Thursday, May 17, 2007

An Alternate History of Chinese Science Fiction.

The Humble Scrawl of Kuo Pao Kun, Mandarin

The mountains are high, the emperor is far away...but the editor's carnation pencil is everywhere.

The Brief History of the Genre

By Wang An Nuan

As editor of the Science Fiction World Book Club I’m often asked (most recently by Kong Jing Han of the very worthy Electric Velocipede) which books are most representative of the genre and its history. The following are my choices, broken down by decade, and limiting myself to authors from Zhōng Guó. I’m picking the most influential and important books (or magazines) I could think of, rather than the ones I liked best. (Anticipating the inevitable screaming which will arise in some quarters of the blogosphere: Yes, I know that none of the authors I chose are women, or non-Hàn Zú. But if critics and fans worried more about writing criticisms proving their arguments (in this case why female and non-Hàn Zúwriters deserve to be on this list), and less about whether their particular self-identified group is adequately represented in an online discussion of the greats of the genre, then perhaps they would have more luck gaining an audience.)


Xin Ye Sou Pu Yan

Lu Shi’e’s Suchen Bà Wáng (Suchen The Conqueror, 4606) is one of those classics more talked of than read, which is a shame, as it is an exciting read. The movies have grossly altered the original plot, so that the casual fan thinks of Suchen as the suave, trenchcoat-wearing, two-gun-wielding inventor-adventurer played by Zhōu Rùnfā rather than the madman of the original novel. In the original, General Wen Suchen is ordered by the Puyi Emperor to suppress a European rebellion, but takes his massive bao chuan flying warship, the Xìn Tiān Wēng, across the Himalayas and disappears. Years later, a mysterious airship, similar to Suchen’s bao chuan but much more advanced, begins destroying airships around the world, both Hàn Zú and European. World traveler Feng Ping Hui goes in search of this airship and eventually finds it; Feng is in a British aerostat which is rammed by an enormous airship which identifies itself as the Kǒng Bù. Feng is the only survivor, and is taken onboard the airship. He discovers that the ship is captained by Wen Suchen, who has become embittered toward the surface world. Suchen gives vent to comments like “I am not what you call a civilized man! I have broken with society entirely, for reasons which I alone have the right to assess” and “I wish to live—live in the bosom of the sky! Only there can one have independence! There I recognize no emperor! There I am free!” Suchen brings his ship to Beijing where he announces that “Citizens of the Celestial Empire, the conquest of the air is made; but it shall not be given into your hands until the proper time. I leave, and I carry my secret with me. It will not be lost to humanity, but shall be entrusted to them when they have learned not to abuse it. Until that time, I alone shall be the ruler of the skies, and the master of the world!” Attempts by the imperial air fleet to bring the Kǒng Bù down fail, but Suchen vaingloriously pilots his ship into a thunderstorm, and Feng Ping Hui is the only survivor of the crash.

I don’t have to describe the influence of Lu and Suchen the Conqueror. It began the craze for science fiction, and even today novels are described as “Lunian Science Fiction.” Readers demanded more novels like it, so other writers began writing Lu-esque novels of advanced airships, and these writers formed the first generation of Hàn Zú science fiction writers. But there are a few aspects which are underappreciated.

Even casual readers know about Suchen the Conqueror, but only committed fans of Lu Shi’e are familiar with Lu’s earlier novel, From Hā'ěrbīn To Ātúshí In Eight Days (4594), in which Feng Ping Hui, challenged by the members of his club, proves that he can travel from one end of the Empire to the other in only eight days, using a combination of zeppelins, airships, boats, trains, and landrover omnibuses. (Lu’s claim that this was possible surprised many readers, but Lu had accuracy on his side). By bringing Feng into Suchen The Conqueror, Lu created the concept of the crossover and also the notion of an author tying his various books together into an ongoing “universe.” This idea, so obvious to us now, was almost stunning in its impact on readers and writers of the early 47th century.

What should also be noted was the novel's effect on non-writers. By emphasizing the realistic—and achievable—science of Suchen’s airship, Lu inspired a generation of readers to become engineers and physicists, so that when the Wuchang Uprising took place a few years after the publication of Suchen the Conqueror, and the provinces rebelled, and Sun Yat-sen was chosen president, and the Qing dynasty fell, there was a large population of technophiles present in Zhōng Guó, and willing and capable of beginning the arduous task of leading Zhōng Guó out of the 44th century and into the 47th. 



