The Chinese Should Be Writing Some Great Science Fiction About Now!

The Chinese have big plans to explore space, and they are sending manned missions into orbit like the United States and Russia did  in the mid-1960s.  The Chinese even say they are going to the Moon.  I think that’s great, and I imagine it’s a very exciting time to be Chinese.  Not only are they going to become a leading space exploration nation, but in the last few decades their economy has gone from poverty to an economic miracle.  All of this should have inspired their science fiction writers to write some amazing science fiction.

chinese-astronuat

The 1950s and 1960s were very exciting times for America as we went into space, and those decades were my favorite for science fiction.  At the time, the sky was no longer the limit until we succeeded.  1969, we went to the Moon and everyone thought we’d keep going, by 1972, we stopped going anywhere but low Earth orbit.  Will it be different this time for the Chinese?  Will it be to infinity and beyond?  Will they go to the Moon, and then keep going like we dreamed back in the 1960s?

I would imagine China is living through its version of our 1960s.  Culturally and artistically they should be blasting off in all areas of life.

How are Chinese science fiction writers picturing their future in science fiction novels, television shows and movies?  Who are their big three like Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov were in the 1950s and 1960s?  Do the Chinese have a Gene Roddenberry?  Do they have an old guard and young upstarts like our 1960s Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny and Harlan Ellison?

We get very little news from China.  It’s on the other side of the world, and they speak a very different language.  Taking the pulse of Chinese science fiction is rather difficult.  There is The World SF Blog that covers the entire world, and from there I found World Chinese-language Science Fiction Research Workshop.  From there I found a link to “But Some of Us are Looking at the Stars” by Kun Kun, which profiled  Liu Cixin, who has a handful of novellas and short stories at Amazon for the Kindle.  I found more about Liu Cixin and a history of Chinese science fiction at “Utopia, Dystopia, Heterotopias: From Lu Xun to Liu Cixin.”

China Daily did a profile on Liu Cixin and an overview of his books.  I’d like to read the books they describe, but other than the character names, their plots don’t seem uniquely Chinese.  Are science fiction and fantasy themes just universal?  Like English writers, Liu Cixin writes about threats to the Earth, either from natural forces or alien forces.  I was hoping for stories about China exploring the solar system and building colonies.  Maybe the Chinese people have already learned from us that few people want to colonize the Moon and Mars.

I bought Liu Cixin’s “The Wandering Earth” but it reminds me more of England’s contemporary New Space Opera movement.  It’s about the Sun going red giant much earlier than expected and how Earthmen cope.  But it also reminded me of something that shatters my illusions about the SF of the 1950s and 1960s.  Most SF is about catastrophes, or war, or warnings about self-destruction.  SF needs conflict, and all too often it’s bleak.

For some reason my nostalgia for 1950s and 1960s is confused in my memories of the excitement for the 1960s manned space programs like Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, as well as the Mariner missions to Mars.  Back then, as a teen, I equated science fiction as the cheerleading squad for the space program, and it never really was that.

I do wonder if a boom in science fiction correlates with an expanding space program?  Does going into space inspire the average citizen into thinking about their descendants living in space?  I think the American experience has shown that there is a disconnect between now and a Star Trek future.  People want space travel to be luxury class, not pioneering in covered wagons.  There’s damn little science fiction about actually doing the hard work of colonizing the solar system.  We loved Star Trek because all the dirty work had been done.

Very few 1950s and 1960s science fiction books were about the joys of pioneering space travel.  And the ones I remember best, were all Heinlein juveniles like The Rolling Stones, Time for the Stars, Starman Jones, and Farmer in the SkyHave Space Suit-Will Travel had a lot of sense of wonder space travel in it, but it was mostly about interstellar conflict and judging species on their aggression.  Many other classic science fiction stories at the time had space travel in them, but space travel wasn’t the main theme of the story.

The Foundation stories by Asimov had lots of space travel, but it was about the rise and fall of a galactic empire, and space travel was about as important as airplanes are to stories in The New Yorker today.  I’ve always had this false assumption that science fiction was about promoting the colonization of the final frontier.  But if I look at the popular books of the time that isn’t reflected.  Here are the 1960s books from The Classics of Science Fiction List.  [The number states the number of citations that recommended the book.]

