Ernst Haeckel; Art Forms of Nature (1904); Stephoidea, Phaeodaria, Acanthophracta, Spumellaria, and Diatomea.
“In the world of theory, when we think according to the logic of and, it’s not a question of suggesting that, for example, we should adopt either the neurological or the phenomenological or the semiotic. Rather, it is a question of thinking what transpires between these domains when they exist– as they do –in conjunction with one another. It is a question of thinking how the biological, physical, and neurological transforms our understanding of the phenomenological and semiotic, but also how the phenomenological transforms the physical and semiotic, and how the semiotic transforms the biological and the phenomenology. None of these domains is left unchanged through their encounter with one another because whenever a conjunction occurs, something passes between that sets all the terms in becoming such that some of their elements have to be abandoned, others added, and the general problematic as a whole is transformed”
“Standards es por y para sí misma una red de relaciones en la cual, sólo si se comprende el juego estético que suponen sus diferentes conexiones sólo aparentemente arbitrarias, se puede llegar hasta el corazón del corazón de la sustancia. Su estilo está tan imbricado en su contenido, que es imposible disociar el uno del otro. El ejercicio de estilo quedaría carente de sentido si con él pretendiera hacer una maniobra mucho menos ambiciosa, una novela mucho más ortodoxa en sus intenciones; su mensaje quedaría desdibujado si con él lo acompañara un estilo más accesible, de una inmediatez más contundente, pues sólo cobra sentido en su forma. He ahí su genialidad: conecta lo inconectable, nos descubre las sendas perdidas de una historia que juega con la mímesis de las sendas perdidas de un mundo por llegar.”
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Science Fiction in China: A Conversation with Fei Dao
by Alec Ash
Fei Dao, a science fiction writer born in 1983, chose for his pen name the two characters for “flying dagger” (飞刀). When he achieved some success, he changed the second character to another, also pronounced Dao (氘), that made the nom de plume sound less jejune.
Science fiction in China is attracting special interest of late. The mind-bending trilogy Three Body by Liu Cixin has been selling strong for its genre. Sci fi is also a theme of the new edition of the Beijing-based (English language) literary magazine Pathlight, slated to come out next week. Alice Xin Liu, managing editor of the magazine, tweeted “Chinese scifi is, politically, most daring genre in Chinese contemporary literature”.
So, who should we be reading? Does this sci fi have Chinese characteristics? What is its history in the mainland? And does it matter?
I sat down with Fei Dao in Tsinghua university, where he is studying comparative literature, to ask him these questions and more. Here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth.
Alec Ash: How did you start writing science fiction?
Fei Dao: When I was at middle school, 16 or 17, I started to read a lot of sci fi. I read the magazine Science Fiction World, and became more familiar with sci fi literature. I liked it because there was a lot of imagination and novelty in it. At that time, my dream was to become an author. When I started out, I didn’t think at all about writing science fiction. Back then I felt sci fi was very difficult to write, and needed some knowledge of science, so I could only appreciate it but not write it myself.
Like many post 80s authors, I started out writing campus stories about young people in school. But I couldn’t get them published. Until one day in university, I wrote a science fiction story on the side, and sent it in to Science Fiction World. I was just giving it a go, I had no idea that that first story would get published [in 2003]. A year later, I had another idea, and that second story also got published. So that encouraged me, and I started writing sci fi.
AA: How popular is sci fi in China?
FD: In my opinion, it’s mostly popular among young people. This has a big connection to Science Fiction World, because a lot of students at middle school and university buy that magazine. It has a very large readership. But after people graduate and start to work, most people don’t read science fiction. They think it’s just youth literature and that grown-ups should read more mature stuff, not childish stuff.
AA: How do you feel about that?
FD: Of course I don’t think it’s childish literature. But Science Fiction World is, after all, for young readers. The whole feel of the magazine is like that. So while there is lots of mature science fiction for grown-ups, the readers are still mostly young.