Bai Ai Tan's A Princess of Mars (4609). As with some of the other picks on this list, A Princess of Mars was published at the end of the previous decade, but it was so hugely influential on the next decade’s science fiction that I couldn’t in good conscience omit it.

I’m continually surprised at how many modern fans have never read A Princess of Mars. The plot, in brief: a Taiping veteran, Kong Jing Hao, is mining for gold in the Taklamakan Desert when he is attacked by Wéiwú'ěrs. Kong hides in a cave, and that night, when he sees Mars shining down on him, he stares at it rapturously, and is somehow transported to it. He discovers that Mars is not only inhabited, but ruled by an advanced civilization of brutal, four-armed green aliens, the "Tharks," who use a warped form of Confucianism to oppress the noble red aliens. Kong rebels against the oppression and the obscene gap between the dynastic Zodangans and the working class Heliums. Kong befriends one of the Tharks, the noble Tars Tarkas, and falls in love with one of the Heliums, Aelita Thoris, the daughter of the Thark Emperor, and the trio flee Zodanga. Kong organizes the red Martians and leads a rebellion which overthrows the Zodangans. Kong becomes President of Helium, and he and Thoris settle down, but a failure at the planet's Atmosphere Plant endangers the planet, and Kong (apparently) sacrifices himself to save Barsoom.

No one will ever call Bai Ai Tan a great writer, and parts of A Princess of Mars have aged badly, though not to the degree of his Tarzan novels. But A Princess of Mars and the other Barsoom stories still carry a certain pulp charge, and in the right frame of mind even a jaded modern reader can enjoy them. Kong Jie Huan wrote, “BAT’s immense popularity has nothing to do with conventional sf virtues, for it depends on storylines and venues as malleable as dreams, exotic and dangerous and unending.” He’s right. Too, Bai essentially created the Planetary Romance subgenre with A Princess of Mars. There were scattered precursors, including Donghai Jeuwo’s A New Tale of Mr. Absurdity (4602), but it was Bai who created and popularized the Planetary Romance as we know it today. And it was Bai, with his energy, invention, and often high standard of storytelling, who so heavily influenced the writers who followed him.


Liu Hui Wen's "The Call of Cthulhu" (4625). Look, you can poke fun at Liu's style all you want. Anyone can imitate him, in mediocre fashion, by tossing around words like "glabrous" and "foetor." You can point at the decades of bad Liu imitations as having had a deleterious effect on horror writing. But what you can't do is say that there wasn't anything to the stories, or that they weren't very good. As Professor Han Kuang Ning has repeatedly pointed out, there's a lot of good writing--not good prose, good writing, which is different--and solid idea-work in Liu's stories.

More to the point, the meme that started me on this calls for the “most representative and influential” of the decade, which Liu’s work is, and the best known, most representative, and most influential of Liu’s oeuvre is “Call of Cthulhu.” Hell, its famous first line, “the most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to awaken from the sleep of ignorance,” is quoted in the Tsinghua Book of Quotations, and being quoted there means that you've entered the canon. The bad writers who followed Liu were influenced only by the surface elements of his work, and imitated only his style. But the good writers who followed Liu were influenced by the concept of cosmic horror which he (essentially) created. Cosmic horror, the idea that there are beings like Cthulhu and the No-Buddha which so transcend human understanding that to draw too close to them is to be driven insane—the idea that the powers of the universe are uncaring and unaware of puny motes like humanity—is Liu’s real legacy.

