISBN 9780231180236; many stories previously published in Renditions 77/78, 2012)

“How Chinese Science Fiction Conquered America” by Alexandra Alter, in The New York Times, 3 December 2019. Available at:

Science Fiction Studies 119 (volume 40, part 1): “Special Issue on Chinese Science Fiction,” March 2013. (ISSN: 00917729)

A Primer to Han Song, ed. Eric J. Guignard (Dark Moon Books 2020: 9781949491128)

“After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction” by Mingwei Song (in China Perspectives 2015/1, pp7-13)

“Representations of the Invisible: Chinese Science Fiction in the Twenty-First Century” by Mingwei Song (in The Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures, eds. Carlos Rojas and Andrea Bachner, OUP 2016, pp 546-565; ISBN 9780199383313)

The Apex Book of World SF ed. Lavie Tidhar (Apex 2009: ISBN 9780982159637)

“Women in Translation by Country,” Three Percent, 19 August 2019. Available at: 

“Announcing The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, a New Collection of Chinese SFF in Translation,”, 27 October 2020. Available at: 

“Sun of China” by Liu Cixin (2002; 2013 trans. not specified, The Wandering Earth)

“The Thinker” by Liu Cixin (2002; 2020 trans. John Chu, Hold Up the Sky)

“Cloud of Poems” by Liu Cixin (2003; 2020 trans. Carmen Yiling Yan, Hold Up the Sky). Also translated as “The Poetry Cloud” by Chi-Yin Ip and Cheuk Wong (2012 Renditions, 2017 The Reincarnated Giant)

“The Passengers and the Creator” by Han Song (2005; 2012 trans. Nathaniel Isaacson, Renditions). Reprinted in The Reincarnated Giant

“The Demon’s Head” by Fei Dao (2007; 2012 trans. David Hull, Renditions). Reprinted in The Reincarnated Giant

“On Miluo River” by Xia Jia (2010; 2020 trans. Emily Jin, A Summer Beyond Your Reach)

“Regenerated Bricks” by Han Song (2010; 2017 trans. Theodore Huters, The Reincarnated Giant)

“Heat Island” by Xia Jia (2011; 2015 trans. Ken Liu, Pathlight). Reprinted in A Summer Beyond Your Reach

“A Time Beyond Your Reach” by Xia Jia (2012; 2020 trans. Carmen Yiling Yang, A Summer Beyond Your Reach)

“The Last Brave Man” by Hao Jingfang (2013; 2013 trans. Poppy Toland, Pathlight)

“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang (2014; 2015 trans. Ken Liu, Uncanny Magazine). Reprinted in Invisible Planets

“A History of Future Illnesses” by Chen Qiufan (2012; 2016 trans. Ken Liu, Pathlight). Reprinted in Broken Stars

“Light of Their Days” by Xia Jia (2015; 2020 trans. Emily Xueni Jin, A Summer Beyond Your Reach)

“What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” by Baoshu (2015; 2015 trans. Ken Liu, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) Reprinted in Broken Stars

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3 thoughts on “Accelerated History: Chinese Short Science Fiction in the Twenty-First Century

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