I feel lots of people are prejudiced against sci fi. They think that if you’re a certain age and still read sci fi, that’s immature and unrealistic, like you are letting your fantasies run wild. So I think that prejudice is a problem. But now that Three Body (三体) [by Liu Cixin] has been publically praised, I hope that is slowly changing people’s opinion.
AA: Who are the Chinese authors we should read?
FD: The most popular authors now are Liu Cixin, Han Song and Wang Jinkang. Those three are the most famous at this time. Some people jokingly call them “the three generals”.
AA: What is unique or particular about Chinese science fiction?
FD: Chinese sci fi has about a hundred years of history. When it started, in the late Qing dynasty around 1902, it was chiefly concerned with the problem of bringing ancient China into modernity. At that time, Liang Qichao [translated sci fi] because he thought it would be beneficial for China’s future … as something that could popularize scientific knowledge. And Lu Xun thought that if you gave ordinary people scientific literature to read, they would fall asleep. But if you blended scientific knowledge into stories with a plot, it would be more interesting. [He thought that] in this way, the people could become more modern.
So at that time science fiction was a very serious thing to do in China that could allow ordinary people to get closer to modern scientific knowledge, and serve as a tool for transforming traditional culture into modern culture. It played a very important role, and had a serious mission to accomplish.
Today, there is a commercial publishing market for sci fi, and people don’t have such weighty expectations of literature, yet authors are still discussing serious topics. Three Body by Liu Cixin or Subway (地铁) by Han Song both have many reflections about the direction of this country and of humanity. So this kind of writing can convey concerns about the future, or discuss the current situation in China.
For example, Han Song’s Subway is about a subway station. In China, subway systems are an emblem of modernization. Many cities in China are building huge subway systems, because to have one or not is the standard of a city’s modernity and development. So in discussing this symbol, Han Song seized on a sensitive point. After publishing Subway, he wrote another book called Highspeed Rail (高铁), another emblem of technological innovation. So Han Song is consistently concerned with the potential catastrophes of the process of modernization.
Liu Cixin, on the other hand, is expressing a more grand feeling of the universe in the tradition of Western sci fi. In doing so, he wants Chinese people to look up at the sky, and not just be concerned with earthly matters. The mainstream of Chinese literature is about real-world subject matter, such as the countryside or urban life. Very few people are concerned with the fate of humankind, the future of the universe, or even aliens. These things are themselves alien to Chinese readers, but can be introduced through this kind of writing.
I think that the key theme of Chinese science fiction, no matter how it develops, is how this ancient country and its people are moving in the direction of the future.
AA: What is the relationship between Chinese sci fi and the culture and censorship authorities?
FD: Because I’m an author not a magazine publisher, I’m not sure precisely what the relationship between them and the censorship department is. But in China, no matter what the subject matter of literature is, you have to communicate with the censorship department. For example, if you write realistic fiction about a sensitive subject, you’ll also come up against objections. It’s the same for sci fi.
AA: Is there a big Western influence on Chinese sci fi?
FD: Science fiction is a new variety of literature [in China]. Before a hundred years ago, it had no frame of reference, so it just studied Western works. Of course there were native influences too, but in the end the learning process was from the West. [Chinese] sci fi writers today have also read a lot of Western sci fi. They’re very familiar with it, and it’s given them a lot of inspiration. For example, Liu Cixin emphasizes his admiration of Arthur Clarke.
AA: What are the other main influences?
FD: There’s also a big influence from Japan. Historically there were a lot of Japanese [sci fi] stories translated into Chinese. Jules Verne was also first translated from Japanese into Chinese. And contemporary Japanese sci fi, for example Japan Sinks (日本沈没) by Sakyo Komatsu, is very popular in China. Anime and manga are also an influence, but only starting from the post 80s generation … because that is the generation where TV shows began to become popular.
Another big influence on Chinese sci fi is Soviet sci fi. Especially after 1949, when China had less connection to the West and more connection to the USSR, the most famous Chinese sci fi authors were most influenced by Soviet sci fi with communist themes. So there are three big influences: the West, Japan and the USSR.
AA: Who are your biggest influences?