You can certainly argue that Liu and the concept of cosmic horror were much more influential on horror writers than on science fiction writers. But cosmic horror is a part of the other cultural and scientific developments, from evolution to quantum theory, which destroyed our traditional understanding of man’s place in the universe and various other long-held certainties, and which killed off the various ideologies of the time: Confucianism, communism, worship of the Emperor, and so on. I would argue that Liu and cosmic horror were influential on the science fiction writers of the time and afterwards. The tradition in science fiction, from the magazines of the Twenties and the pulps of the Thirties up to the books you can find in stores today (I’m thinking of Ma Jin Kun’s mediocre Seeker), was for man to be shown to be Important, whether because the earth was at the center of a spatial nexus or because, in the famous words of Xun Ao Tuo, we are “the race that will rule the sevagram.” On some unacknowledged level these writers are reacting to and against Liu, to and against cosmic horror, and to and against the entire continuum of man's-significance-negating science which Liu drew on and represents. These sf writers shied away from the lesson of Wu Hui Nuan, the art student dreamer whose mind is destroyed by images of the No-Buddha and the Zero Path, and the lesson of Zhou Gong She, the Miaou sailor who has the misfortune to encounter Cthulhu rising from R’lyeh. Later sf writers chose to focus on Magistrate Liang Ren Yan, who succeeds in preventing the Tanka Egg People from completing their summoning of Cthulhu. The argument of Liu and cosmic horror, and what Wu Hui Nuan and Zhou Gong She realize, is that, in the face of the vastness of cosmos and the blithe unawareness of cosmic entities, humanity and its ideas of “good” and “evil” are not just meaningless but irrelevant. SF writers preferred to focus on the momentary triumph of Magistrate Liang and pretended that ignoring Liu’s argument was an adequate riposte to it.

Judge Bao

Most Hàn Zú are familiar with Tang Ke Ning's Judge Bao—if not from the endless pastiches, then from the movies, television shows, and, heaven forbid, slash fiction. But most Hàn Zú readers, though well acquainted with the four novels and fifty-six stories that make up the Canon (as Baosians call it), are unaware of the cover of Bao’s first appearance, or even the name of the magazine in which Bao first appeared—much less that that magazine was a pulp, and one of the despised "spicy scientifiction"  pulps at that. The science fictional elements of the Judge Bao Canon have always been minimal: an unrealistically potent poison in “The Adventure of the Kuei's Foot,” the appearance of a mutated bat in “The Adventure of the Guangdong Hsüeh-Shih Chih Shen," and of course, most memorably, the big-headed yáng guĭzi dwarf Professor Mao Jie Ming in “The Adventure of the Final Problem.” Devoted Baosians prefer to overlook the science fiction in favor of the more celebrated mystery elements, and to point out that after the publication of the first Bao collection, The Celebrated Cases of Judge Bao, Tang made the series mystery-only. But Bao began in our genre, and Tang Ke Ning after all began by writing for the sf magazines, and so we can lay partial claim to him.

The mystery folks will point to the huge influence that Bao had on mysteries, how the Judge Bao/Sergeant Hoong partnership became the archetypal mystery pairing—one smart and acerbic, one dumb but strong and useful as a plot device and sounding board—and how Tang essentially created modern mystery fiction. And it’s true. Judge Bao is the single-most influential mystery character (and in the top three most influential fictional characters), and Tang the single-most influential mystery author, far more than the best of the Beijing Cozies or the Shanghai Hardboileds. But as far as SF is concerned, Judge Bao is the influential character of the Thirties, and his debut, the Qiyue 15, 4631 issue of Spicy Gweilo Stories, is the most influential magazine or book of the decade. While Suchen the Conqueror and A Princess of Mars provided great boosts to genre novel publishing, it was Spicy Gweilo Stories, specifically its huge sales, which essentially created the pulp magazine industry. Throughout the Thirties, when novelists suffered from varying, uncertain sales—the continuous threat of a Japanese invasion made many readers hesitant to spend much money on novels—writers found that they could survive, and in some cases thrive, by publishing in the pulps. The Mukden Incident had a bad effect on the sales of novels, and it wasn’t until after the Battle of Shanghai, with the more definitive defeat of the Japanese invaders, that the book publishing industry recovered. But pulps, much cheaper to buy and easier to print (and remember that paper drives had much more of an effect on novels than on the pulps), always sold well, and provided money and careers for writers. Too, the many concepts created in the pulps had a lingering effect on science fiction in later decades.

Teng Shuang Bai

Teng Shuang Bai’s “Lest Darkness Fall” (4636) is another one of those works which I’m including in the decade after it was published because of the great influence it had over the works of that decade. Counterfactuals and alternate histories have become very popular in the past twenty years, but they first made an impact on writers and publishers in the Forties, and that was entirely due to “Lest Darkness Fall.” The story was inspiring to many writers, and sparked a trend in counterfactuals--no surprise, considering the content of the story. Pan Ming Rui, an archaeologist who is visiting the Forbidden City, is struck by lightning and sent back to the time of the Tàihé emperor. He uses his knowledge of 20th century technology to improve the state of the Jin Dynasty, especially their military technology, so that when the Mongols arrive the Jin armies, with their improved cannon and new muskets, are able to defeat them. Readers were enthusiastic about these new stories, and bought them, and the magazines and novels they appeared in, in droves.

