In the short story Tongtong’s Summer, a “stupid-looking robot” arrives at a family home. Ah Fu can peel an apple, pour a cup of tea and play the piano. It can, as it was built to do, look after grandpa.
The author and academic Wang Yao, who goes by the pen name Xia Jia, is part of a new wave of Chinese science fiction authors who offer a complex vision of science and technology.
For Western readers, the universe-bending trilogy The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, may be best known. (Former US president Barack Obama once said it made his problems with Congress “seem fairly petty”)
But the work of this generation is not only concerned with intergalactic civilisations and the fate of humanity, but the intimate: The feel of technology on the body, or the way progress can unite or divide just two people.
“Some people have this sense that technology is something non-human or even inhuman. Something totally alien from us,” Xia Jia said in an interview from Xi’an.
Her work questions this idea. A company may have invented a robot nanny, yet the grandpa in her story bends the machine to his will — to care for his family.
Neither entirely optimistic or pessimistic about technology, like many of her peers, Xia Jia captures its effect on Chinese society in transition and the traces of adaptation in everyday life — “the ideas and practices created by ordinary persons”.
From the Qing Dynasty to world power
The science fiction genre in China has been both a teaching tool and a reflection of hopes and anxieties about industrialisation and scientific discovery.
Mingwei Song, an associate professor of Chinese at Wellesley College in the United States, traces its long history to the late Qing reformers at the turn of the 20th Century who began to read the likes of Jules Verne.
This generation of intellectuals considered science fiction a “very efficient means to enlighten the people”, he said, an attitude mirrored in the 1950s under the Communist regime.
Largely following the Soviet Union system, science fiction was considered children’s literature and a way of popularising and encouraging scientific work.
This changed in the early reform era of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The work of writers who survived the Cultural Revolution — a tumultuous decade beginning in 1966, when party leaders tried to purge the country of anything bourgeois or capitalist — became a reflection upon society and the state, Dr Song said.
The current generation, emerging in the late 20th century and flourishing now, maintain a balance, he feels, between science fiction as a popular genre and science fiction as social critique.
“Science fiction often could reveal what was the invisible part of the reality,” he explained.
Until recently, science fiction in China mostly flew under the radar, Xia Jia suggested. Its increased profile today is not always easy for authors to handle, whether creatively or politically.
“Science fiction writers now can feel the pressure,” she said.
“We have to be more careful about how to imagine the future, how to write our stories.”
Space travel and video games
Something as vast and diverse as Chinese science fiction today cannot be easily characterised.
Some works are preoccupied by privilege, as in Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing, where elites are given twenty-four hours in a day while the lower classes get only eight. Others deal with particle physics and warfare, such as Liu Cixin’s Ball Lightning.
Xia Jia believes the idea of evolution in particular can be seen as a metaphor for globalisation.
You may have to sacrifice precious things as part of this inevitable, global march away from agrarian tradition, she explained — values, emotions, culture — but there are severe consequences for refusing it.
“We have a strong feeling or belief that such a process is as natural as evolution,” she said.
For Bao Shu, the author of science fiction novel The Redemption of Time, the genre’s role in China remains ambiguous.
On the one hand, he said, the government still views it as a useful way to educate, to spread the spirit of science.
On the other, for most young people, like anywhere, it’s “an entertainment”.
Whether contemporary Chinese science fiction plays a part in influencing the design of real world technology is also intriguing to consider.
As evidence of this relationship, both Xia Jia and Bao Shu pointed to the ongoing trope of “the little smart”.
In the 1970s, a popular Chinese science fiction novel called Little Smart Roaming the Future by Ye Yonglie featured a technology very like the mobile phone.
“Two decades later, one of the first Chinese cell phone companies named its product ‘the Smart’,” Bao Shu said. “People no longer read that novel, but still remember the name.”
‘The worst and the best’
Science fiction is often regarded as a prognosticator. Readers want to know, will all this science take us to utopia or dystopia?
The work of Xia Jia, like many of her contemporaries globally, explores more than those two choices and encourages us to imagine something more complicated and human.
In the United States, people often think about anything robotic in “technophobic terms,” said Betsy Huang, an expert in Asian-American literature at Clark University .
“I think Xia Jia is approaching it in not necessarily a technophobic or even a technophilic way, but a very realistic, practical way,” she suggested.
In contemporary China, some writers say the national feeling is that rapid economic and technological progress lend themselves to the expectation of a better future.
The government also “encourages a positive presentation of the future, so generally Chinese [science fiction books] are less gloomy,” Bao Shu said.
In the end though, he suggested the mood can be summed up by the title of Liu Cixin’s essay collection, The Best Earth in the Worst Universe.
If Chinese science fiction can contribute something, Mr Shu said, “it must from this mixture of the worst and the best”.