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”

龙马精神* Dragon Horse Vitality Spirit

* This is a common Lunar New Year greeting

Guest editorial by Yen Ooi. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

Chinese science fiction’s (CSF) growth in popularity has followed the rapid development trend of China itself. In his interview with fellow writer Maggie Shen King, Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) highlights that China has over the last four decades achieved the technological and economic advancements that countries in the West achieved in the last century. The speed of modernisation and urbanisation is a remarkable thing to behold, with 100 million people lifted out of poverty just since 2013. China’s rise has been subject to international scrutiny and criticism, which is to be expected. The most unfounded of which plumbed new depths in the past year 2020 through the pandemic. While the previous president of the United States of America (among many) used the term “Chinese virus” in his description of Covid-19, East Asian diaspora communities living in Western countries experienced increased instances of racism. What is the connection?

Genres are in general difficult to define, but CSF is especially complicated. Both the terms Chinese and science fiction defy any clear definition, yet are used so commonly that every user has their own pre-assumed definition. One popular assumption in the West is that CSF should always be read in terms of political dissent or complicity with state power. As much as that might be true for some, it is an unhelpful generalisation. After all, we do not assume that British SF is only about Brexit, or American SF only about Trump. In one sense, all storytelling is inherently political, and within Anglophone SF especially, the racist and queerphobic attack on representational diversity is often disguised as a demand to “remove the politics” from our stories. However, the necessarily political nature of storytelling is complicated in the case of the Anglophone reception of CSF. The insistence of many Western readers on interpreting CSF exclusively in relation to government censorship can itself have a paradoxically censoring effect. Some CSF authors have even resisted writing stories set in China, or allowing the translation of their work into English, for fear that readers will ignore its actual aesthetic and intellectual qualities, while using it as material for simplistic speculation: Whose side are you really on? To quote Ken Liu for what is a publication on CSF without mentioning the writer who, it feels like, has single-handedly brought CSF to Anglo-American readers?  — 

Like writers everywhere, today’s Chinese writers are concerned with humanism; with globalization; with technological advancement; with development and environmental preservation; with history, rights, freedom, and justice; with family and love; with the beauty of expressing sentiment through words; with language play; with the grandeur of science; with the thrill of discovery; with the ultimate meaning of life.

Ken Liu, Invisible Planets, 2016.

Chinese means many things: culture, ethnicity, nationality, language, people, food, celebrations, traditions, dance, art, tea, etc. It is impossible to talk about all things related to CSF, but we hope that we’ve managed to introduce some key ideas and concepts in this issue, and that you’ll find areas that particularly excite you as a writer, researcher, or reader to want to learn more.

Continue reading “龙马精神* Dragon Horse Vitality Spirit”

The Speculative Turn in African Literature

By Michelle Louise Clark

The following academic essay by Michelle Louise Clark is the guest editorial to Vector 289, a special themed issue on African and Afrodiasporic SF. SF from Africa faces contradictory challenges. It must fight on the one hand to be read as SF — and not just something SF-adjacent — to be given full use of the genre’s rich megatext of tropes and conventions. On the other hand, it must fight to be permitted to transform the traditional conventions of the genre, to make SF do new and different things. It must also often contest with the preconceived and reductive notions of Africa nurtured within the Western imagination. This editorial offers a broad and necessarily overview of African and Afrodiasporic SF, emphasising speculative Anglophone texts from sub-Saharan Africa. 


“Over the last two decades, Achimota City’s fast new geography had devoured Accra almost completely while at the same time most of the rest of the country had inexplicably vanished, land and all. Thus, by the year 2020 Achimota was a truncated city bursting to survive and to find the rest of its country soon. The three elders of government, each with a beard the shape of X, Y or Z, had shepherded the city over this deep crisis, directing history as if it were mad traffic. They had rules which helped to form the new ways that the century demanded. Fruit was law: every street had to have dwarf banana trees in belts and lines, buckled with close groups of any other fruit trees, so many guavas and oranges. There was fruit in the toilets, fruit in the halls, and fruit in the aeroplanes, so that you could eat the city.”

Kojo Laing, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992), p.3.