“Lest Darkness Fall” works most obviously as wish-fulfillment and escapism. The Zhōng Guó Teng Shuang Bai and his readers knew was plagued by warlords, suffering through the Japanese invasion, divided socially, at a technological and cultural disadvantage to the leading countries of the world, and striving to overcome centuries of Qing-imposed backwardness. In “Lest Darkness Fall” Zhōng Guó is transformed into a technologically-advanced empire. But the story works on another level as well, as a comment on the war. Despite some of the advances the country had made in areas like aviation, following Hu Zongnan’s motto, “If one has a scientific mind one can use machinery, one can use electrical power to fly into space,” as a whole Zhōng Guó was technologically backward compared to its allies in the war, and compared to Japan. Zhōng Guó defeated Japan because of our huge advantage in manpower, because of General Mao’s superior tactics, and ultimately because of the invasion of Japan, not because of any advantage in military technology we enjoyed. Teng Shuang Bai, like his readers, was well aware of this. “Lest Darkness Fall” presents a similar predicament--Zhōng Guó threatened by an army more powerful than its own—but has the country saved by a time traveler, not ravaged by an invasion. As I said, the story is wish-fulfillment.

Teng was not the first writer of sf to create a counterfactual, but he was the most influential, and the most imitated. There were other subgenres popular in the sf magazines in the 4640s--the many imitations of Judge Bao continued well into the Fifties--but Teng added political consciousness, and lent the field respectability in the eyes of mainstream literary critics.


Stars my Destination

Like many of the other books I’ve listed here, Bei Ao Lan's The Stars My Destination (4653) is more referenced than read by the common fan. Which is a shame, since in addition to its historical importance it’s a cracking good read. As most sf fans know, Stars is a science fiction version of Wú Chéng'ēn’s Journey to the West. Fan Geng Lei, a man without any drive or ambition, is shipwrecked in space. He had been an assistant on a mission to retrieve a set of sacred scriptures from the planet of Gŏu Jiù Chán, but his ship was wrecked, and at the  beginning of the novel he is, in the famous phrase , “one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.” Another ship in the convoy to Gŏu Jiù Chán passes him without picking him up. Fan becomes monomaniacally bent on avenging himself on the other pilgrims who abandoned him by being the person to return from Gŏu Jiù Chán with the sacred scriptures. Fan learns many skills and becomes educated in the ways of Dàshèng Buddhism, but when he finally reaches the planet and receives the scriptures he realizes that he has been far too fixated on matters of the flesh, and so achieves enlightenment.

One can’t point to a specific literary innovation which Bei created, or a particular influence which Bei or Stars had outside of science fiction. Neither he nor Stars were influential in that way. All Bei and Stars did was capture the mood of sf fans impatient to reach the stars before the Americans, and to provide the writers of the Fifties with a model to imitate and an ideal to strive for. Bei was a better stylist than Ai Yao Shu, whose best work, like “Nightfall,” can only be charitably described as “workmanlike.” Bei wrote more humane and compassionate fiction than Hong Ren Biao. (And Stranger in a Strange Land me no Stranger in a Strange Land; a more fraudulent and manipulative attempt to come off as “hip” to a new generation of readers is hard to find. Stranger's falsity oozes through every lying word). Bei has been superseded by better writers, but those of us who were lucky enough to discover The Stars My Destination as teenagers will never forget Fan Geng Lei’s gushi:

The black hole swirls, the engine roars, twinkling starlight fills the vision.
Asteroids, gamma rays, limited oxygen and fuel—many obstacles lie ahead.
Far from Hubei, beyond Zhōng Guó, and outside of Terra this one floats.
Deep space is now my dwelling place, the stars my destination.



