Between Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem finding vocal fans in Barack Obama and the people behind Game Of Thrones, and Ken Liu being tapped to pen a Star Wars novel, The Legends Of Luke Skywalker, Chinese science fiction is “having a moment” as they say. Which brings me to Sinopticon: A Celebration Of Chinese Science Fiction (paperback, Kindle), a new short story collection edited and translated by Xueting Christine Ni. In the following email interview, Ni explains what went into assembling this anthology.
While the title would seem to say it all, I’ll ask anyway: What is Sinopticon: A Celebration Of Chinese Science Fiction about?
It pretty much does what it says on the tin. It’s a window into contemporary Chinese science fiction, showing off a breadth of the subjects, styles, and interests through the last thirty years, which span the current era of China’s sci-fi output. It’s a recognition and presentation of some amazing writers and works, none of which have been previously available to the English-speaking world.
Aside from the writers all having to be Chinese, what other parameters did the stories have to fit?
I put no restrictions on them. The writers are from all genders, ages, regions, proclivities, and the stories cover a very wide range of styles and subjects. I’m sure some readers will be able to spot common themes or tropes, but that’s as much about pattern recognition as national pre-occupations. Obviously, I needed to select a range within this one volume, and the stories couldn’t be too long, though there are a mixture of short vignette pieces, multi-chapter stories and also a novella. I suppose the one very important criteria I imposed was that they all had to be excellent, in terms of storytelling, characterization, viewpoint, and so forth.
It’s well-known that “fiction translated into English” is a very underrepresented category, especially SFF in Britain, and that the representation of other cultures in English literature is not always handled with the appropriateness it deserves. I’m a Chinese writer and translator, who has chosen to make my home in Britain, and so feel it is my duty to help rectify that by representing my own culture.
Once you had the parameters figured out, how did you decide what writers and stories to include in Sinopticon?
I could have filled Sinopticon many times over with the excellent stories I received, but I felt that I really needed to show how broad the Chinese writing community was, so took time to consider what each of them brought to the collection, whether it was conversations with China’s history, comments on modern living, or sheer escapism. I also wanted to capture something of how the genre had developed, so tried to select works not only from those very established writers, but also those who were up and coming.
So what subgenres of sci-fi are included in Sinopticon?
A lot of subgenres that have reached a point of saturation in the Western sci-fi are being explored by Chinese writers for the first time, and many of China’s new social developments and concerns are being addressed through science fiction. From robots and drone technology, to above 5G telecommunications, high tech has entered the everyday life in China, and its SF often explores the question of how technology can be used to improve daily life. Plastic surgery has become so prevalent that some have come to see it as a necessity for success in life, and there’s been stories on body modification in Kehuan [Chinese science fiction]. The Chinese have great reverence to learning, so dealing with enhanced intelligence is a big theme in their sci-fi. One major development is the employment of classical and traditional culture in SF, which to a lot of other nations, may seem perfectly normal, but China’s recent history meant that there was a disconnect between tradition and the modern in Chinese culture, and many writers are now re-establishing that link.
China continues its fascination with Mars, especially now that Tianwen 1 has arrived on the red planet, and it will feature even more in the science fiction imagination. Space operas and stories about “going out” into space will also continue to thrive. China is just at the beginning of its space age, with programs like FAST and DAMPE, who knows what might be discovered in the not too distant future. Artificial Intelligence is also a huge topic in science fiction at the moment, it will provide yet more fresh literary inspiration, as the technology, which China is investing heavily in, develops further. It’s the same with cleaner energy and the attempts being made to clean up after being used as the factory floor of the world. It’s hard to say anything meaningfully futurist about China, because its reality is already in some ways, catching up with fiction, and I think Chinese writers have be extra wild in imagining their “what ifs?”
Unless I’m mistaken, Sinopticon is the first anthology you’ve assembled. Did you look at any other short story collections — sci-fi or otherwise — to see what to do, and not do?
It’s not my style to do, or not do, something because of how others have previously done them. My approach really grew from my own my research, experience, and insight as a Chinese culture writer, and how I work as a translator. I do really like a lot of the stories in the other translated anthologies currently available though. For example, a collection I loved is The Dragon And The Stars, a diaspora Chinese sci-fi anthology edited by Derwin Mak, though that wasn’t translated fiction.
Sinopticon is in no way a reaction to, or an imitation, of anything else, It’s just that transposing the Chinese style of storytelling into something for Anglophone consumption. Collected short stories really work. Chinese fiction tends to be in either quite short, easy-to-relate forms, or breeze-block thick multiple volume epics. The current flourishing of SF is short-story fueled, first being published on periodicals and magazines, and now in short digestible chapters on apps like JinjiangLitCity. An anthology also worked well with my plan to focus on diversity. I do have some ideas around future collections, maybe exploring different genres.
