Ling Chen at the Bookworm Literary Festival

auth_lingchenAt last Tuesday night’s Global Science Fiction discussion, the highlight—from my particular and subjective perspective, at least—was Chinese SF writer Ling Chen. She spoke through a translator, which was itself an event within the event. Her lengthy, animated responses to the questions were rather baffling at first—after a few minutes one could scan the room and gauge everyone’s level of Chinese fluency by looking at their faces. There were a few nodding, engaged smiles, some quizzical scrunched eyebrows, and many blank stares. Having studied Chinese only a few months, I was more in the staring blankly category. But once her responses were translated—wow. She described reading “black” (I assume illegal) Soviet sci-fi magazines in an era when the whole concept of science fiction was highly stigmatized in Chinese society. Not the stigmatization of being a “geek” associated with science fiction in the West, but something deeper. Science fiction was officially denounced as pseudo science propagating inaccurate and unclear ideas. The few who read/wrote science fiction were subject to self-repression, loneliness, and questioning—am I degenerate or polluted? It’s hard not to imagine a Chinese scifi fan in the 1980’s as the paranoid, lonely protagonist of a Phillip K Dick novel. This being pre-internet, finding a fellow fan was rare and emotional, like re-uniting with a long lost relative.I can’t help but speculate that this oppressive atmosphere was actually a catalyst for how and why she began to write. Ling described becoming a writer as a sudden and impulsive act. Her first short story came to her in a wild dream, as though her boiling subconscious has forced its way to the surface. In this dream, hovercraft had made automobiles obsolete, and people didn’t know what to do with their old cars. So there was a large playing field (akin to Worker’s Stadium in Beijing) where they’d play a game called “crashing cars,” competing in a massive demolition derby.This way in which Ling peppered her answers with descriptions of her stories gave them the entertaining aspect of Kilgore Trout asides in a Vonnegut novel. Another came up when she was asked if her writing had predicted any technologies that had come to pass. First, she answered that science fiction is not charged with predicting science, but rather describing how technological advances affect people. Then, she went on to illustrate this with another story, also coincidentally about the obsolescence of cars. In it, the main character has reaped admiration and respect by being one of the first car owners in China. As people around him slowly begin to acquire their own automobiles, he peddles this status into a career as a driving instructor. Over the years his prestige increases, and he grows accustomed to receiving generous gifts from his students. He becomes quite comfortable—and then hovercraft hit the market and cars become obsolete. It struck me that this story isn’t dependant on the reality of hover cars. The story is about a technology going from luxury item to commodity to complete obsolescence. It seems especially relevant given China’s rapid growth. A certain generation can certainly remember a time when bicycles were a rare luxury item, let alone the cars now flooding Beijing’s freeways. Ling Chen asks about the impact of such development on the scale of individual lives.

In contrast with previous decades, today’s Chinese science fiction enthusiasts number in the millions. I hope that along with this boom, we’ll also see more of their writers translated into English.

—Deva Eveland