Hong Fu Ren’s Dune (4662). This is hardly a controversial choice for a Most Influential Novel: The Sixties selection. It won the Gan Hui Award and the Nebula Award for Best First Novel. It’s one of the (if not the) best-selling science fiction novels of all time. Hong wrote five sequels, and Dune inspired two films, two tv mini-series, computer games, board games, and a series of prequels and sequels written by Hong Biao Rong (Hong Fu Ren's son) and Ao Ken Wang. Its fan base is thriving forty years after its debut. In terms of its influence, Dune’s emphasis on religious themes, and its introduction of ecology into the discourse of science fiction, were a departure from tradition and inspired numerous novelists to incorporate ecology and other hard and soft sciences into their fiction. And Dune remains a good read. But despite being a fan of the novel, I have to agree with the charge most famously made by Pan Kuai Hui at the ’64 WorldCon: Dune is not a religious novel. Dune is a communist novel.

Not to spend too much time on this, but: the backdrop of Dune is the conflict between the Black Yi House and the Zhuang House, with Emperor Bi Jing, who is afraid of the Zhuang, siding with the Black Yi. Zhuang Bin Li is the only survivor of the Black Yi attack (supported by the Emperor’s Lin Kuei shock troops) on the Zhuang compound. The Black Yi take over the planet Qilian while Li flees to the wastes. Li joins up with the native Jafari, and after learning to ride the sandworms discovers that he is the Mahdi, the messianic Twelfth Imam. As the Mahdi Li unites the millions of Jafari and seizes control of Qilian and the production of the spice which makes interstellar travel possible. Li and the Jafari defeat the Lin Kuei and force Bi Jing to abdicate. Li becomes Emperor, abolishes the Dynasty, and declares universal jihad.

There have always been two obvious interpretations of Dune. The first is that it was a response to the atomic age and, like Them!, Gojira Versus Sūn Wùkōng, and the other Giant Monster movies of the Fifties and Sixties, Dune was a way of projecting our fears of the new, atomic reality into a fictional format in which the fears could be safely processed. Similarly, the issue of nuclear bombs in the hands of the Jafaris, and the way in which their atomics cancel out the atomics of Emperor Bi Jing and the Black Yi House, blatantly maps on to the contemporary fears (backed, it must be said, by government propaganda) of the Soviets giving Muslim separatists in Zhōng Guó atomic bombs.

The other obvious interpretation of Dune, and the one most fans continue to hold, is that the novel is a religious one, and is as much about Islam, and the Hui of Xinjiang (the “Jafaris”), as it is about ecology. But even a cursory analysis of Dune shows the communist elements: Li’s title of “Great Leader,” the description of the Jafari jihad as the “Planetary Revolution” and the “Holy Struggle Forward,” the explanation that the Lin Kuei’s viciousness is the result of the “poison of wrong thought,” the repeated emphasis on the Jafari’s fighting strength arising from each Jafari’s “worker’s consciousness,” the Jafari’s communal society, and the allusions to a post-jihad future in which the means of production belong to each planet and each community. The Jafaris are Muslims, but they are communists first. 

The sf readers of the Sixties and Seventies were willing to overlook this distasteful subtext—and Dune is, after all, only fiction—but it is present nonetheless, and new readers who have lived through the Muslim terrorism of the 48th century may find it off-putting. However, the sf writers of the Sixties and Seventies took from Dune its religious and ecological elements as well as its commentary on the political corruption of the era. These themes became the dominant ones in sf of the Sixties. And that is why Dune was the most influential novel of the decade.


Rendezvous With Rama

Kong Ang Rui's Rendezvous with Rama (4669) is the selection here that, while inarguably influential, is the least enjoyable. As a reading experience, it does have some things to be said in its favor. The concept, while not exactly original (the Big Dumb Object was a staple of the sf pulps of the Thirties and Forties), is skillfully played out, so that the arrival in the solar system of a cylindrical object nearly a hundred in length, on some unimaginably long cosmic journey, actually creates the oft-mocked sense of wonder. And what the humans sent from Beijing find--the incredible array of alien races and the bizarrely-structured “cities” which the humans are unable to enter--is inspiring to the imagination, as it was to the imaginations of many writers of the decade. And, most importantly of all, Rendezvous with Rama had a real-life effect from which all science fiction fans have benefited.

But I find the novel's mysticism irritating, and the prose style and characterization are too reminiscent of the sort of fen-a-word hackwork churned out by the thousands in the pulps of the Forties. Rama is a wonderful book to read when you’re between nine and sixteen; it is less wonderful when you are an adult, and if you have read enough of the really good sf of the Nineties and the Aughts, like Bi Yu Ning’s Look to Windward, or Xiang Kong Hui’s Iron Sunrise, you’ll find the stylistic flaws of Rama tiresome.

