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An Interview with Kelly Link: “All Books Are Weird”

Yan Lianke Illuminates Contemporary China

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Yan Lianke Illuminates Contemporary China

Barth Meets Borges in the Funhouse

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Barth Meets Borges in the Funhouse

Chinese cult writer Chen Qiufan on pushing the boundaries of sci-fi

Emily Feng

April 20, 2018 | Financial Times 

  Qiufan is quietly tucked away at a corner table in a lively Beijing bookstore — so quietly, in fact, that I miss him entirely for half an hour.

Embarrassed, and knowing him to be a rapacious consumer of entertainment and literature (he pushes himself to see at least 100 new films and read 50 books a year), I ask him which works have been on his mind of late. 

 “I’m reading the Bible right now,” he says, with a sly smile. Though an atheist, Chen, who also goes by the name of Stanley Chen, confesses the biblical stories have an alluring science fiction quality about them: “Take the story of Gomorrah. It’s a lot like the tales of Armageddon sci-fi writers like, no?” 

 At 36, Chen is one of China’s most visible writers in its burgeoning science fiction scene. His stories are as eclectic as his reading interests, merging themes ranging from neuroscience to Chinese folklore — and reflecting his own interest and experience in the tech sector. He was born in 1981, just three years after China began to open up economically, in the southern coastal province of Guangdong. Its proximity to Hong Kong meant relatively easy access to foreign books and entertainment, and Chen’s father, an engineer, would buy him Golden Age sci-fi classics by Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. But, he says, the fact his formative years coincided with China’s transition also generated life-long angst, a theme that plays out in his short stories. 

 “We are miserable — we have access to everything, but we also have to fulfil traditional expectations,” says Chen of his generation, the bālínghòu or those born in the 1980s, the peak era of the one-child policy. Like many of his contemporaries, he has no siblings, meaning he is also ultimately responsible for his ageing parents.

Tempted by the freedoms of an increasingly consumerist society yet constrained by filial duty, bālínghòu like him are destined to be “forever self-sacrificing”, he concludes, pressured by family to pursue conservative career paths yet increasingly aware of greater lifestyle possibilities beyond simple convention. 

Writing has always offered a respite. By the early 2000s, Chen had become a fixture in virtual chat rooms, quickly making a name for himself as a prolific fiction contributor while still a university student in Beijing.

“It was freedom,” he remembers of discovering the internet and a community of writers who enjoyed what he calls the “mind game” of sci-fi: “You have to create a world where all the pieces fit perfectly together. If you change just one element, what happens?” 

 After a stint with Google’s now-defunct China operations, and involvement as a founding member of Noitom, a virtual reality start-up in Beijing, Chen turned to full-time writing just as Chinese sci-fi started to flourish.

The genre is now reaching mainstream international audiences. In 2016, fellow writer Hao Jingfang became only the second Chinese writer to win a Hugo, sci-fi’s most prestigious English-language award, for her translated novelette depicting life in a dystopian Beijing. Fellow blogger turned literary rock star, Liu Cixin, won the first in 2015, with his sprawling trilogy The Three-Body Problem, for which Amazon is in talks to buy the TV rights. Chen has yet to win a Hugo — but has won three Galaxy Awards (for Chinese language sci-fi), in addition to nine equally prestigious Chinese Nebula Awards.

“Pushing sci-fi into great realms has given me purpose, leaving a legacy that lives beyond me. In this way I can be immortal,” says Chen. The impetus to write is common among people of his age who have grown disillusioned with material success, he says. “People of my generation want to create something, whether that’s making a film or writing a novel . . . Inner life is just as important if not more important than material life.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his characters often contend with a spiritual or emotional vacuum and are as much empowered by technology as they are left wanting more from society. In one of Chen’s best-known short stories, “Fish of Lijiang”, a burnt-out office worker is caught up in a disorienting love affair after being sent away to a simulated vacation town, where everything, from the natural scenery to simple interactions, is engineered.

He is not afraid to skewer his own demographic either; particularly salient to readers in Silicon Valley or Beijing’s equivalent in Zhongguancun is his story, “Coming of the Light”, a wry play on the tech crowd’s fascination with Buddhism. 

 Chen is a proponent of a kind of sci-fi realism, with writing that contains few obvious technological or fantastical elements but which opts instead to explore a character’s emotional world. “Living in China is already like living in a science fiction world,” he says, explaining that he prefers to draw inspiration from the more mundane aspects of reality.

His has recently been involved with the development of a TV series titled Eros, set to run in 2019. He describes the show as the dystopian Netflix show Black Mirror with Chinese characteristics and outlines a few episodes that are in production: one in which everyone’s actions are recorded in a personal blockchain, a twist on China’s social credit system, another imagining Chinese society if everyone micro-dosed on LSD. Awake, a computer-generated short film he wrote about a robot with human memories, is set to premier this year. 

 These days, Chen shuttles between Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong for various projects and literary festivals, and he has recently returned from Europe after promoting an Italian compilation of his stories. He goes everywhere with a backpack, containing a few changes of clothes and a laptop. The intense travel has made carving out time to write difficult, but Chen says he has bigger things to worry about. Some of his school friends have bought apartments and started families, seemingly out of obligation rather than true desire. His biggest fear is being lulled into living on autopilot and “following a script set by the previous generation”, as he puts it. “When I go home, I see friends who seem middle-aged already. They are exhausted. The only thing they are happy about are their kids.” He shudders.

And as for him? I inquire. Is there any chance he will settle down in one place and live the quiet life? Chen gives me a knowing smile: “I am still escaping.” 

 Emily Feng is the FT’s Beijing correspondent

Snowflakes or hard workers: how do you feel about the term ‘millennial’? And how is this generation changing society today? Share your views here.  

Dangerous Don DeLillo

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Dangerous Don DeLillo

The Real Mr. Difficult, or Why Cthulhu Threatens to Destroy the Canon, Self-Interested Literary Essayists, and the Universe Itself. Finally. – Los Angeles Review of Books

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The Real Mr. Difficult, or Why Cthulhu Threatens to Destroy the Canon, Self-Interested Literary Essayists, and the Universe Itself. Finally. – Los Angeles Review of Books

好讀: 《賴索》

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好讀: 《賴索》