One of the luminaries of Chinese science fiction is Chen Qiufan, also known as Stanley Chan. A native of Shantou, a city in Guangzhou province in the orbit of Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta megalopolis, Chen graduated from Peking University’s Chinese literature department, going on to become a breakout author while also working full time at some of the leading tech firms in Beijing.
As a writer, Chen’s style is very much his own, but those who grasp for a recognizable Western analog sometimes compare his works to those of William Gibson. It’s not an unreasonable comparison; Chen’s stories often carry both a certain edge and verve, and as much they are about robots, cryptids, and unrealized technologies, they are also brimming with elements that seem science fictional when projected into an imagined near future, but are in fact already part of the here and now: the alienation and absurdities of urban life, the delirium and exhaustion of the youth generation’s rat race, and the dysfunctions of consumerism and class division.
Chen’s fiction makes for an intriguing window into the social impacts of China’s tech explosion. But Chen has also been steeped in China’s frenetic tech industry for over a decade, having worked at Google, Baidu, and most recently a Noitom, a VR and motion capture startup in Beijing. Now, he’s struck out with a company of his own, an incubator of sorts for developing Chinese science fiction IP, helping to give his peers a leg up. Between all of this experience—as a SF author, tech worker, and now entrepreneur—he has what may be a unique position from which to view China’s tech industry and how its development plays off of the visions of the future presented in fiction.
Chen was kind enough to spare a few moments to speak with us and answer a few questions on where and how science fiction and technological reality meet.
Chen Qiufan at PingTalk, 2017
PW: As both an author and tech worker, how have you balanced these two roles? Some people have observed the influence of your tech industry work in your writing, so has your work as a writer influenced your professional work?
CQF: In terms of time and energy, there’s certainly a conflict, because after all people aren’t machines and you can’t do multiple tasks in parallel. But from another perspective, working in the tech industry has let me come into contact with the newest technology trends and product thinking, and work with a group of the most inquisitive and imaginative people. That’s an advantage other authors can’t get.
PW: In recent years, more and more people abroad have been taking notice of China’s tech companies and their growth. From your point of view, how has the industry changed, and where is it at now?
CQF: I think there are several trends. First is that the notion of a so-called “draft” has been gradually dying down, with investors and businesspeople becoming more sensible and fewer of them just going where the wind blows. Most are looking for innovations starting from their own resources and advantages. Second, tech companies are putting more stock in basic technology innovation, including R&D partnerships at university labs and national keypoint labs, so that they can create deeper moats and higher walls for their core technologies. Third, business model innovation has taken a lighter approach. The past approach of just laying out huge sums of capital isn’t so feasible today, and you need to use smaller, lighter, more agile models to shake up users and markets. For instance, [WeChat’s] mini-apps replacing regular apps became an innovation model field experiment, and that was determined by rising capital costs and tighter risk management.
PW: When you look at the trends in China, what concerns you the most? And what do you think people at large, and people in tech circles, overlook?
CQF: What I’m actually more concerned about is, after a technology emerges, how quickly do the entire market, users, government regulatory agencies, and the culture accept and react to it? What I worry about most is if government agencies don’t react appropriately or can’t keep up with the pace; of course, from a worldwide view, the Chinese government is in the lead when it comes to the speed and degree of expertise with which it responds to new technology. I think we are used to a short-term framework (within three years) for weighing up the good and bad of technologies, but we don’t have a way for thinking in a mid- to long-term framework—say, more than 10 years—about the consequences that a technology brings. Whether for better or worse, this relates to our educational model, to the stage of our society, and a lot of the time it leads to a situation of prioritizing quick payoffs.
PW: Last year you published an article (translated by Ken Liu) in which you discussed what you called “techneurosis,” this cultural anxiety over tech and the speed of its development. When was this something you started to think about, and has your thinking on the problem developed since?
CQF: At the beginning the idea actually came about from me and the people around me being overly dependent on our electronics, like our smartwatches, and feeling that all of our lives and attention had been kidnapped by the overconsumption of information. That affected some other things that require deeper thought, like reading, writing, socializing with others, etc. Later I discovered that this was a universal thing, and there were many others worried about it, so there have been a lot of accompanying inventions to emerge, like phone quiet rooms and the like. I now feel like it’s a necessary stage in the process for technology, because every technology exploits the feedback mechanisms of the human nervous system to the greatest extent possible and lays claim to our attention ... But the human cognitive system resists, it adapts, and so between the two you get the generation of anxiety. This has probably happened many times in human history, and it will go on happening. It’s the process of finding a dynamic equilibrium in a complex system.
PW: In the US the tech industry seems to have a kind of dialogue with science fiction. Companies like Microsoft have invited SF writers to tour their labs and use their research as inspiration for stories, Magic Leap has Neal Stephenson on their board, and there are even companies now that hire out SF writers to tech companies to do stories for them. So how do you see the relationship between industry and science fiction in China, and what role do you think SF can play for the tech industry?
CQF: Actually in the last few years I’ve taken part in many conferences and events organized by industry, including GMIC, Ant Financial, Tencent, Baidu, Siemens, Xprize, etc. More and more Chinese companies are willing to invite science fiction writers into a dialogue and to spur the imaginations of their R&D and product personnel from a different angle, and then apply that to specific use cases and make an emotional connection with consumers. I feel science fiction is a good tool, it can spur tech companies to jump outside the lines and think of even more possibilities between technology and human life. And from a humanist perspective, it can serve as a precaution against possible risks.
PW: You’ve been writing now for twenty years. If you look back at how things have played out with the way tech has developed in China, is there anything that has surprised you or exceeded your expectations?
CQF: What’s exceeded my expectations is that China’s development has been even faster than what fiction foresaw. For instance, in 2006 I wrote a story called “The Smog Society,” where I imagined a future Beijing entrapped by heavy smog, but today the government’s response [to the problem] has already achieved some good results. Also, in the The Waste Tide, I wrote about the problem of e-waste, and now there’s a new regulation prohibiting the import of overseas waste. So science fiction writers have to be even bolder, even a bit wilder, to keep up with the pace of this era.
But on another level, people’s perspectives, awareness, and values have changed more slowly than we imagined. Maybe we’re using the most advanced technology in the world, but when it comes to certain problems, such as gender issues or the #metoo movement, a lot of people’s views are still stuck in a closed, premodern state. That’s another point I find remarkable.
PW: Chinese science fiction has been growing more and more popular abroad, with Liu Cixin and your friend Hao Jingfang both having won Hugo Awards in recent years, and your novel The Waste Tide is coming out in English next year—what do you think readers outside of China can learn about what’s going on in China from Chinese science fiction?
CQF: I think Chinese science fiction can give readers elsewhere an imaginative, narrative perspective on the world and future that’s distinct from that in the West. Even though it’s fiction, you can see the real China in it, and understand where the problems that Chinese people are truly concerned with lie. From that point of view, Chinese science fiction is even closer to reality than Chinese cinema, and is more able to represent contemporary Chinese society and culture.
PW: If there’s one thing you could say to the tech industry as a whole, either as a reminder or word of caution, what would it be?
CQF: Technology and humanities are like the paired wings on Icarus’s back—you want to fly high, but not so much as to get burned by the sun, and you have to be careful to keep your balance.
(The above has been lightly edited for clarity).