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”

October BSFA London Meeting: Nina Allan interviewed by Niall Harrison

Title: October BSFA Meeting: Nina Allan interviewed by Niall Harrison
Location: The Cellar Bar, The Argyle Public House, 1 Greville Street (off Leather Lane), London EC1N 8PQ
Description: On Wednesday 24th October 2012,** Nina Allan (author of A Thread of Truth and The Silver Wind) will be interviewed by Niall Harrison (editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons).

ALL WELCOME – FREE ENTRY (Non-members welcome)

The interview will start at 7 pm. We have the room from 6pm (and if early, fans are in the ground floor bar from 5ish).

There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.

Map is here. Nearest Tube: Chancery Lane (Central Line).

Please note that this is now the new permanent venue of BSFA London Meetings.

FUTURE EVENTS:
28th NovemberPaul Cornell, interviewed by Roz Kaveney
(There is no BSFA Meeting in December).
23rd January 2013** – TBC

** Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays. The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.
Start Time: 19:00
Date: 2012-10-24
End Time: 21:00

Vector #269

This issue of Vector is dedicated, in part, to revisiting the subject of women writers of science fiction. Few female UK-based science fiction authors currently have contracts, but worldwide, there’s a great deal going on, a geographic, cultural, and linguistic diversity which Cheryl Morgan surveys in this issue. I came away from reading it with a massively expanded to-read list, and I hope it inspires you similarly. Tony Keen examines the roles of death and transformation in Justina Robson’s books Natural History (one of the books on last year’s list of the previous decades best science fiction by women) and Living Next Door to the God of Love. In contrast, Niall Harrison examines a very different author, Glasgow-based Julie Bertagna. Her post-apocalyptic trilogy, which begins with Exodus, provides an intriguing comparison with Stephen Baxter’s current series of prehistoric climate change novels which began with Stone Spring.

The second part of Victor Grech’s three-part series on gender in science fiction doesn’t focus on women science fiction authors, but does deal with quite a few of them in the process of discussing the variety of single-gendered world in science fiction. In particular, he examines the in-story reasons, the biological explanations for their existence, and the degrees to which those mechanisms are found in the ecologies of our own world.

Shana Worthen

Vector 269

What a welcome sight! The post just arrived, and with it, the latest BSFA mailing.  In addition to Vector, there’s an issue of Quantum, the BSFA’s occasional newsletter; and a paper copy of the ballot for the BSFA Awards (also available online).

There’s also a NewCon Press sampler which includes excerpts from The Outcast and the Little One by Andy West and Kim Lakin-Smith’s BSFA best novel-nominated Cyber Circus. Ian Whates assures me that the booklet went to press well before the BSFA Award nominations for best novel were known and announced.

Lest the prompt arrival of the paper copy of the ballot worry anyone, we’re still planning to do a short story booklet of stories nominated for the BSFA award for the best short story of 2011; but the logistics of that take just long enough that it’ll be coming in the mailing after this one.

This issue of Vector is partially a followup to the poll which Niall ran last year, on the best sf novels by women written in the previous decade. It also has Adam Roberts’ reflections on writing music entries for the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, and Andrew M Butler’s review of the three versions of the John Martin: Apocalypse show which recently closed at the Tate Britain. (The review was printed here on Torque Control in late December to make sure it would  be read before the show closed!)

Vector 269 is labeled the Spring 2012 issue, which means we seem to have skipped winter entirely, despite what today’s chilly weather seems to imply.

Vector 269 contains…

Women SF Writers: An Endangered Species? – Cheryl Morgan
Death and Transcendence in the “Forged” Novels of Justina Robson – Tony Keen
Telling the World: The Exodus Trilogy by Julie Bertagna – Niall Harrison
Single-Gendered Worlds In Science- Fiction – Better For Whom? – Victor Grech with Clare Thake-Vassallo, and Ivan Callus
On Science Fiction Music – Adam Roberts
John Martin: Apocalypse – A Review – Andrew M Butler

Kincaid in Short – Paul Kincaid
Resonances – Stephen Baxter
Foundation Favourites – Andy Sawyer
Picture This – Terry Martin