FD: I’ve been influenced by a lot of non science fiction writers, and I’ve read classic Western sci fi such as [Arthur] Clarke and [Isaac] Asimov. But when I was young, one of the works that most subtly influenced me [was] a novella by Ted Chiang (姜峯楠) called “Tower of Bablyon”. That story gave me a new understanding of science fiction – i.e. that it doesn’t have to be just about technology.
In the story, they built a high tower in Babylon that became a world with different floors and people living inside. They built it bit by bit, until it reached the top of the sky. Then they burnt through the sky, and the protagonist entered into the heavens, where there was water and a sandy shore. So this world was cyclical – you arrive in the heavens and it’s like the seabed. It’s hard to explain, but this was a very serious science fiction or fantasy story, and it opened up a large imaginative space for me.
AA: Do you think sci fi is important?
FD: I do. I think that imagination is very important. People must preserve a curiosity about the future. Many people, because of everyday pressures, don’t have the time or the energy to care about things that don’t seem to be about everyday reality. But I think that to be curious is very important, and so is sci fi.
Read last week’s interview with Mara Hvistendahl at The China Blog here.
May 2013, mark it on your calendars. That’s when we’ll be releasing a debut novel by an exceptional new talent, Bennett Sims. The book is called A Questionable Shape and it’ll knock your socks off, guaranteed.
Bennett Sims has had fiction appear in A Public Space, Tin House, and Zoetrope: All-Story. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he currently teaches fiction at the University of Iowa, where he is a provost postgraduate visiting writer. [Editor’s note: he’s only 26!]
Here’s the story: Mazoch discovers an unreturned movie envelope, smashed windows, and a pool of blood in his father’s house: the man has gone missing. So he creates a list of his father’s haunts and asks Vermaelen to help track him down.
However, hurricane season looms over Baton Rouge, threatening to wipe out any undead not already contained and eliminate all hope of ever finding Mazoch’s father.
What Bennett Sims has accomplished with this, his very fine first novel, is to turn typical zombie fare on its head and deliver a wise and philosophical rumination on the nature of memory and loss.
In the following mini-interview we chat zombies, studying with David Foster Wallace, and studliness.
Q: With zombies or vampires or werewolves, there seem to be some unanimous across-the-board rules and general narrative expectations . What impressed me so much about A Questionable Shape was how you employed what would be token plot devices for other writers – specifically, reanimation – and used them to explore much grander questions about our own human experience and how we relate to one another. Was that part of your initial approach or attraction to the story, or did this come about through writing and revision?
Even before I began the novel, I was up to my elbows in the grand questions of undeath, since my undergrad thesis was a long essay on zombies. What I found was that ‘the zombie’ keeps cropping up in different discourses as a kind of limit figure of the human condition. So in mind-body philosophy and neuroscience, the zombie is a mascot for non-conscious perception (aka ‘blindsight’), the brain’s ability to respond to visual stimuli without conscious awareness. In both Haitian anthropology and political theory, the ‘living dead man’ is a victim of social death, a biological body that has been stripped of all civil rights. And in psychoanalysis, the phrase ‘return of the dead’ is a ready-to-hand metaphor for describing a wide swath of psychological phenomena, from repetition automatism and the return of the repressed to our experience of the uncanny.
So in answer to your question, yes, A Questionable Shape was always a questions novel. It grew out of that project fairly naturally, as a way of dramatizing these questions and making them meaningful for a set of characters. If your undead dad shuffles back to his house, do you say that he’s the ‘same’ person? Do you say that he’s a person at all? How can you know what he’s experiencing, and what are your ethical obligations to him? This is a supernatural problem to be faced with, but of course there are other, more familiar issues bound up with it: the ethics of euthanasia; old age and senility; mourning, memory, and mortality.
Q: Was it frightening or liberating to write a novel that includes zombies when zombies seem to be the new vampires?