Realism and Resistance

golden cockroach, a Grandmother Bomb, elders with beards shaped like letters of the alphabet, and a carrot millionaire are just a few of the eccentric characters which fill the pages of Kojo Laing’s surreal classic of African SF, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992). Laing’s novel is set in the distant future of 2020, at a time when the Ghanaian city of Achimota is locked in the Second War of Existence, battling Europe and South Africa, which have become a cyberworld where physical existence is deemed unnecessary. These virtual superpowers have decided that the ‘Third World’ is no longer relevant to their modernity, having been used as a toxic dumping ground, a place for germ warfare and genetic engineering and nuclear experiments. The city Achimota fights to recover the rest of its disappearing country, and to exist independently of Europe’s rhetoric and portrayal of it as primitive, reasserting its own worth and agency in the face of neocolonial domination.

The book has been praised as vivid and imaginative, but also characterised as unusual, complicated, and unclassifiable (Ryman, 2017; Klein, 2007; Ngaboh-Smart, 1997; Wright, 1996). T.R. Klein (2007) describes Laing’s work concisely: “Once the initially introduced ‘innocent’ reader decides against prematurely tossing away Laing’s difficult books and is willing to accept an encounter with cartoon-like images, allegories, and projections rather than full-fledged, realistic characters, s/he will be rewarded with the experience of a unique conjunction between technological and aesthetic modernity in African literature” (55).

It’s unfortunate that Laing’s work has so often been overlooked and underappreciated, as it has plenty to contribute to debates surrounding genre and ‘authenticity’ within African literature. He at once defies generic pigeonholing and challenges established norms of the Anglo-African literary canon. His unique prose “confidently defies simple reduction to a single larger theory, agenda or narrative” (Klein, 2007: 38), with its usage of words and phrases from across languages including English, Ga, Haussa, and Italian. He also addresses issues of science and technology before many Ghanaian authors had even begun to move away from nationalist rhetoric of post-independence Ghana (Klein, 2007).

In terms of genre, Laing’s work has been variously described as postmodern, utopian, or magical realism. Ngaboh-Smart (1997) identifies Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars as using “conventional science fictional motifs” to explore the effects of science and technology on humanity, and mentions the inclusion of “galactic travels” and “adventure.” This hesitancy and ambiguity is not uncommon in discussions of speculative fictions from Africa. Mark Bould (2015) suggests that one can come across science fiction from Africa mentioned by critical journals that refuse to use the term, or “would at least prefer not to, deploying instead a de-science-fictionalized discourse of utopia and dystopia, and labelling anything irreal as some kind of postcolonial magic realism or avant-gardist experimentalism”(13).

So SF from Africa faces contradictory challenges. It must fight on the one hand to be read as SF — and not just something SF-adjacent — to be given full use of the genre’s rich megatext of tropes and conventions. On the other hand, it must fight to be permitted to transform the traditional conventions of the genre, to make SF do new and different things. It must also often contest with the preconceived and reductive notions of Africa nurtured within the Western imagination. Jennifer Wenzel (2006) explains that Western readers who encounter ‘strange’ literatures from elsewhere often impose a binary between ”the West and the rest,” and between “a singular European modernity and multifarious worldviews, variously described as pre-modern, prescientific, pre-enlightenment, non-Western, traditional, or indigenous” (456). New readings of classic works such as Laing’s, alongside emerging work from Africa, are paving the way to a more nuanced map of Africa’s diverse speculative literature. This issue of Vector explores varying definitions, and showcases just a few examples from Africa and its diaspora across various mediums: from Nick Wood’s exploration of the South Africa’s comics scene and Joan Grandjean’s research into the Arab-futurist art of Mounir Ayache, to Jonathan Hay’s study of Afrofuturism in hip hop and its political aesthetics built on science fiction tropes of aliens and spaceships. Like artists everywhere, creators of African SF aren’t simply imagining worlds to escape to, but also exploring contemporary and historical reality through the lens of fiction. Gemma Field’s ecocritical reading of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon acknowledges the slow violence of the oil industry in Nigeria. Masimba Musodza’s article opens up important questions about genre, language, and elitism within the African SF genre, through his experiences in writing and publishing his works in ChiShona. Definitions of Africanfuturisms and Afrofuturisms collide and converse in articles from Kate Harlin and Päivi Väätänen. Interviews with award-winning authors Dilman Dila and Wole Talabi give insights into the current movements within African SF directly from the creators’ perspectives.

Continue reading “The Speculative Turn in African Literature”

Through the Decades: Sixty Years of the BSFA

Edited by Alex Bardy. First published on behalf of the British Science Fiction Association, 2019.

Cover by Ian Long.

Cover designed by Ian Long

Alex Bardy currently edits Tabletop SPIRIT Magazine —