An intimate apocalypse


Xiuzai’s Summer
《秀哉的夏天》
Ge Shuyi (哥舒意)
223 pages
2010.2

As the title suggests, Xiuzai’s Summer draws inspiration from the Takeshi Kitano film Kikujiro (菊次郎の夏), in that it features a man who takes a young boy under his wing when the boy’s mother is missing. The man is Xiuzai, an IT programmer and gamer who is content with his solitary routine. The young boy is Xiao Shu, who crashes into his life when his mom (Xiuzai’s former lover) leaves him on the doorstep and jets off to Japan for a week. The event that keeps them together for the summer is a catastrophe of global proportions: on June 17, 2018, massive earthquakes rock Shanghai and much of the rest of the world and leave Xiuzai and Xiao Shu among the handful of people left alive in the city.

Over the course of the next few days, as frequent aftershocks slowly bring down everything that’s still upright, Xiuzai and Xiao Shu join the survivors in a makeshift encampment at People’s Square, from which they make risky forays into the surrounding area in search of food and supplies. The destruction has been total. Across the river, Pudong District has vanished into the sea, and on their side, they find few people left alive in the rubble that once belonged to densely-packed high-rises.

In a bloody attempt to save a woman trapped beneath a beam, Xiuzai injures himself and ends up in a feverish delirium. The small group of survivors is ill-equipped to handle the trauma of such an enormous disaster, and its numbers dwindle daily. By the time Xiuzai comes to his senses, he and Xiao Shu are all alone.

The aftershocks have subsided, and the supplies their former companions managed to accumulate relieve them of the chore of foraging among the ruins, so all Xiuzai has to do is amuse the boy and keep his mind off his mother — which he eventually does, once he overcomes the urge to drink himself into oblivion with looted high-end liquor while watching porn on a scavenged laptop. They bond, slowly and haltingly, over the middle section of the book, which is set on a beach where the Bund used to be and feels like a tale of castaways on a desert island.

For much of the time, Xiuzai’s Summer is an idyllic apocalypse, punctuated with scenes of horrific brutality — the aforementioned botched rescue attempt, a subterranean crawl, and an ending that’s crushing in more ways than one. The boy’s a little too precocious for his age, and the city far too clean for all of the destruction that’s occurred, but both of these elements work well within the fairy-tale-like atmosphere that makes up most of the novel.

Ge Shuyi has said that he conceived of the novel after the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, and it shows: some of the more surrealistic descriptions reminded me of first-hand reports from that disaster, such as Li Ximin’s hour-by-hour account of the three days and nights he spent buried in the rubble of the Wenchuan earthquake.

Prior to Xiuzai’s Summer, Ge wrote Devil Sonata (恶魔奏鸣曲, 2006) and The Nocturnal Violinist and La flûte de Jésus (夜之琴女与耶稣之笛 , 2008), the first two installments in a “music trilogy” of modern fantasy.

Posted in Quick review. Tags: , . 1 Comment »

Social commentary in Chinese SF: 2013, Han Song, and others

THL091207shengshi
Age of Prosperity
《盛世》
John Chan Koon-Chung (陈冠中)
261 pages
2009

In a prosperous China where nearly everyone is happy, a few individuals attempt to track down why an entire month seems to have been wiped from history.

That’s the premise of Age of Prosperity (盛世, 2009), a political fantasy novel by John Chan Koon-Chung (陈冠中). Chan is known for his stories and essays about cities, and his fascination with urban landscape, people, and power structures. Previous fiction includes the Hong Kong Trilogy (香港三部曲), and his extensive writing about Beijing culture includes the essay “Bohemian Beijing,” which approaches life in the city through residents who are situated on the margins.* His new novel, which imagines a China in which the government has succeeded in building a “harmonious society,” displays a similar eye for detail presented in a reportorial style.