The BSFA Review – edited by Martin Lewis

Vector #266

3 • Torque Control • editorial by Shana Worthen
4 • A Year in Review: Looking Back at 2010 • essay by Martin Lewis
5 • 2010: Books in Review • essay by Graham Andrews and Lynne Bispham and Mark Connorton and Gary Dalkin and Alan Fraser and Niall Harrison and David Hebblethwaite and Tony Keen and Paul Kincaid and Jonathan McCalmont and Martin McGrath and Anthony Nanson and Martin Potts and Paul Graham Raven and Ian Sales and Jim Steel and Martyn Taylor and Sandra Unnerman and Anne Wilson
15 • 2010: Television in Review • essay by Alison Page
20 • 2010 in Film: Not My Kind of Genre • essay by Jonathan McCalmont
24 • Strip Club: A Fanciful Flight • essay by Terry Martin
26 • The Promises and Pitfalls of a Christian Agenda in Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle • essay by Anthony Nanson
30 • Scholars and Soldiers • [Foundation Favourites • 12] • essay by Andy Sawyer
32 • Alpha Centauri • [Resonances • 61] • essay by Stephen Baxter
34 • Kincaid in Short • [Kincaid in Short] • essay by Paul Kincaid
37 • Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer • review by Paul Graham Raven
38 • Review: Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan • review by Jonathan McCalmont
39 • Review: Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks • review by Marcus Flavin
40 • Review: The Technician by Neal Asher • review by Stuart Carter
40 • Review: Version 43 by Philip Palmer • review by David Hebblethwaite
41 • Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu • review by Martin McGrath
41 • Review: Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson • review by Anthony Nanson
42 • Review: Music for Another World by Mark Harding • review by Dave M. Roberts
42 • Review: The Immersion Book of SF by Carmelo Rafala • review by Maureen Kincaid Speller
43 • Review: Zombie: An Anthology of the Undead by Christopher Golden • review by Colin B. Harvey [as by C. B. Harvey]
43 • Review: The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer • review by Niall Harrison
44 • Review: Feed by Mira Grant • review by Alex Williams
44 • Review: Tomes of the Dead: Anno Mortis by Rebecca Levene • review by Shaun Green
45 • Review: Songs of the Dying Earth by Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin • review by L. J. Hurst
46 • Review: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks • review by Donna Scott
46 • Review: The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood • review by Anne F. Wilson
47 • Review: Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal by Sherryl Vint • review by Gwyneth Jones


[Mary] Gentle’s prose is sharp, her powers of invention brilliant, her characters real, especially the greasy, obese Casaubon with his pet rat. They are not necessarily likeable. Casaubon is a Lord, and not on Our Side (there’s a neat scene where he’s confronted with the woman who does his laundry who has to live on far less than the cost of one single garment), and when Valentine re-appears a couple of novels down the line she does a dreadful and unforgivable thing. But, in the best tradition of the malcontents in the Jacobean drama, boy, are they vivid! This was a new thing.

For a time I used the word scholarpunk for this fusion of erudition and bad-ass attitude. Fortunately no-one noticed.

Andy Sawyer

Nowhere was this tiredness more evident than in the lugubriously self-indulgent Iron Man 2. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) was something of an unexpected hit; its combination of clever casting and pseudo-political posturing caught the public’s imagination while its lighter tone and aspirational Californian setting served as a useful counterpoint to the doom and gloom of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). However, the second Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark steps on stage in the sequel, it is obvious that something is terribly wrong. The film’s onanistic triumphalism and bare-faced declaration that social ills are best confronted by private sector moral entrepreneurs feels astonishingly ugly and politically insensitive at a time when private sector entrepreneurs are having their companies propped-up at the expense of the poor and the hungry. The decision to cast Mickey Rourke as a shambling Russian baddy is laughably pretentious in a film that ultimately boils down to a bunch of computer-generated robots punching each other in the face for about an hour.

Jonathan McCalmont

I found a Darwin site where a respondent asked “who else thinks Beatrix Potter may have developed her stories, about animals with increasingly human characteristics, from acquaintance with Darwin’s theory?” The idea that Beatrix Potter had to wait for The Origin Of Species before she thought of writing about reprobate foxes, trusting piglets, thieving magpies and insolent rats may seem ridiculous but this internetgeneration query is revealing. Our animal folklore is no longer refreshed by experience. In my own lifetime, here in the UK, the estrangement that began as soon as agriculture was established, has accelerated almost to vanishing point. We see animals as pets; as entertainment products we consume through the screen (where their fate, nowadays, holds a tragic fascination). We see them, perhaps, as an increasingly problematic food source. We no longer ‘meet their gaze’ as independent neighbours. The neo-Darwinists have even been doing their damnedest to break the link that Charles Darwin forged, when he transformed our deep intuition of continuity with the animal world into ‘scientific fact’.

Gwyneth Jones

And was Karel Čapek really writing about newts?

Gwyneth Jones

On the whole, however, Vint does a good job of disentangling “the animal” from the mix and Animal Alterity is an impressive achievement. A study of this kind isn’t meant to offer solutions and there are none (beyond a rather vague promise that post-humanism will blur the line between human and animal). Instead there’s a mass of evidence identifying sf as a resource: a treasury for Animal Studies academics; a rich means of bringing those moral arguments to life —drawn from an overlooked genre that has (always, already) developed sophisticated ways of thinking about looming problems that have only just occurred to the mainstream.

