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Why did Liu Cixin express his dislike of cyberpunks in his speech during the Clarke Award 2018 ceremony?

This is gonna be long because it touches on some deeper social issues and cultural differences, and I tend to like using these sort of sound bites to investigate more general, macrocosmic differences between cultures and worldviews.

Anyway, it’s probably best to check out the dude’s actual speech:

Ladies and Gentleman, Good evening! It’s my great honor to receive the Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society. Thank you.

This award is a reward for imagination. Imagination is a capability that should have exclusively belonged to God but we, as human beings, luckily have this too. It is far beyond our imagination to grasp the meaning of the existence of imagination.

A historian used to say that the main reason why human beings have been able to surpass other species on earth and to build civilizations is that we are able to create something in our heads that does not exist in reality. In the future, when artificial intelligence becomes smarter than us, imagination may be the only advantage we have over AI.

Science fiction is a literary genre based on imagination. And the first sci-fi works that impressed me were those by Arthur C. Clarke. Together with Jules Verne and George Wells, Arthur Clarke was among the first Western modern sci-fi writers to enter China. In the early 1980s, the two novels 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama were published in my country. At that time, the Cultural Revolution just ended. While the old life and faith had collapsed, the new ones had not yet been established.

Like other young people, I felt lost during that period. These two books, for the first time, however, brought my imagination to life. My mind opened up like it has never before. I felt like a narrow stream finally embracing the sea. At midnight when I finished reading 2001: A Space Odyssey, I walked out of the house and stared at the starry sky. I was able to see the galaxy, thanks to the unpolluted sky of China back then. That night, I noticed that the starry sky looked nothing like before. For the first time in my life, I was awed by the magnitude and mystery of our universe, the feeling which you only get facing religion. Later on, the novel Rendezvous with Rama stunned me by showing how imagination could build a lifelike, fantastic world.

It was Arthur Clarke who opened up this world of feelings to me, and who paved my way to become a sci-fi writer. Today, more than 30 years later, it gradually dawns on me that people like me, who were born in the 1960s in China, are probably the luckiest people in human history. No generation is like us, no generation has been able to witness such tremendous changes in the world around us. The world we are living in today is completely different from that of our childhood. And such changes are taking place with even greater speed. China is a highly futuristic country.

It is true that the future of China may be full of challenges and risks, but never has this country been so attractive like today. This reality provides fertile soil for the growth of science fiction, and it is enjoying unprecedented attention in the country. As a Chinese sci-fi author, who was born in the 1960s, I’m the luckiest from the luckiest generation. I started writing sci-fi because I looked for a way to escape the dull life, and to reach out, with imagination, to the mysterious time and space that I could never truly reach. But then I realized that the world around me became more and more like science fiction, and this process is speeding up. Future is like pouring rain. It reaches us even before we have time to open the umbrella.

Meanwhile, when sci-fi becomes reality, it loses all its magic, and that frustrates me. Sci-fi will soon become part of our lives. The only thing I can do, is to push my imagination further to even more distant time and space to hunt for the mysteries of sci-fi. As a sci-fi author, I think my job is to write things down before they get really boring. This being said, the world is moving in the direction opposite to Clarke’s predictions. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, in the year of 2001, which has already passed, human beings have built magnificent cities in space, and established permanent colonies on the moon, and huge nuclear-powered spacecraft have sailed to Saturn.

However, today, in 2018, the walk on the moon has become a distant memory. And the furthest reach of our manned space flights is just as long as the two-hour mileage of a high-speed train passing through my city. At the same time, information technology is developing at an unimaginable speed. The entire world is connected via the internet and people have gradually lost their interest in space, as they find themselves increasingly comfortable in the space created by IT. Instead of an exploration of the real space, which is full of difficulties, people now just prefer to experience virtual space through VR. Just like someone said, “You promised me an ocean of stars, but you actually gave me Facebook.” [1]

This reality is also reflected in science fiction. Arthur Clarke’s magnificent imagination about space has gradually faded away. People stopped looking at starry skies. In the sci-fi works today, there are more imagination about how we live in cyber utopia or dystopia. Writers focus more on various problems we encounter in reality.

The imagination of science fiction is abandoning the vastness and profoundness that Arthur Clarke once opened up, instead people are now embracing the narrowness and introversion of cyberpunk.

As a sci-fi writer, I have been striving to continue Arthur Clarke’s imagination. I believe that the boundless space is still the best direction and destination for human imagination. I have always written about the magnitude and mysteries of the universe, interstellar expeditions, and the lives and civilizations happening in distant worlds.

This remains today, although this may seem childish or even outdated. It says on Arthur Clarke’s epitaph, “He never grew up, but he never stopped growing.” Many people misunderstand sci-fi as trying to predict the future, but this is not true. It just makes a list of possibilities of what may happen in the future, like displaying a pile of cobblestones for people to see and play with. Science fiction can never tell which scenario of the future will actually become the real future. This is not its job. It’s also beyond its capabilities.