Age of Prosperity is a fascinating book that succeeds on a number of levels but fails in one fatal way. The novel presents a convincing depiction of Beijing’s intellectual circles through his protagonist, Chen (a mirror-universe version of the author), and the meandering plot gives the author the opportunity to explore aspects of contemporary Chinese society. References to contemporary scandals such as milk additives, mass demonstrations, brick kiln slaves, product quality concerns, and underground religious movements give the story the feel of a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller at times. Chen, who doesn’t realize at first that a month has gone missing, is drawn into the search by an old colleague who’s noticed the gap and a former flame who feels vaguely uneasy. This uneasiness is all the more remarkable because of the happiness of the public as a whole: two years before, the world slipped into an economic crisis, yet China managed to reach new heights of prosperity and stability.

Eventually the protagonists are able to seek answers through a point-blank interrogation of a high-level official who was in on the plan. What he tells them is both a darkly comic echo of “red menace” fears from 1950s America and a bleak revelation that brings new meaning to the author’s frequent references to the tragedies of the last sixty years – the anti-rightist movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and more recently, the “strike hard” campaign in 1983 and the crackdown on the student movement in 1989 – and underscores the prophetic element of the narrative.

Unfortunately, the story grinds to a halt midway through that interrogation. Once the secret of the missing month has been revealed and the official begins to explicate China’s place in the world and its pursuit of international influence, the work feels less like a novel and more like a political speech (at one point, the official is described as responding to a question “as if he were giving a lecture”). Whether or not this is a deliberate subversion of genre conventions, it certainly is tough going for a reader who is looking for a plot movement as opposed to a 40-page political treatise.

And it’s that treatise, and the political commentary in the rest of the novel, that’s at the heart of the attention that Age of Prosperity has received. An interesting exploration of novel’s critique of the “Chinese model of development” by Zhansui Yu can be found at The China Beat; other recent reviews include those by Linda Jaivin at China Heritage Quarterly and by Xujun Eberlein at Foreign Policy. (These reviews all include extensive spoilers, so exercise caution.)

The Foreign Policy review tags the book as “the return of politically charged science fiction in China,” and in it Eberlein suggests that socially-conscious science fiction disappeared in the wake of the anti-spiritual pollution campaign of 1983. It was replaced by “time travel, space voyage, robot battles, you name it — but social or political criticism, as you might read in books like George Orwell’s 1984, is almost completely lacking.” Although the campaign did bring to a close the first stage of reform-era Chinese SF and end the careers of a number of prominent writers, in the decades that followed, science fiction stories that addressed issues in contemporary society and politics were never totally absent.

Chan is not even the first writer of socially-oriented science fiction in China to propose the idea of authorities seeking to maintain stability, boost national prestige, and ensure GDP growth by keeping the public contented and ignorant (chemically or otherwise). For example, “The Olympic Dream” (奥运梦, translated at CDT), a short story that was widely reposted across the Chinese-language Internet in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, imagined the Beijing authorities giving local residents hibernation pills so they’d stay out of the way of the foreign guests attending the Games. (more…)

College-educated rat-catchers as pawns in a tussle over intellectual property

"Year of the Rat"

Every year, China’s colleges and universities pour out more graduates into the work force than can find decent career placement, leaving highly-educated workers to scrape by in low-paying entry-level jobs. In the cities, where the cost of living is skyrocketing, they can only afford to live in dense, communal apartments, a lifestyle that has lent the group its name: the Ant Tribe. Lian Si’s study of the same name (蚁族), published in late 2009, brought the plight of these graduates to national prominence, but angst over post-graduation opportunities has been growing for many years.

In “Year of the Rat” (鼠年), published in the May 2009 issue of Science Fiction World, Stanley Chan Qiufan (陈楸帆) gives his unemployable college seniors an opportunity to serve their country by joining up with a rat-fighting brigade. Armed with crude spears, the new recruits hunt Neorats (新鼠), genetically-altered rodents that escaped from the incubators where they were being raised for export to international markets. It’s brutal work, particularly as the rats begin to evolve in ways that make them harder to track and kill, but the young men have no other choice, a lesson that is hammered into them by their boot camp drill instructor:

Why are you here? Because you’re a bunch of pussies! A bunch of failures, to put it politely. You wasted tons of the country’s food and resources, you squandered your parents’ funeral money, and then you couldn’t even find a job. You can’t even support yourselves. You’re fit for nothing but catching rats, hanging out with rats! Here’s what I really think: I think that you’re not even fit for rats. Rats can bring in foreign exchange when they’re exported, but you? Look at all of you! Tell me — are you capable? Is this chasing girls, cheating, or playing games?