To the general reader, Animal Alterity offers food for thought and a quirky compendium of offbeat and classic titles. Could a “related book” on this topic become widely popular? I don’t know. In my day, sf fans tended to be petrol-headed meat-munchers, their concern for our stewardship of the ecosphere constrained by a passion for beer, mayhem and go-faster starships. Times have changed. The younger generation may feel very differently: I hope so.

Gwyneth Jones

Short Story Club: “Elegy for a Young Elk”

An earlier than usual kick-off for Hannu Rajaniemi’s story, because fairly shortly I will be leaving for the airport and a two-week holiday. (Fear not! I have scheduled the other short story club posts ahead of time. Plus I’ll probably be online at points.) Anyway, Jason Sanford has tried to claim this story as Sci-Fi Strange; but is it actually any good? Over to Gardner Dozois, in the August Locus:

Also first-rate in the Summer issue is Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Elegy for a Young Elk”. Rajaniemi is a writer who cranks the bit-rate up about as high as it can go and still remain comprehensible (although there will almost certainly be some who think that this doesn’t remain comprehensible). Said by some to out-Charles Stross Charles Stross, this slender story, set in a post-Apocalyptic future society where posthumans with godlike powers are at war, manages to jam enough high-concept into a few pages to fuel a 400-page novel.

Lois Tilton is more lukewarm:

A lot of neat images here in a world transformed into something fantastic and not very explicable. There is a fragmentary story about Kosonon and his son, and parental guilt, but mostly this is a world incomprehensibly transformed and a man trying to find his place it in.

Pam Philips liked it, but can’t pin it down:

When I re-read it to make sure of the details, the story clicked. I was sucked right in and couldn’t stop reading from beginning to end of Kosonen’s quest to regain his lost poetry. I love the way he proves he has it back, with an act that skates the melting edge between scif-fi nanotech and magic. It had me wondering if the magic in the story had cast some spell of confusion on me the first time. Or maybe I was just awake on the second try. I’m still annoyed by who the lord of the city is, but if it were someone else, the ease of Kosonen’s choice at the end wouldn’t make sense.

Alex at Not If You Were The Last Short Story On Earth feels similarly:

Hannu Rajaniemi, Elegy for a Young Elk is… one of those stories where words fail me. I just flail my hands in the air, saying “it’s just… good… and… a bit weird but good weird. Y’know?” The idea of post-humanity and AIs taken in a really awesome direction, with the humanity still achingly there. Also, a talking bear.

Chad Orzel:

I liked this better than the previous entries in the Short Story Club, though I suspect this is more to do with it not pushing buttons of mine than any absolute quality of the story. As with “A Serpent in the Gears,” this is an excellent example of providing backstory without infodumping, though many serious gaps remain (the exact nature of the apocalypse remains a little unclear, and there are some dangling references that never quite get explained). The language is very evocative, and while it mostly uses the time-honored dodge of describing but not quoting the important poetry of the story, the bit that is quoted is perfectly fine (allowing for the fact that I am not generally a poetry person).

This does suffer a bit from a kind of incompleteness that I suspect is an unavoidable consequence of the form. It’s got a reasonable plot– Kosonen is given a quest, which turns out to have more personal significance than he expected, and its completion is different than what was presumably intended. Kosonen remains something of a cipher, though– there are hints of character there, but for the most part, he seems to do what he does because it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise. The narrative sort of floats above the core of the character, never really providing all that much depth.

Matt Hilliard’s take:

The star of the story, for me, was the magic lamp genie nanomachine device commanded by poetry. Generally I have a tin ear for poetry, but I actually was pretty impressed by the narrator’s train poem. But the poetry business was also the biggest disappointment since it was only used once. Well, once, and then sort of at the end, which almost ruined the story for me. In a great story, Esa would have been trapped and died, but his father would have used an epic poem to recreate something like him out the magic bean nanoseed. In this story, Esa uses magic quantum something or other to hide from the city’s magic guardian firewall. This was an enormous cop out of an ending. If this firewall was so easily duped, why couldn’t he escape before? I suppose the story implies his mother is helping out from her end, but come on.

And Evan also tries to puzzle out the ending:

This story was good. It was coherent, it managed not to over-explain, it was about real-feeling people and realistic relationships. Rajaniemi has the storyteller’s spark. It was a bit baggy, like it was told at the granularity of a novel, rather than a short story. It’s satisfyingly low on exposition. There are many moments where the writing is quite nice.

There are two takes on the ending, I think. Either the sky-people planned the entire affair to go off the way it did, or they didn’t. I like the former theory better. A bit of theater, allowing Kosonen to move on and his son and the quantum girl to finally go free in a way that makes them less dangerous to the people around them (presumably they’re reduced somewhat by translation into poetical form). The setting here then is a neat bit of work, but doesn’t really get behind the story and push. It’s stronger if you’ve read “Deus Ex Homine”, I think.