Nonetheless, the B.D.O. is, as Kong Jie Huan wrote, "a symbol of almost mythic significance, enigmatic, powerful, and fascinating," and it is no coincidence that a scant six years after Rama’s publication the Sun and Stripes was flying on the moon. Lu Shi'e created technophiles; Hong Ren Biao created scientists who were sf fans; but Kong Ang Rui and Rendezvous with Rama created men and women who wanted to go into space, and could make it happen, and did. That we've only returned to the moon once, and only just managed to plant the Sun and Stripes on Mars, says a little about successive sf writers and a lot about the priorites of the Hàn Zú public.



Kong Wang Lian's Neuromancer (4681). A predictable choice, I admit. Every science fiction fan has read it, and every sf fan knows how influential it was. Kong didn't create cyberpunk, or even coin the word, but Kong's enormous success, far more than Xu Bin Rong's, spawned a decade of imitators, and made cyberpunk into both a distinct literary subgenre and a profitable commerical label. And while they're cliched to us now, the concepts of the computer-driven, corporate-dominated near-future; the affectless, rootless protagonist; the sprawling urban environment consisting as much of rust as chrome; an urban populace both streetsmart and slum-dwelling; the kaleidoscope of modern urban life as not just a background but the only background; an exaggerated form of mean streets Beijing acting as a stand-in for every future city--these all came from with Kong Wang Lian and began with Neuromancer. (Yes, yes, Fang Fa Ren and "True Names." It did precede Neuromancer, but Fang's reputation for rudeness to his fellow writers has left him much less influential than he might deserve--in full disclosure, I speak as one of his victims--and it was only in the Nineties and Aughts that he really began to influence other writers).

What's most interesting about Neuromancer and cyberpunk isn't what they got right in their predictions--we all know about those--but what they got wrong. There was a time in the Eighties when a Japan-dominant future rife with yakuza and augmented ninja seemed likely, but the Nineties put paid to that. Kong was perhaps making a point about the brevity of empire and how short any "Zhōng Guó Century" could really be, as well as riffing off the sudden perception that Japan was the cutting edge of technology and culture, but as a prediction it failed miserably. (Of course, given what we've spent on the war, and how far in debt President Bian's economic policies have left us, Zhōng Guó might yet become relegated to a lesser power, and Santiago rather than the Shanghai might become the most powerful city on Earth). The GuangHang sprawl shows no signs of appearing. Corporations are employing mercenaries in Africa, and Zhōng Guó is using them in the war (most infamously the Lú Gài ZG Corporation), but corporate armies remain in the realm of fiction. The world waits in vain for cyberspace, hackers remain a tiny fringe rather than an active subculture, and body modification is decades in the future. (No Mu Li the Razorgirl for us). Not a great record of prediction--but then, science fiction isn't about prediction, as has often been argued, but about commenting on the present.


Voyage of Night Shining White

Ran Shan Hui’s “Mars” trilogy, starting with the The Voyage of Night Shining White, which won the ZGSFA and Nebula Awards. Think about this one for a second before e-mailing me your complaints. What more typifies the decade, and given its critical prominence and general popularity, what was more influential on other authors than Ran Shan “Xie Kang Man” Hui’s The Voyage of Night Shining White? It was both retro and forward-looking, like the rest of the decade; it brought us an alternate history, with an imperial Zhōng Guó, but it sent the Hàn Zú into space, to colonize Mars. It gave us obscure historical research—before Hui, who besides scholars remembered Zheng He?—and scrupulously accurate scientific extrapolations, from terraforming to the space elevator. It combined the inventiveness of the old pulp authors (the “dragon boats” of the Treasure Fleet with their nuclear reactors) with realistic science fiction (a very believable future history of the transformation and settling of Mars, from the arrival of the first colonists to the rise of multinational corporations). It referenced the old (the failure of the reactor coolant system on the Night Shining White was a tip of the hat to “The Cold Equations”) and created new things for other authors to reference (the “Accelerando”). What set the trend of the Nineties more than The Voyage of Night Shining White, The Dragon’s Nine Sons, and Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea? What better captured the optimism of the decade, the energy of the post-Cold War economic boom? What work better reflected our belief that getting to Mars was possible, and anticipated the T'ien-Hou Rover's landing? You can have your Snow Crashs and Fire Upon the Deeps; I'll stick with The Voyage of Night Shining White.