College graduates, men in particular, are next to worthless in an economy that depends on cheap labor and has little intellectual property of its own. Here’s a conversation the protagonist has with a classmate, Li Xiaoxia, after he’s decided to enlist:

She said, “Interesting. My Dad raises rats, but you’re going to exterminate rats. Exterminating rats in the Year of the Rat. Brilliant.”

I asked, “So are you going home to help them after graduation?”

She screwed up her mouth. “I’m not going to be cheap labor.”

To Li Xiaoxia, this industry was no different from the old OEM electronics and garment manufacturing industries. Not in possession of the core technologies, it depended entirely on imported embryos which it then incubated, and at a certain stage subjected them to stringent product testing. Neorats that met the standard were exported to a foreign country where they were implanted with a custom response program and then became high-end pets for the rich. There was reportedly a three-year waiting list , and thus it was best for the low-tech, time-consuming incubation stage to be located in the Factory to the World, with its vast labor force.

“If that’s the case, then I can’t see any reason to exterminate them.”

“First, you’re not exterminating Neorats that meet the standard for export. Second, the escaped Neorats may have been subjected to gene modulation.”

Xiaoxia explained that just like OEM iPhones used to be cracked and made into knock-offs loaded with a bunch of random programs, these days the owners of Neorat farms would hire technicians to manipulate the rats’ DNA, mainly to increase the birth and survival rates of female rats, otherwise they would operate at a loss much of the time.

“I’ve heard that this massive escape is a way for the incubation industry to fight for their own interests by putting pressure on certain arms of the state?”

Xiaoxia disagreed: “And I’ve heard that it’s just a chip the Western Alliance is using in their game with us. Who can say?”

As I looked across at the beautiful, talented woman, my thoughts were uncertain. Be they Neorat or human, females now played a key role in the control of the world’s future. They had no need to worry about unemployment, as the continued decline in birthrates had brought tax incentives to enterprises that hired women, so that those women would have a more relaxed environment for raising children. Nor did they need to worry about finding a partner; for unknown reasons, the male-to-female ration in newborns was still on the rise, so perhaps very soon men would have to learn how to share one woman, while a single woman could monopolize many men.

As the exterminators track their prey, they gradually come to realize that the Neorats far more sophisticated than they had imagined, and they begin to notice signs that the genetically-modified rodents may have evolved some form of society. Ultimately, however, both science and the military are subservient to the marketplace, and the rats and rat-fighters are merely pawns in a much larger game.

Note: The translations above were based on the version of “Year of the Rat” included in The Year’s Best Chinese Science Fiction Collection, 2009 (2009年度中国最佳科幻小说集), edited by Wu Yan, which is punctuated differently in a number of places than the versions found in SFW and online. Stanley Chan and I recently took part in a podcast on contemporary Chinese SF; see a brief writeup on Danwei (mainland version on Danwei.tv).

Send a reporter!

elephant-sized pigNot long ago I ran across a microblog post (since deleted) that used the image at right to mock some sort of trendy pseudoscience — possibly Zhang Wuben’s mung-bean miracle cure. In his comment to that post, science fiction author and critic Wu Yan mentioned the story “Elephants with Their Trunks Removed” (割掉鼻子的大象, 1957), a classic of children’s SF from the early PRC.

The story is narrated by a reporter who is dispatched to an agricultural research center in the Gobi Desert to report on the latest achievements, and it reminded me of a number of other Chinese SF stories that feature journalists as narrators.

The five works discussed below may only be related by virtue of being narrated by journalists, but they are fairly representative of changing trends in Chinese SF in the latter half of the 20th Century.