If the latter is the case, then the story is unfinished, the ending makes very little sense, the setup is stupid, and Rajaniemi is betrayed by the allure of his setting, much like I was.

He also says:

There’s a longer discussion to be had, now that the singularity thing is just about wound down, but I am not sure that this story is the right tee for kicking it off.

OR IS IT? Over to you.

How to Finish a Review

By popular demand! Or at least by one request. It turns out that I don’t think there are neat little identifiable gambits to end a review with, at least not in the same way that I think there can be gambits to open with, so this post is less glib. Endings, at least for any review of more than a few hundred words, are about synthesis, which means they’re probably going to have several of the features identified below. The mix will depend on the focus of the review; I don’t think you can pick most of these and bolt them on to a generic review. It’s more a case of recognising the sort of review you’re going to write, or occasionally the sort of review you’ve written, and what it needs to wrap up satisfactorily.

1. Evaluation.

Not, actually, as important as you might think; it’s going to be hard to get to your conclusion without having made it pretty clear what you think of the book. But a straightforward endorsement or dismissal can be a nicely emphatic full stop.

2. Summation.

Again, more common than it is necessary. After a long — I’m talking several thousand words — review of a book that identifies a goodly number of positives and negatives, you might want to recap. But even then you might just be repeating yourself (perhaps the most boring way to start a conclusion is: “Overall…”) or not examining your own views hard enough: how many books are you really that split-down-the-middle on?

3. Culmination (narrative)

All synopsis, being selective and partial, is criticism. Not all criticism is synoptic, but if yours is, you’ll probably need to talk about the ending of the work being discussed; and structuring your review so that you talk about the book’s ending in your conclusion — even if only in affective terms, rather than in specifics — can be pretty effective.

4. Culmination (thematic)

There’s a good chance that, by the time you reach your conclusion, you’ve already written this: the perfect encapsulation of the book’s central thesis (either what works about it or what doesn’t), the verdict that all your examples point towards. So go back and steal it, and save it for the conclusion, where it will look like everything you’ve been saying about the book coming neatly together.

5. Culmination (yours)

That is, of the argument you’re making — about the book, the author, the genre, whatever — rather than the argument the book is making. Particularly useful for structuring reviews of short story collections, and again, you’d be amazed how often you write it half-way through without realising.

6. Slingshot.

Works particularly well with the Jeopardy opening: you answer your question, and identify the next question, leaving it for the reader to answer

7. Speculation.

In which you suggest answers to the next question. Characteristic of reviews of series fiction: where is it all going?

8. Reframing.

In which your last paragraph attacks the issues you’ve been discussing from a new angle, and hopefully the parallax generates some light. One way of doing this is to save your “A third of the way into the book…” and use it at the end of the review, rather than the start. Another is to talk about The Larger Point: open the review up to consider the author’s body of work, or the genre as a whole, if you haven’t been doing so to that point. In fact, now that I think of it, you could probably use any of the opening gambits in this way, as long as you haven’t deployed them already…

How to start a review

1. Jeopardy.

Think of your conclusion: the one thing you want anyone reading your review to know about the thing you’re discussing. Now think of the question to which your conclusion is the answer. (This works best if you have something more interesting to say than simply, “it’s good” or “it’s bad”.)

2. About a third of the way through the book …

What scene or event encapsulates the book’s strengths (or weaknesses)? Describe it. Make the person reading your review share your enthusiasm (or frustration).

3. Kick it LRB-style (version one).

Potted history of, or meditation on, the author’s career to that point.

4. Kick it LRB-style (version two).

Potted history of, or meditation on, a category of which the book is an example. (Useful when LRB-style version one is inappropriate, e.g. first novels.)

5. Bear with me for a minute …

Anecdote or trivia that illustrates something about the book under review, and thus makes it relatable for the reader. Works best if the nature of the link between the two things remains opaque until the moment you illuminate it. Use with caution in reviews of less than a thousand words.

6. Narcissism

A bit like option 5, but requires a stronger relationship with the audience, since the anecdote or trivia is about you, or your experience with the book (or another book by the writer), which is less likely to be of interest to a passing reader.

7. Here is some brilliant writing.

A bit like option 2, but you’re showing off the specifics of your subject’s prose. If you do this, you have to make at least one substantive point about the writing per sentence quoted. OK, you don’t have to, but you should.

8. Ronseal.

Offer up the most pithy summation of the book you can manage. The danger here is that if it’s too pithy, nobody will read on to get the detail.

9. Previously, on this book …

Ah, the synopsis. Almost always necessary at some point; but if it’s your opening gambit, it’d better be interesting.

10. Everyone else is wrong!

Quote one (or more) other reviewers about the book, then argue with them. The more high-profile the reviewer the better — as long as you can back up your claims. (Everyone else being right is also possible, but for obvious reasons trickier to pull off.)