And then what influence did your black cats have on Sinopticon? They look rather well-read.
We got our current cats some months after I’d handed in the manuscript. Their names are Ravage and Scuzzy, and have been great company while I worked on numerous edits, when they weren’t climbing over the keyboard, or calling out for play and fuss. They like to sleep on the cushions by my feet in the afternoons. Most of the book was in fact, written under the watchful eye of my first cat, an elderly Bengal called Lex, who’d sit on my lap, which is always an encouragement to spend a little longer at the keyboard.
For a lot of people, Sinopticon will be their first exposure to a lot of these writers. Does Sinopticon include some biographical info on each writer?
Yes, it includes a formal biography of each writer, and I also talk about each of them and what drew me to their work, in my story guides, which are placed after each story. It’s common for Chinese official biographies to be little more than a list of literary awards and major works, but I wanted the writers to appear like flesh and blood to the reader.
So in putting Sinopticon together, did you discover any new writers whose stories you liked so much that you immediately went out and got one of their own books?
You are aware that you can’t just go out and buy any book by a foreign author from the British high street, aren’t you? With Chinese science fiction, there aren’t even really any linked websites where you can easily buy them and have them shipped over.
When I go to China, I browse the bookshops and pick up anything I like the look of, often more than I can comfortably fit into my luggage. That is why translated fiction is such an important bridge. I did get to know new writers, but obviously couldn’t include them all, and because of this collection’s objective, it features some older and some well-established as well as new voices. As a literary translator, I rarely work on a story I don’t like or appreciate on some level, though my tastes are eclectic. I’d say with the majority of the stories selected, I felt a connection while reading them to the degree that afterwards, I knew I pretty much that I wanted them in a form I could share with my Anglophone readers.
In a somewhat related vein, I know it’s not out yet, but has anyone’s inclusion in Sinopticon led to them getting a book deal of their own? Or at least a book deal outside of China?
A couple of them had novels coming out in English for the first time, and some others were publishing new collections in Chinese. Of course, one of the aims of the collection is to promote Chinese science fiction writers, and to raise their profile outside China. Whether this leads to them getting picked up, or just a general increase in the genre, we’ve yet to see.
It seems like there’s a growing fascination with Chinese science fiction. Ken Liu got to write a Star Wars novel, The Legends Of Luke Skywalker, while Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is being turned into a Netflix show by the people who did the same for Game Of Thrones. Why do you think people are increasingly interested in Chinese sci-fi?
China is increasingly playing a major role on the international stage. So there is increased interest in the country, though still a huge lack of understanding of its culture which has led to a lot of fear. Science fiction is one of the few windows international readers have into Chinese perspectives. I’ve always said, if you want to know about the hopes and dreams of a nation, read its sci-fi. At the moment, Kehuan is very much about exploring possible futures. We are seeing some Chinese writers, steering the genre away from the common non-sinophone orientalist views of nightmarish dystopia in directions that they envision.
As you mentioned, you not only assembled this collection, you also translated the stories from Chinese to English. Were there any stories you really wanted for Sinopticon, but when you started translating them you realized they may not work in English?
No. By and large, they all work in English, of course, given the usual adapting, localization and editorial processes. I think one thing my projects all try and convey, is that whilst there is a uniqueness to all cultures, those are not necessarily roadblocks to understanding, more elements to enrich shared lives.
Hollywood loves turning short stories into movies. Are there any stories in Sinopticon that you think could be turned into an especially good movie?
Gu Shi’s “The Last Save” would work well as a film, and so would Regina Kanyu Wang’s “The Tide Of Moon City,” in which I see a lot of noir undertones. A Que’s “Flower Of The Other Shore” would work very well as a manhua [Chinese comic book], as there is a lot of powerful visual imagery conjured by the text. So would Nian Yu’s “Cat’s Chance In Hell,” the translation of which was inspired by the 2001 AD comic Rogue Trooper.
I could also see Zhao Haihong’s “Rendevous: 1937” working well in theatre, which would suit its intensity and heavy subject matter, and I definitely see Jiang Bo’s “Starship: Library” as a radio play, it shares the same sort of witty humor as Doctor Who or Douglas Adams’ stories, both of which have amazing radio work based on them.
Finally, if someone enjoys Sinopticon, what geographically-based sci-fi short story anthology that someone else put together would you recommend they read next?
Apart from the anthology already mentioned [The Dragon And The Stars], Luna Press publishes quite a few SFF collections from non-Anglophone traditions, and The Reincarnated Giant edited by Theodore Hunter and Song Mingwei, is a good starting point for Kehuan, as it features a range of translators.