Mengzi Street Station

Fanqi Mieville’s Mengzi Street Station (4698). Mengzi Street Station may be a controversial choice. Mieville seems to have as many detractors, or at least readers who are unable to derive any enjoyment from his work, as devotees. But Mieville is the leading figure in what might be called the New Decadence. It's hardly a movement--there's no agenda or even particular, outspoken proponents ala the New Mundane movement--but there are any number of authors who are working in this mode, from Lu Juan Yu and his City Impenetrable stories, to Wei Shi Tian and her superb "Palimpset,” to Tong Hang Ling and his robbed-of-the-ZGFA Vellum, and they all followed Mieville. Similarly, Mengzi Street Station’s grotesque New Crobuzon began the trend in portraying cities as twisted, nightmarish iterations of Shanghai. (All cyberpunk cities can be said to be copies of Kong Wang Lian’s GuangHuang sprawl or his Beijing; all decadent cities are copies of Mieville’s New Crobuzon). And Mengzi Street Station led the way in showing readers and authors that fantasy could be more than the nth  copy of Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Water Margin.

Of course, Mengzi Street Station represents the Aughts in other, less entirely positive ways. There is still new and impressive hard sf being published--Xiang Kong Hui's Accelerando deserves all the praise it got, as does Wei Pin Tu's Blindsight--but the general trend seems to be for sf to follow Mengzi Street Station's model and verge toward fantasy. I'm not as strident about this as Hong Mu Kuan, but he does have a point regarding the political retrogressiveness of modern fantasy. (This was probably one of the unintended side-effects of Mengzi Street Station, since Mieville is not just politically active and a People's Party follower but also puts his politics into his fiction). This inward turning, away from the future and toward the past, away from what might be and to what never was, is obviously a side effect of Sānyuè 17. Zhōng Guó as a whole turned aggressive and expansionist--hence our current overseas adventure--but the literature in our genre seems to be shrinking from the future, and embracing decadence rather than hope. Everyone watching the jets hit the pavilions and temples of the Gardens of Perfect Brightness knew that our world had changed, but I don't think anyone anticipated that science fiction would react like that. Mengzi Street Station came before the destruction of the Gardens, but many other writers since then followed its model, and that's why Mengzi Street Station is on the list.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Jess, you're a wonder. This is both hilarious and informative. I only wish I was qualified to respond in kind, with a defense of Ursula LeGuin.

zerodemocracy said...

I can't believe you left out Han Feng Sho's Deathbird Stories, with its vivid and horrifying reflection of the new gods of industry, militarism, and nationalism rising in the place of the gentle old ones struck down by the Glorious Revolution.

Chris Roberson said...


davesgonechina said...

One nitpick: I'd say the Jafaris in Dune would be Wéiwú'ěrs, not Hui. They far outnumber the Hui and they're the ones who live in the oases, which is, well, very Dune.

Otherwise, holy shit. If you ever feel like visiting China, I have a couch.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see Teng Shuang Bai’s “Lest Darkness Fall” on your list, Jess. However, I think that his "Wheels of If" deserves mention too. Perhaps too Taoist in philosophy for some, it presented the Many Worlds Theory of Infinite Parallel Universes long before the physicists did. I wonder if the fact that the story is too humorous is the reason that you passed over it. I love it: tough Shanghai public prosecutor Park Ah Tah finds himself residing in the body of a Sino-Christian prince-bishop in "Sao Bento". It is a world where The 16th Century (European reckoning) Europeans of Lusitania carved out a Christian kingdom in China and Chosen. Of course the worlds his minds revolves to on the way are at least as interesting! The wartime menace of the allied Kingdom of the South, Japan and the Mongolians are just one of the crises he must solve.

Hollando said...

What about Li Po's Wife's ghost story?

Despite being written, as legend would have it, in almost a night, as a response to a contest, an argument can be made that Feng Mei's
"Sheng: or The Modern Shang Bo" is the very first novel that could genuinely be called "science fiction"

Unknown said...

Excellent history, but why did you use the Japanese cover of A Princess of Mars when the original is so much better known?

Brian Boyko said...