“Elephants,” written by Chi Shuchang (迟叔昌) with contributions by Middle School Student magazine editor Ye Zhishan (叶至善), is a snapshot of Great Leap Forward-era scientific romanticism. Originally titled “A Twentieth-Century Zhu Bajie” (after the pig-demon hero of Journey to the West), the story is included in Classics of Chinese Science Fiction (中国科幻小说经典, 2006), edited by science fiction writer and court biographer Ye Yonglie, and is also available online here.

In the story, journalist Yuesen, meets up with his former classmate Li Wenjian, who now works at the research center. On the way, Yuesen notices what seem to be white elephants whose trunks are missing, but once he arrives, he learns that they’re actually gigantic pigs known as “Wonder #72,” which were created by accelerating the growth of cross-bred Sichuan white pigs and Yorkshire pigs by irradiating the pituitary gland.

The pigs in the story match up perfectly with the description given in the poem on the top left of the poster (source):

肥猪赛大象 Fat pigs that best the elephants,
就是鼻子短 But for a shorter snout.
全社杀一口 The commune kills and eats one,
足够吃半年 Six months before it’s out.

Like much of 20th-Century Chinese SF, “Elephants” is not simply entertainment — it also fulfills an pedagogical mission. Both men were math and physics enthusiasts in high school, and the story demonstrates that they were able to pursue that interest in their chosen careers. The value of math in agriculture is illustrated through a discussion of the cube-square law as it relates to breeding such enormous animals (they’ve had to use a special “bone strengthening serum”). The accelerated growth also means that the pigs are fully grown at ten months, making their meat especially tender and tasty. And math in journalism? “Look at the newspapers. Isn’t there an increasing amount of math and physics vocabulary?” (Ye, 128)

The story is set in some undisclosed year in the future (“19xx”). Hi-tech details, such as wristwatch radios and “Beijing” model hovercraft, place the action toward the end of the century, but many of the issues, from giant pigs to the necessity of conserving iron, are rooted in the late 50s. It’s a dissonance that shows up in several of the stories discussed in this post: (more…)

Alai’s Call to Arms for Fantasy Writers

Note: An earlier version of this translation was originally published on ZHWJ in April 2004.

Alai, the author of Tibetan-themed fiction such as Red Poppies and a Chinese-language adaptation of the epic of King Gesar, served as editor of Science Fiction World from 1997 through 2006. During that time he helped the agency launch a number of new titles, including Fantasy World.

The following is a translation of Alai’s introduction to the inaugural issue of Fantasy World, April 2004:

Fantasy, Leading Our Spirits to Break Free

by Alai

Taking up my pen to write a few words for this new fantasy edition — actually, two issues have already been sent out into the world to a welcome from young readers far exceeding our expectations — when I searched for a reason, I found I was unable to collect my thoughts. The words of a Whitman poem echoed in my mind:

WHAT place is besieged, and vainly tries to raise the siege?
Lo! I send to that place a commander, swift, brave, immortal;
And with him horse and foot—and parks of artillery,
And artillery-men, the deadliest that ever fired gun.

A short poem, entitled “What Place is Besieged?” The sharp reader may inquire: Are you certain, then, that we are someplace that is besieged? My answer: At least within the confines of literature, our thoughts and our imagination have been bound for ages in shapeless fetters, several generations at the very least.

This is a short period of time when measured against history, and against the scale of the universe, it barely rates as an instant. But we are not God, we are only the creators of our own physical and spiritual realities, and to us a few generations is an eternity. Our lifespan is incomparably precious to us, so aside from a rich variety of material things, we also pursue a free spirit and abundant emotions. But in the literary world, we are surrounded by a mistaken realist outlook and a mistaken interpretation of that mistaken realist outlook. Our abundant emotions have withered, and our spirits that once danced upon the clouds have had their wings clipped, leaving them to crawl around in the mud.

Yes, this is the result of being surrounded, of being fettered. For an individual, the feeling of being surrounded and fettered may lead to an intense ferocity. I have in mind another poet, Rilke, whose poem about a caged panther described the feeling of being bound by the fetters of normal human existence.