1960 Canticle for Leibowitz, A Miller, Walter M. 24
1960 Deathworld Harrison, Harry 7
1960 Rogue Moon Budrys, Algis 11
1961 Big Time, The Leiber, Fritz 10
1961 Dark Universe Galouye, Daniel F. 7
1961 Lovers, The Farmer, Philip Jose 9
1961 Stranger in a Strange Land Heinlein, Robert A. 19
1962 Clockwork Orange, A Burgess, Anthony 16
1962 Drowned World, The Ballard, J. G. 8
1962 Long Afternoon of Earth, The (Hothouse) Aldiss, Brian 17
1962 Man in the High Castle, The Dick, Philip K. 20
1963 Way Station Simak, Clifford 16
1964 Davy Pangborn, Edgar 11
1964 Greybeard Aldiss, Brian 8
1964 Wanderer, The Leiber, Fritz 9
1965 Dune Herbert, Frank 25
1966 Babel-17 Delany, Samuel R. 10
1966 Crystal World, The Ballard, J. G. 10
1966 Dream Master, The Zelazny, Roger 7
1966 Flowers for Algernon Keyes, Daniel 17
1966 Make Room! Make Room! Harrison, Harry 7
1966 Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Heinlein, Robert A. 17
1966 The Witches of Karres Schmitz, James H. 7
1966 This Immortal Zelazny, Roger 8
1967 Dangerous Visions Ellison, Harlan 12
1967 Einstein Intersection, The Delany, Samuel R. 10
1967 Lord of Light Zelazny, Roger 15
1967 Past Through Tomorrow, The Heinlein, Robert A. 9
1968 Camp Concentration Disch, Thomas 16
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick, Philip K. 14
1968 Nova Delany, Samuel R. 7
1968 Pavane Roberts, Keith 10
1968 Rite of Passage Panshin, Alexei 12
1968 Stand on Zanzibar Brunner, John 24
1969 Behold The Man Moorcock, Michael 7
1969 Bug Jack Barron Spinrad, Norman 10
1969 Left Hand of Darkness, The Le Guin, Ursula K. 24
1969 Slaughterhouse Five Vonnegut, Kurt 13
1969 Ubik Dick, Philip K. 13

It seems social unrest in very inspiring for science fiction too, maybe more so than success in space travel.  If you look at the breadth and variety of subjects covered in the books above, can you imagine what the Chinese writers must be writing about now?  In some ways I feel China is as far away as alien life in another stellar system.  I could physically fly there to visit, but without knowing the language I’d never actually get there. 

I felt the same way about Russia back in the 1960s.  The Soviets were our competition and enemies back then, but I figured it had to be exciting times living there, at least for the men and women who built their space program.  We eventually got a trickle of Soviet SF but never enough to really feel what their science fiction world was like.

We never saw a Dune, Canticle for Leibowitz, The Left Hand of Darkness or Stand on Zanzibar come out of Russia.  Will we ever read such great stories translated from the Chinese?  Hell, for all I know, Russia could have produced a library of great SF that blows our classics away, but because of the language barrier we’ll never know.  If any Russian or Chinese readers read this, please post a comment below to lets all know about the state of science fiction in your country.

JWH – 7/29/12

3 Responses

  1. James, very interesting and timely post, at least for me. I’ve just finished Patterson’s biography of Heinlein: would it surprise you (or your readers) to learn that RAH’s juveniles were produced as equal part wanting to break out of the pulps and as propaganda for a robust space program?
    I’ve also been taking a long hard look at Chinese SF of late out of a desire to see if there is anything to be learned from SF World(?) their slick monthly print publication with a circulation in the hundreds of thousands.
    Heinlein was working on a bunch of different programs designed to spur the country (decision makers on one end, the next generation on the other) into establishing a moon base. He was genuinely scared that someone else would do so and things would then “be all over” for the US, democracy and freedom. He genuinely believed that if the world didn’t band together, create a universal police force and hand it all of the nuclear tech, it wouldn’t be too much longer before we destroyed ourselves. (He overlooked MAD). Along with the juvies, he was also authoring non-fiction pieces for the likes of Colliers and Sat. Evening Post designed to make everyone else as worried as he was (and to hand space tech development over to the navy, his alma mater).

    I don’t share your take: I think that conflict or no, most of the 40s – mid-60s SF was positive, as most of it was posited on a shared vision of a future that involved Pax Americana and a continued development of space; you can’t have human conflict on Mars or Alpha Centauri IV unless there are people there, lol.

    You might want to see if you can find copies of International SF digest mag (2 issues) and a Asimov anthology, Russian Science Fiction; in the early 70s, several of “our” sf authors – Pohl, Asimov and Bradbury among them I believe) paid a visit to their counterparts in the USSR and found that field to be as vibrant, wide-ranging and speculative as “western” sf was at the time. I think “no Dune” has more to do with our lack of exposure than anything else.

    And going a little off topic, I think what the Chinese are doing in space is great as well – as long as it eventually threatens the US and spurs us back into the race, this time permanently.

    • I read the first volume of the Heinlein biography when it came out. I was very impressed and can’t wait for the second volume. Patterson’s web says he’s just finished the 2nd-pass edits.

      The SF of the 1940s-1960s is positive overall that we will succeed in conquering the solar system, but the plots are often complicated by war, crime, political conflict, etc. One example is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, about a Moon colony, but the story is about revolution and killing millions back on Earth. Evidently readers need something more than stories about people building Moon cities. I want novels like “The Menace From Earth” where the details of how people live on the Moon are the story. I know this is Pollyanna-ish, but so what. I thought Kim Stanley Robinson did a good job with his Mars books, but he did adds unnecessary conflict.

      There were quite a number of anthologies in the 1960s and 1970s that covered Soviet Science Fiction. I expect to see such anthologies cover Chinese SF soon. Amazon does one collection, Science Fiction From China, but it’s from 1989, which I’ve ordered, but it’s much older than what I want to reflect their current space program.

      There’s already several volumes of Philippine Speculative Fiction available at Amazon.

      There’s lots of Russian SF at Amazon, but often too expensive for me to try.

      Jim

  2. [...] The Chinese Should Be Writing Some Great Science Fiction About Now! [...]

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