But one thing is certain: in the long run, for all these countless possible futures, any future without space travel is gloomy, no matter how prosperous our own planet becomes. Sci-fi was writing about the age of digital information and it eventually became true. I now look forward to the time when space travel finally becomes the ordinary. By then, Mars and the asteroid belts will be boring places and countless people are building a home over there. Jupiter and its many satellites will be tourist attractions. The only obstacle preventing people from going there for good, will be the crazy price. But even at that time, the universe is still unimaginably big that even our wildest imagination fails to catch its edge. And even the closest star remains out of reach. The vast ocean of stars can always carry our infinite imagination.

To somewhat unfairly use the guy as a stand-in for Chinese futurists and the modern Chinese worldview as a whole, he’s frustrated at the nihilism and overwhelming pessimism and fear that dominates modern sci-fi, as it does much of the rest of international media and various national zeitgeists. You look at the modern reboots of Star Trek: back then, we were trying to dream our way out of the Cold War, and now all we can think about is how inevitable conflict, death, and genocide seem, in an era that is far more peaceful, fat, and prosperous than any the world has ever seen.

I’ve heard a theory once that the reason the Chinese haven’t risen up against their government as they’ve gotten richer is because the government has been the main force behind this vast creation of wealth, while in the west, the nobility specifically alienated the emergent burgher class, forcing them into political opposition, which is how you got the various, increasingly democratic movements stretching from the Glorious Revolution, to the American and French Revolutions, to the post-WW2 national liberation movements against colonialism and imperialism and civil rights movements within the wealthier nations. The difference between the Three Represents, where the ruling political class consciously brings in the wealthy and co-opts them (after decades of squeezing them dry/publicly abusing them), and France’s pendulum between an Ancien Régime of aristocratic hierarchy and violent revolutions to overthrow it.

Well, a similar phenomenon has happened for the modern generation of Chinese people with technology. Technology has been a pure tool of empowerment for the average Chinese person. It is what has enabled the agricultural and industrial surpluses that powered the Chinese economic miracle and social transformation. It is high-speed rail, WeChat, bike sharing, mobile payments; everything that defines everything positive about the modern Chinese lifestyle. In China, the quintessential robot in the cultural zeitgeist is not Terminator, it is Doraemon, in spite of him being Japanese. This empathetic, playful ally that makes our lives better, more interesting, and more wholesome.

This mindset, and modern historical experience, is why China is the world’s most optimistic country. I am convinced this is still purely a matter of spin; for example, if China had cut its media censorship efforts merely in half in 2008, I am convinced that year would have been overwhelmingly defined by reports on corruption, riots in Tibet, terrorism in Xinjiang, public and private investigations into why the construction in Wenchuan was so poor and why the death toll of the earthquake there was so high, and the Sanlu milk scandal.

As it is, 2008 is remembered as the year that put China on the map as a real global player, between the Olympics, the way the country rallied to support the victims of Wenchuan, and the proactive government response to the 2008 financial crisis. But look at the actual events within the country that year: 2008 in China – Wikipedia. With a freer press, I am convinced China would share that same zeitgeist of negativity and tension that much of the rest of the world is stuck in, similar to the one depicted in the film A Taxi Driver, depicting South Korea in 1980, in the leadup to that country’s democratic reforms.

However, the Chinese government is considerably more cohesive and functional than South Korea’s was at the time, and you can see that the Chinese people are generally overwhelmingly supportive of these centralized efforts, and generally supportive of the censorship system as a whole, as a means to maintain this positivity and stability and move the country towards a brighter future, instead of focusing on bitterness and negativity.

If China had an American-style 24-hour news cycle, it would be a neverending assault of party corruption, industrial accidents, labor disputes, university students doing scandalous things, low-level terrorism (much of it about regional politics, Unabomber-type stuff, or mass stabbings in schools), widespread drug use and addiction (by East Asian standards) in hinterlands and major cities across the country, and a very messy and international conflict with smuggling cartels along China’s southwestern border.

Instead, you have polite intellectuals coming on at 7 PM every night to tell you that your leaders are constantly doing things to try and improve your lives, society and technology are constantly getting better, and the rest of the world is a mess. And those things are all true. Just not the complete truth, any more than an endless list of China’s dirty laundry would be.

It’s important to emphasize that the censorship is probably not the greatest driving force creating the gap in perspectives here. It’s necessary, to prevent the feedback loop of negativity, but not sufficient. It’s more important to note that the overwhelming majority of Chinese people are not chomping at the bit to be free of this censorship, and many embrace it or at least strongly justify it.

The vast majority of Chinese people genuinely embrace this system as a tool for making society better at very acceptable costs, cannot imagine living or wanting to live any other way, and do not get why the rest of the world is so hung up on negativity and doesn’t just throw their energy and time into practical solutions to real problems, rather than meaningless things like replacing one corrupt schmuck with another. The difference, many would argue, between Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

Whereas America’s attitude towards the future may be represented by Elon Musk:

China’s is probably best represented by Kai-Fu Lee:

AI will do the analytical thinking, while humans will wrap that analysis in warmth and compassion.

