Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Global Science Fiction at the Beijing Literary Festival

I’ve been living in Beijing for almost 3 years now, but have shamefully missed the past two Bookworm Literary Festivals. (In my defence, I was broke and they had no real geek offerings anyway.) So I was really excited when they started advertising a panel on Global Science Fiction, saying: 

Science fiction is a genre of cult appeal. And yet, from its emergence in the 19th century, it has remained largely a Western genre. American, Soviet and western European authors dominate the SF cannon. But this is changing fast and Sci-Fi is now on the cusp of becoming something it has always wanted to be, a unifying, global genre. Join us as Mexican SF author and graphic artist BEF, Swedish-Indian novelist Zac O'Yeah, and Chinese SF champion Ling Chen talk about this reforming of an established genre.

So, what did I think?

Basically, I enjoyed it – with reservations. It’s never a good sign when the first author starts introducing themselves by saying that they’re not really a science-fiction author, you know, because most of their work is actually crime, and their only speculative novel was a serious and intellectual oeuvre, and they don’t write about spaceships and space lasers.

Note to Zac O’Yeah: Space Opera is a marvellous genre. It can also be ‘serious and intellectual’. Just look at Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

The other two authors on the panel were Bernardo Fern├índez/BEF (who also said he wasn’t ‘really’ a science fiction writer, but seemed to have respect for the genre as a whole) and Ling Chen, who redeemed the entire event for me. Unfortunately it seems like most of her work hasn’t been translated into English, although one of her short stories was featured in Pathlight’s 2013 Spring edition. She kept going off on tangents, talking about the status of science-fiction in China 20 years ago (largely viewed as a damaging pseudo-science, stories were only published in unregistered ‘black’ magazines) and how all of that is changing now.

There was very little discussion of science fiction as a ‘global genre,’ which I think was largely the moderators fault. She was clearly unfamiliar with the genre as a whole, and asked boring questions like “what first got you interested in the field?” At one stage, she asked Fern├índez to pigeon-hole his work, despite him just mentioning that he wrote cyberpunk. Later, she asked Ling Chen if any of her predictions about the future had come true. Ling answered that the value of science fiction wasn’t in predicting the future, but in creating stories that explore humanity & technology.

The moderator also made sweeping generalizations about sci-fi geeks and how we love wearing costumes (note: this is called cosplay. Or larping. The internet is your friend). At least she didn’t assume we’re all male...

The audience questions were much more interesting. One man used the film Gravity to lead into a very interesting question on China’s place in sci-fi narratives and space in general, inspiring a nice discussion about Chang’e and the TianGong space station, and other Chinese authors tackling similar subjects. Another queried the recent popularity of sci-fi action films – Star Trek, Marvel, etc. – and asked whether the panel thought this was positive for the genre as a whole. The debate that followed was interesting, although I found myself disagreeing a fair bit. Seriously, people. Space opera does not preclude thoughtful sci-fi, and spaceships are awesome.

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