My spiritual adolescence occurred during the 1980s. Beginning in that era, the spirit of the Chinese people began to break out in earnest. Chinese literature was similarly an important advance force in this sortie, Whitman’s “horse and foot” and at times even the “artillery-men, the deadliest that ever fired gun.” I had the privilege of being a member of this break-away unit, at first in the ranks of poetry and fiction in the camp of so-called mainstream literature, and then later on, given the opportunity to join a new unit which was just beginning to recruit members for its ranks, I became part of the new literary army of science fiction, which had been harded through adversity. During the 1990s, under the gradual flourishing of the market economy, science fiction became one important success for the spiritual siege-breaking of Chinese literature, despite the fact that it had yet to fully convince the academy of its importance, or even gain the notice of the mainstream. This may indicate that the breakout has yet to be entirely successful.

Dismissing the importance of fantastic literature is a major failing of the overall structure and organization of Chinese literature. The language of the mainstream — of official literature — does not even possess the proper vocabulary to describe the appearance and flavor of this kind of writing. Of course, this failure has nothing to do with us. All we can do is to construct an advance base in silent preparation for the muster of this new literary army. In the 1990s, when the forces of the science fiction world were yet muted, we unequivocally held high the flag of science fiction, achieving small yet solid victories. Today, while science fiction is still neglected among the lethargic upper echelons of the establishment, the surpassing beauty of fantasy is overflowing in all directions, infiltrating and expanding across the literary map, and a new, increasingly grand, increasingly vibrant army is marching under glorious colors. And this army is growing without the command or support of any institution or authority, just like the spontaneous militias in the New World of Whitman’s time. Yet unlike Whitman, they do not even ask the question, “will we ‘vainly try to raise the siege?'” but have already set off.

Discipline improves by the day, the unit gets stronger, and the battlefield expands. Ask “What place is besieged?” and the answer is, our spiritual world is besieged. Distortions of the truth form a hedge around our imagination. A single realm of artistic production has become the entire domain of literature. Creativity and imagination are shut up in a plaza filled with the din of mediocre sociology. Now we must choose another route of escape; at the start of the 21st century, we are starting to recruit a new literary army. To break out of the confines of mediocre literature, this army seeks “horse and foot,” and the “artillery-men, the deadliest that ever fired gun,” whose weapons are creativity and fantasy.

This army believes that literature, and especially fiction, is writing that expresses possibilities. Real life and established history only express a single possibility; all of the others vanish once one possibility becomes actuality. To make up for this shortcoming, our predecessors invented fictional writing. But too often we have made use of this style of writing to describe nothing more than a single possibility, that of real life.

This army believes that there are far more ways to express life than simply copying reality. We can harness writing, in concert with boundless imagination, to construct the possibilities of spiritual reality. This is our starting position, and we set off to realize those possibilities.

As we set off to realize these new literary possibilities, this army believes that they have been successfully realized by foreigners and our own ancestors alike. In the past we may have raised the banner of science fiction and stressed its implications for scientific enlightenment, but now, as we assemble to move out, we emphasize the magnificence of the fantastic, for fantasy has been besieged for too long a time. As we being our journey, we seek this as our goal: through great imagination, construct a grand history, then use that history to describe lives which transcend reality. This is rallying cry of the dynamic Novoland writers group, and it is also the individual watchword of Qian Lifang, the author of Providence.

The first charge has already reported victory!

Since ancient times, fantasy has always held reality within it, not the other way around. Throughout the ages, China has had a bright tradition of fantastic literature, as Borges noted in his remarks on the classic Strange Tales from Liaozhai: “A powerful imagination, using the most common source material, effortlessly weaves a plot; its rhythm undulates like flowing water, its thousand guises like floating clouds.” Such things are precisely what today’s literature is missing in its current state! So this army believes that imagination and fantasy can not only help us break out of this literary predicament, but can also continue the splendid fantasy tradition of Chinese culture. Let all of our readers, writers, and editors encourage each other! To all of the existing participants, those about to join, and everyone who will join in the future: let us look toward the future and strive together! In this new century, the Chinese people cannot and will not continue be slaves to dogma, overcautiously meeting the world.