“I want to create a system that provides for all members of society, but one that also uses the wealth generated by AI to build a society that is more compassionate, loving, and ultimately human.”

Highly recommended interview with the guy talking about futurism and tech in China on Sinica: Kai-Fu Lee on artificial intelligence in China

In terms of sci-fi, China is still in that formative stage. But the Chinese are not tormented by centuries of wrestling with Christian issues of souls and purpose and what constraints should or must be placed on the power of humanity. It’s important to remember that the western ur-sci-fi novel is not some playful Jules Verne work or enthusiastically posthuman Arthur Clarke novel, it’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the novel about a man who took the power to create life in his hands when it was not his to give, lacked the empathy to form his creation properly or raise it well, and was ultimately destroyed by it.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are in a similar period to when America was producing Superman, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, John Carter of Mars, and all these other highly positive, warmly romantic figures and visions of the future, where tech was the means to solve problems, rarely the problem itself.

China’s science fiction scene is much less prolific and influential than America’s, then and now, but you see clear trends. Part of that is collectivism. Instead of a lone cowboy trying to save the day, Chinese SF is all about societies, groups, and holistic ecologies. It’s the difference between Interstellar and Wandering Earth.

For the record, I want to read the prequel to A Wandering Earth, where they’re building the underground cities and engines and organizing these (definitely rigged) lotteries to see which half of the planet will be forced to drown and freeze to death once the planet is forced to stop spinning and break its orbit, and how four billion people (realistically, far more) are killed by the ensuing tidal waves.

But another difference is that genuine optimism, the 愚公移山 “Stupid Man Moving the Mountain” metaphor discussed in the above video. You still have the cyberpunk settings in The Wandering Earth, but they’re mostly just background flavor, a reflection of some of the negative aspects of modern life. Instead, the narrative focus is on this grand solution, this grand struggle to make life better and fulfill one’s own potential. To refine the self and serve society. Not William Gibson-ian nihilism and hedonism.

If Americans made The Wandering Earth, it would be about how the planet had been hijacked and we were all trapped in darkness until we all died horribly. It would basically be Snowpiercer.

Come to think of it, if the Chinese made Snowpiercer, it would be this NUMTOT-esque celebration of how high-speed rail, unending sacrifice, and offscreen terraforming will preserve humanity in a brilliant cycle of survival until one day the Earth warms again and we ‘arrive at our destination’, where we can finally lay down new track in any direction we choose.

It would have been this weird Stakhanovite drama about a bunch of people trying to fix a train, not this fatalistic Paris Commune allegory where all of humanity freezes to death before being eaten by polar bears.

Liu Cixin wants us to dream of greater things than cramped slums and having our frozen corpses eaten by polar bears.

In fact, The Wandering Earth is specifically about everybody trying really hard to survive and ultimately escape the cramped slums we were forced to live in after everybody on the surface, polar bears included, was drowned and frozen to death.

However, China’s modern popular SF scene remains basically this film, so it’ll be interesting to watch how things emerge as the scene evolves there. China has genre magazines and a few relatively famous short stories, but almost all of China’s popular media is either modern sit-coms and romances, WW2 dramas, or Lifestyles of the Wealthy and Powerful in Ancient China. Instead of being Superman or Flash Gordon, Chinese audiences seem to want to fantasize about being the Yongzheng Emperor or his favored concubine, or being a jianghu hero in some scenic county in medieval Zhejiang. Either living a life of power, wealth, leisure, and refinement, or one of quiet dignity, honor, and personal excellence.

There’s one kind of a weird point of convergence between American sci-fi and Chinese sci-fi in the form of Illumine Lingao, about 500 mostly very ordinary people from China traveling back in time to the Ming Dynasty to create an industrial society several centuries early. The focus seems to largely be on enriching the country, celebrating history, and navigating the intricacies of court politics, though I haven’t read it yet. And very interestingly, it was essentially crowd-written by the members of an internet forum, before being compiled into a formal novel by the author, and now exists in a shared canon alongside a number of fan-created works.

Compare this to the 1632 series, the story of a small West Virginia coal mining town sent into the middle of the Thirty Years’ War, and the story of how they tried to start the American Revolution in the middle of it, with each character in this town of a few hundred essentially becoming the hero of their own little campaign, whether it’s winning over the Pope, building an ironclad navy from scratch, becoming an industrialist several centuries early, or leading armies alongside Gustavus Adolphus. And it has a similarly very open and shared fan-based canon system.

I will want to talk more about the dfferences between them once I’ve read more of Illumine Lingao, but the obvious structural differences are important to note. For example, the Chinese version did not drop their characters in the middle of the An Lushan Rebellion, or have their main goal being to reproduce the Communist Revolution. They dropped their characters in northern Hainan, one of the poorest, chillest, least populated, and most scenic parts of ancient China, not on the front lines of some epic world-defining conflict.

Still, there is this overwhelming optimism and belief that the world can be made better through determined and organized human effort, one that I think the west has a hard time believing can even possibly be sincere any more.

Footnotes

[1] http://www.clarkefoundation.org/…