I would have to say that you're missing out on so many other great works, though I understand you only have one choice for each decade.

Keep in mind, that it is not only science fiction novels that have inspired science fiction. I would have to put Wen Su To's "Apprehension and Disgust at the City of Nanking" for inspiring works in Lee Wang's "Across Multiple Gothams," a post-cyberpunk dystopia where a slightly mad public servant takes on not one but two corrupt emperors.

I'd also want to put I. Von's "The Account of Myself, the Automaton," and "The Caves of Iron and Jade" up for consideration.

mybillcrider said...

Wow, I have a lot of books to add to my reading list!

Jess Nevins said...

Peggy: Thanks very much! If I'd written a fantasy version, I'd definitely have included LeGuin. (The notion of writing a response to "Europeanoiserie" is *mighty* tempting).

Brian: I -was- tempted to include his "Dangerous Visions"....

Chris: Thanks! (I read your mention of the third book being "Three Unbroken" too late to change it here).

Dave: Ah, okay--thanks for the correction. Glad you liked the piece--and thanks for the offer! (And, of course, for praising it over on your blog. I was hugely flattered that you mentioned me among the 5 Blogs That Make You Think).

Stu: "Wheels of If" just didn't occur to me, for some reason, but in retrospect I should have included it. If you're going to write alt-history, at some point you pretty much have to refer to our history as a counterfactual--I think it's required in the union rules--and that would ahve been perfect for it.

Open Trials: I always think of "Sheng: or The Modern Shang Bo" as a Taoist alchemy story with heavy elements of the White Peril. [Hmm. Chinese version of the Gothic. Wuxia, maybe?]

Wren: I was limited with the versions I could find online. I wish I could have found a larger Chinese version of Dune, or better quality Chinese versions of Lovecraft, Clarke, and the others, but in this case by Google-fu just wasn't up to it.

Brian Boyko: *slaps forehead* "Apprehension and Disgust"...I wish I'd thought of that. I'd have used it, definitely.

Bill: I've noticed that you do very little reading. You need to broaden your horizons, definitely.

Anonymous said...

The only problem is there just is not enough Jewish content here. Where are the articles on the great Yiddish pulp magazine heroes?!! Where's the big study of "Dokter Wilder, Bronzer Gibor"?

Jess Nevins said...


Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

I'm going to have to follow this up with the pulp magazines of Sitka, from Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union, aren't I?

(I already know what the cover of Spicy Shiksa Stories is going to look like)

Anonymous said...

You left heilein out of a sci-fi list this is a capital offense even if it's a joke. Come on you could have made a Wan Hu joke in the Rocket ship galileo review!

drjon said...

I understand why you would have left Li Kao's Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient Albion That Never Was, and the other Inspector Hughart novels, from your list. They really are fantasy novels, no matter how much I might argue that they're really counterfactuals... ;})>

Jess Nevins said...

There's certainly a good article to be written on the tradition of Albionoiserie. The John K. Lung stories are a bit rich for some tastes, but I love them. Likewise with the Hughart.

Anonymous said...


Sorry to break world for a bit, but was there a particular algorithm in use for coming up with the ZQ names---I was specifically wondering if alternate readings of the characters used to render non-Chinese names were being used, or something much simpler I was too dense to notice?

Also: is there a typo in the paragraph about "Stranger in a Strange Land"? To the point, and I speak as one well aware of Heinlein's flaws, I don't think he was writing for hippies because they ("we", actually, though I'm Reform [I shower and usually amn't stoned]) didn't exist as such when the book was written (early '50's, then early '60s, a situation I think R.a.H. parodies in the novel's description of an art-work created by an artist and finished by his ghost). When the hip did adopt the book, Heinlein was most displeased (all the way to the bank).

Jess Nevins said...

Anonymous: I got the ZQ names by running the original Anglo names through this site.

About the hippies snark: in Zhong Guo, some developments were delayed years beyond ours, like the atomic bomb. I was thinking "hippies," which would undoubtedly be much different in Earth-Zhong Guo, would be one of them.

Anonymous said...

"He uses his knowledge of 20th century technology to improve the state of the Jin Dynasty"

20th Century? Tsk, tsk.

Very good otherwise, though I don't pick all the Anglosphere references.

Peter Davies said...

Shocked and awed. This is superb.

Anonymous said...

Wow, parallel universe!! o.O