Posted in Criticism. Tags: , . 2 Comments »

On the Island by Ren Xiaowen


任晓雯
岛上
2008

A mental patient who may or may not have killed her professor, with whom she may or may not have been having an affair, is shipped off to a strange island colony whose handful of inmates divide their time between long shifts of manual labor and sessions of vicious gossip about each other. Following instructions from the “ship’s captain,” the island’s shadowy master, a bored cadre conducts criticism sessions in which he encourages the inmates to confess to elaborate crimes.

There’s not much of a plot beyond a slow reveal of the island’s purpose, but the narrator’s desire to recover her lost memory and understand how she arrived on the island keep the book moving until the inmates’ fragile society collapses and the dead bodies start piling up.

This is the author’s first novel, written in 2002 but only published this year following a collection of short stories and a second novel, The Women (她们).

Running to Neverland

In this article:
JDM080415run.jpg
Run, Dajiao! Run!
《大角快跑》
Pan Haitian (潘海天)
266 pages / 160,000 words
2007.11

I was tapped for the “123 meme” a while ago and fulfilled my duty in the comments section of the Mutant Palm blog with a citation from a Xu Kun novel.

I’ve been asked to do the same thing for a SF book, so I’ll use Pan Haitian’s Run, Dajiao! Run, which actually happened to be the closest science fiction book around when I learned of the meme.

It’s a short story collection by an author who’s probably still best known for The Legend of Master Yan, an adaptation of an anecdote from the ancient classic Liezi that describes automatons who do their masters’ bidding. Pan’s most recent work has been in the realm of fantasy, and he’s been involved with Jin He Zai in the Novoland project, an attempt to build an indigenous fantasy universe.

The title story in Run, Dajiao! Run! is constructed as a fable: on a quest for a drug that will save his dying mother, a young man runs from city to city, passing through cities of Hedonism, Industry, and so forth. It’s an old trope, but Pan’s writing is engaging and the various worlds are well-drawn.

Page 123 turns out to be in the centerpiece of this collection, the novella Out of the Darkness (黑暗中归来), which is an interesting take on the Space Ark story. A ship headed for some distant star has navigated into a cluster of dark matter, rendering all sensors ineffective. The crew, grown from test-tubes, take classes in stellar navigation and astrophysics, information that to them seems nothing more than faith-based superstition. They eventually revolt.

Just before the following excerpt, tensions among the crew are high. The narrator spooked his crewmate Eberhard while he was holding a test-tube full of cockroaches, causing him to lose control and drop it, scattering the bugs everywhere.

After that moment of fright, I turned and glared at Eberhard: “Fine. You stupid blockhead, you think you’re so special. You’ve let out the cockroaches. Are you satisfied?”

Flustered, Eberhard said, “I was just trying to help you.” He was always trying to find ways to help people, I thought angrily. “Are those things dangerous?” “There won’t be any problems, right?” He was always asking that, his voice quavering with fright. But whenever he was around, there was no chance for safety.

The cockroach infestation of the ship is just one symbol of the breakdown of order among the crew. The narrator eventually breaks with the paranoid conspiracy-mongers (who see the on-board computer as part of a vast conspiracy to hide the Real Truth) and learns the self-discipline necessary to take his place as captain of the ship and see it through to starry shores.

There are other interesting stories in this collection:

  • A Ladder to the Stars: Hanuman, The Monkey King: The earth, which holds a backward society whose only hope is to escape to the stars, is visited by colonists who look like Monkeys and talk of their great King, Hanuman. Naturally, the earthlings kill off most of these monkey spacemen, or relegate them to concentration camps. A girl and her friends attempt to escape the planet with the help of one monkey who wasn’t caught up in the security sweeps.
  • The City of Clones: An empire has made extensive use of clones in its wars of conquest. The son of the emperor is sent out to deal with a clone revolt, but disagrees with his father’s treatment of the clone army, because of his affection for a palace servant woman who has asked him to spare the leader of the rebels. It’s a relatively straightforward story distinguished by its references to Plato.
  • The Dark Side of a White Star: There’s an accident at a mining colony and a team is sent to investigate. It discovers a strange life form that is killing off human life. The set-up of this story reminds me of a Star Trek episode, what with the search for a way to live in harmony, but some of the syncretic religious elements are fairly interesting.
  • A Place Where Fate is Determined: The story of a “Non-Player Character” in a role-playing game.