More frightening than liberating. The risk of exhaustion, of cultural saturation, is a legitimate one. I was mindful of this from the moment I started working on the book, in mid-2008—and that was back when Walking Dead was still a graphic novel; when Left 4 Dead had not yet been released; and when Zone 1 was just a twinkle in Colson Whitehead’s eye. (I can still remember the buttock-clenching dread I felt in December ‘08, when I read The New Yorker’s Q&A with him. Regarding future projects, he said, ‘I have a bunch of book ideas—my long-neglected Benjamin Franklin bio, my magic-realism zombie epic, my history of zeppelins in America…’ ‘Pick zeppelins,’ I remember thinking, ‘pick zeppelins!’) In the years since, zombie narratives have only proliferated, and I wouldn’t blame any reader for being bored by them.
With that said, the overexposure has felt liberating at times as well. Part of the fun of the novel was to try to hash out a different thematics of undeath, a wider Venn diagram of undeath, and to show that there are other criteria for zombism beyond reanimation and cannibalism. Criteria like memory and nostalgia, hauntedness, obliviousness, obsession, regret. Zombies may be the new vampires, but once you adjust your definition of undeath, you realize just how rich and long-tailed the zombie tradition is. Night of the Living Dead is a zombie movie, but so is Vertigo. George Saunders’s ‘Sea Oak’ is a zombie story, but so is Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat.’ Ditto Dostoevsky’s ‘Bobok’; or Euripides’s The Bacchae; or the Orpheus myth.
Q: You studied at Pomona College with David Foster Wallace. What was that like?
It’s difficult to talk about, to be honest. Dave was (and remains) a tremendously important mentor for me. He was one of the advisors for my thesis, and when I began the novel after graduation, he was one of my ideal readers. I never even got to show him a chapter. Some of my classmates have written movingly about his generosity as a teacher. In their memorial reflections and essays, they’ve already left an eloquent record of what we all cherished in him. He really did write us five-page response letters for our manuscripts, and line edit us with a ruthless jeweler’s-loupe scrutiny, and hold hours-long meetings in his office, to counsel us through crises. In a pedagogical culture that condones the absentee writer-professor—who gives 10% to his students and saves 90% for his novel—Dave gave 100% to everyone. He took us seriously as writers, and, what’s more, he required us to take each other seriously as well. We all felt honored by that attention. We learned to work self-martyringly hard to deserve it.
Q: Most writers toil for many years and through many projects before they meet with any level of success. You’re 26. Your first story was published in A Public Space; your second in Zoetrope; and your third in this summer’s issue of Tin House. In college football country, you’re what we’d refer to as a ‘stud.’ Does that type of immediate success create added pressure or stress?
Good Lord. I wish that were the kind of stress I felt. I wish that when I sat down to write, I was thinking, ‘All right, you stud. You stallion. This sentence better be up to snuff. You were in Tin House!’ But the fact is, I still just feel like a failure every day: less like a stud than a spavined lordotic wreck, whinnying for John Wayne to shoot me. The problem with writing is that every page is its own pressure cooker, regardless of how many pages you’ve written (or even published) beforehand. No matter what, you’re always going to be banging your head against the limitations of your language and your inferiority to your forebears. It’s a minute-by-minute exercise in humiliation and shame. So far, I’ve had incredible luck in finding good homes for my stories. They’ve benefited from the input of whip-smart editors, and been printed alongside some supremely humbling company. But the stresses of writing are still the inherent ones, the daily ones, because it’s never my author bio who’s writing. The Bennett at my desk isn’t ‘a fiction writer living in Iowa City, whose stories have appeared in A Public Space, Tin House, and Zoetrope.’ He’s more like ‘a freelance idiot living in anxiety, whose story is about to appear in the trash can.’
If you’re a bookseller or are affiliated with the media, and are interested in receiving an advance copy of A Questionable Shape, write to eric[at]twodollarradio.com.
“The history of literature is, of course, strewn with the neglected, the misunderstood, the forgotten, the never fully realized, and minor figures more influential than renowned. If one were to draw a Venn diagram comprised of each of these categories, Marcel Schwob, along with a handful of others, would be at the heart of their intersections. But how, one despairs, can a man praised so highly during his own life fall completely by the wayside posthumously, as if it was his vitality alone that kept him from obscurity?”