Exploring Chinese Sci-Fi (and more)

Over the last few years I’ve got back into reading and sci-fi books – mostly through translated and non-western lenses. The last time I did a book post was 2018, and a lot has happened since then…

As a sci-fi and fantasy fan as a kid (mostly Pratchett), I’d slipped over the years, getting bored with same-old stories. Then a bit of headspace and a tweet from Saladin Ahmed in 2016 sent me down a new rabbit hole of nonwestern scifi, and I loved it. Ken Liu, Sabaa Tahir, Nnedi Okorafor, Cadwell Turnbull and many others opened up my worldview.

Nnedi Okorafor’s talks and writing about africanfuturism & africanjujuism made me think about stories in which time, place and culture are central to a sci-fi story; a story that is unique to place and people, and not a simple transplant of western tropes in a ‘new’ place. After this, I was seeking out interesting novels and novellas from diverse writers, and thinking about how much there was to learn. At the same time, more and more great writers are being published and schools like ours are trying to diversify their offerings, providing windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors to their students. Nadine Bailey always had great recommendations.

2018-2022 life and work got super intense. My reading slowed down. New place, new roles, Covid-19 intensity and exhaustion all got in the way. I tried to keep it up. I tried audiobooks, but still can’t get on with them. Then late 2021, I read Kai-Fu Lee & Chen Quifan’s AI2041 and got inspired again. Last summer, still stuck in China with Hesty away, and a bit of down time, I started again.

Recently I’ve been picking up lots of translated Chinese sci-fi, novels and books by diaspora writers. Now in our fifth year here in Beijing, I’ve been interested in how contemporary Chinese writers project the future, blending cultural elements with technological innovations, and how identity evolves. I came across them through personal or Twitter recommendations, following ‘for you’ recommendations on Kindle and through looking up the authors and translators of various collections.

Here are a few that I’ve loved, and you might too. Links in titles go to their GoodReads pages.


AI2041: Ten Visions For Our Future, by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen QiuFan

Short story collection of speculative fiction, giving a mostly optimisitic projection of how AI might affect life in 2041, with explainers afterwards. Kai Fu Lee is a world leader in the field of AI, and Chen Qiufan is a high-profile Chinese scifi writer. 10 stories, 10 industries, 10 regions. Some of the translators are diaspora, translating from the perspective of the place the story is set (e.g. Chinese-Australian). Here’s our Libguide page with chapter summaries and resources.

Sinopticon, edited by Xueting Christine Ni

A very diverse set of scifi stories from Chinese writers. Her intro into how she curated and translated the texts is a really interesting insight into the process, and how modern translation captures the essence of the text without diluting its meaning. I’ve posted some links and she has shared chapter teasers here.

New Voices in Chinese Science Fiction, from Clarkesworld

Curated by Neil Clarke, Xia Jia and Regina Kanyu Wang. A great collection of eight stories from authors previously unpublished in English, ranging from futuristic to reflective. Similar to Sinopticon, Xia Jia’s introduction is fascinating in itself. The header image of this post is a MidJourney creation inspired by Old Tang, the master bamboo weaver, from Congyun “Mu Ming” Gu’s “By Those Hands”.

The Way Spring Arrives And Other Stories, edited by Yu Chen & Regina Kanyu Wang

Written, edited, and translated by a female and non-binary team, these stories have never before been published in English and represent both the richly complicated past and the vivid future of Chinese science fiction and fantasy.” A really interesting collection of sci-fi, fantasy and contemporary stories and essays, finishing with a fantastic short essay by R.F. Kuang, Writing And Translation: A Hundred Technical Tricks. Edit: Jing Tsu, author of the essay on The Futures of Genders in Chinese Science Fiction, has just made finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, for her book Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern.

Waste Tide, by Chen Qiufan

Translated by Ken Liu, who’s also a legend, and translates Cixin Liu’s work. This is a sci-fi story inspired by growing up near eWaste dumps in China. The Verge has a good review.

Babel, an Arcane History, by R.F. Kuang

What if translation was a magical power that could be used to drive innovation and empire? Interesting and fast-paced re-imagining of industrial revolution Oxford, empire and the effects of colonisation.

Not Sci-Fi, but I loved them…

A Single Swallow, by Zhang Ling

A really beautiful book, an “epic and intimate novel about the devastation of war, forgiveness, redemption, and the enduring power of love” that tells the story of ‘Swallow’, a girl who is known by three very different men over the course of her life. Set in the years after WWII, when Japan was still in China, this story spans about 70 years.

Land of Big Numbers, by Te Ping Chen

Written in English, by a Wall Street Journal writer. Thought-provoking vignettes of ordinary lives, with some fantasy elements in some stories. Review here.

Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu

Winner of 2020 National Book Award, written as a screenplay in second-person. Spans a generation through the eyes of the character Willis Wu, or “Generic AsianMan”, who aspires to be “Kung Fu Guy”. Pretty funny, with some confronting and sad parts, and cuts into stereotypes of Asia in the west. Good review in the NY Times here.

Linghu, by Ai Jiang

A thoughtful, creepy horror novella, reflecting on grief and migration. I re-read the final few chapters a couple of times, and look forward to reading more by Ai Jiang.

I’ve also recently been looking up Indonesian writers, trying to reconnect with that time in our life. I really enjoyed Dewi ‘Dee’ Lestari’s Perahu Kertas (Paper Boats), especially as it was set in Bandung with characters a similar age at a similar time to us in Bandung. Some of Eka Kurniawan‘s stories have been translated into English as well. Over the summer I will read more.



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