Pan Haitian’s English name is Peter, which at first glance you’d be inclined to chalk up to an unfortunate coincidence. However, Peter Pan has decided to make the connection to his literary namesake explicit with a pull-out illustration of a boy on a pirate ship. Nothing to do with the book’s contents, I’m afraid.

Posted in SF. Tags: , . 2 Comments »

Chinese SF writers bid farewell to Arthur C. Clarke

JDM080323clarke.jpg

The death of science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke last Wednesday drew reactions from science fiction authors and fans all over the world, China included. Here are some of the commemorations that Chinese SF enthusiasts posted online this week:

· Wu Yan, probably the most well-known SF critic in China, immediately posted an old appreciation piece he had written on the occasion of Clarke’s 75th birthday. The article, which ran in Science Fiction World in 1992, told of the early encounters that Chinese SF had with Clarke: letters exchanged in which he expressed interest in Chinese SF.

· Liu Cixin, possibly the most popular Chinese SF currently writing, also wrote on his blog of drawing inspiration from Clarke:

Clarke has left us….

Twenty-seven years ago, he was the one who gave me the idea to write science fiction. 2001 taught me how SF could be used to exhibit the breadth and mystery of the universe. Rendezvous With Rama let me see how SF could be like a creator, fashioning an imaginary world real enough to practically reach out and touch. Later, all of my own novels are but clumsy imitations of those two classics.

Now, alas, that man is gone…

· The SFW group on the book-related social networking website Douban changed its name to “Farewell to Clarke.” In its extensive obituary thread, Commenter BRDX wrote:

Arthur, have you become tired of the 21st Century?

We have no moon city, no space elevator to a synchronous orbit, no robot that can read our feelings — we have nothing at all!

In the first year of the 20th Century, Marconi’s wireless signal crossed the Atlantic. In the the third year, the Wright brothers took to the skies in the flying machine they built. In the fifth year, Einstein wrote out his mass-energy equation….

In the 21st Century, a complacent humanity has lost its spirit of adventure.

Sorry, we have let you down.

Farewell, Arthur, farewell.

The dreamer may die, but the dream never will…

· Another commenter, NStar, posted a link to a blog post:

More than twenty years ago, I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama. My enchantment with that book was probably one of the reasons I ultimately fell in love with science fiction. About one year ago, I happened to receive a letter from the master. When I opened it, I saw it was an invitation to join the Planetary Society. In my excitement, I couldn’t help feeling confused: how did the master know of me? Thinking it through, I decided that it probably was because of a science fiction Sudoku — just a small block of text — that ran in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine that gave the Planetary Society the idea that I was a prospect. Probably, they had given the master a whole stack of things to sign, which they then sent to all the authors whose names appeared in the British and American SF mags, so their advertisement had been sent to me.

Although it wasn’t the master himself who had noticed me, at any rate I was fortunate to receive a letter with his autograph.

· Han Song, SF author and Xinhua journalist, remembered Clarke in a blog post that characteristically touched on contemporary Chinese politics:

When I heard the news that Clarke had died, it was already late, but although I was ill, I still wanted to get up and write a few words. I first read 2001: A Space Odyssey in Modern Foreign Science Fiction, edited by Shi Xianrong and published by the Shanghai Literature and Arts Press. This was probably around 1984-85, and at that time lots of publishers would go to universities to sell old books. I bought that book (it was only the second volume). Clarke’s classic story was the first, and was translated by Guan Zaihan. Published in 1968, this story is still readable today. Clarke’s strongest influence on me was on my outlook on the world and on the universe, just like Marx, the Buddha, Einstein, and Plank. Like Kubrick said of Clarke, he gave us a new perspective, letting us see humanity in its earthly cradle extending its hands to a future in the stars. Very few people you meet in your life will truly influence you. Regrettably, however, I often feel that a compliment from a certain leader was most influential in my life.

In the late 1990s, my office was about to send me to Sri Lanka, but because the departmental leader thought “things are too busy now, so we can’t let you go,” I ended up not going (you see the enormous influence a leader has). This was fairly regrettable. I had even planned out how I would request an interview with Clarke. Later, friends told me that Sri Lanka was oh such a nice place. And it was the place where Clarke predicted a space elevator going out to the universe. The communications satellites that Clarke predicted have become reality. And after humanity ascended to the moon, an American astrophysicist praised Clarke for providing the most important motivation.

Clarke said: “I regard myself primarily as an entertainer and my ideals are Maugham, Kipling, Wells. My chief aim is the old SF cliché, ‘The search for wonder.’ However, I am almost equally interested in style and rhythm, having been much influenced by Tennyson, Swinburne, Housman, and the Georgian poets.” “My main themes are exploration (space, sea, time), the position of Man in the hierarchy of the universe, and the effect of contact with other intelligences.”These ideas had an influence on contemporary Chinese science fiction authors. But today there is still not enough of that “search for wonder” (猎奇), and poetry is still lacking.

Let us draw inspiration from these words, just as we draw inspiration from President Hu Jintao’s remarks at the legislative sessions, to work cleanly for the country and the people, or as we draw encouragement from the words of Premier Wen Jiabao: we must liberate the minds of every individual — that is, we must have independent thought, critical thinking, and creativity.

I think that Clarke could be said to have worked cleanly within the science fiction realm (as clean as the ocean and skies of Sri Lanka), and his independent thought, critical thinking, and creativity should serve as a worthy model.

Clarke worked cleanly in science fiction until he was ninety years old. I am quite young compared to him, but already I’m not very clean: I’ve been polluted, led astray, made mistakes, a body covered in mud. What will the future bring? Will independence, criticism, and creativity — values intrinsic to science fiction — be illuminated by the Olympic torch climbing Mt. Everest?

· Just a few months ago, the now-defunct translations magazine World Science Fiction ran a short biographical introduction to Clarke in its December, 2007, issue. The piece was written by Chinese SF author Xing He, who also posted a commemoration to his blog this week.

Image from Wu Yan’s blog.

Ball Lightning by Liu Cixin


刘慈欣
《环状闪电》
(2005)

A man who witnesses both his parents get turned to ash by ball lightning devotes his entire life to researching the poorly-understood phenomenon. His quest takes him to a national defense research institute where government scientists are seeking to use ball lightning as a new-concept weapon. He becomes disgusted with the thought of his pure scientific research being used for killing, but every time he tries to escape, his obsession draws him back in.

Ball Lightning is well-paced and tightly plotted. Liu handles the science quite well — the current state of lightning and weather research, as well as his speculative explanation, which hangs together just enough to stave off disbelief. His depiction of military research is not at all boosterish, and the believable characters — the narrator, a woman who is enamored with danger and destruction, and a physicist who is out for pure knowledge, damn the consequences — add depth to the story. Highly recommended.

A short excerpt is available at Words Without Borders magazine, and a longer, 12,000-word excerpt can be downloaded from the Paper Republic literary website.

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A History of the Conquest of the Maya by Ma Boyong

Alternate history as comic novel. Ma Boyong imagines a meeting between exiled forces of the Shang Dynasty and pre-Columbian middle America.

The book originated online and is written in the same arch tone that Ma employs to great effect on his blog. He’s also obviously a fan of Stephen Chow.

Lightweight and fun, the book will probably grate on anyone familiar with actual Mayan history, although it does acquit itself better than the other “China meets Maya” novel I read this year. (That book, thankfully, remains unpublished.)

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