Asian Futures or Western Futures? The Increasingly Varied Faces of Science Fiction
This is part of our special feature, Thinking Eurasia Now.
Science fiction (SF) has long been thought of as a western genre, and in many instances that is (still) the case. This article focuses on Sinofuturism to highlight the development of Asian science fiction, which entails a new multilateralism featuring several centers that offer alternate descriptions of the future and thereby radically question the traditional American/western hegemony and domination over the genre. One of science fiction’s forerunners in the 1980s, Cyberpunk, had already suggested a changing power differential between the east (Japan at the time) and the west, retiring older orientalist colonial dreams of dominion over Asia. This trend was especially evident in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) or Alexander Besher’s Virtual Reality Trilogy (1994-1999), that demonstrated the superiority of Japanese design and IT, and, implicitly, that of its society. However, by the 2010s, Japan had been replaced by China as a leader in technology. Like Cyberpunk, Sinofuturism has been critical of societies that adopt technology. However, Sinofuturism’s new trajectories have entailed a changing power differential, ranging from positive, quasi-utopian scenarios to negative outlooks based on the idea that there will be no future. Thus, Sinofuturism has rapidly become an important socio-political tool to study Eurasianism, a critical response to a western-centric world, offering a possibility for rethinking the future in Euro-Asian relations.
Many socio-political studies have discussed these political relations, many of them building upon Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism (1978)—perhaps the most influential text of the second half of the twentieth century—to discuss post- and de-colonial relations between the two continents. Since the 1970s, new theories have emerged about these relations and added diversity to the discussions, whether from a positive or negative perspective. Those in favor of a coming together include Indian thinkers such as Pankaj Mishra or Dipesh Chakrabarty, as well as Singaporean diplomat and political scientist Kishore Mahbubani, who insists that an Asian specificity is gained from fair and equal post-colonial and de-colonialized negotiations between Asia and the West.
In the following, I broadly adopt the politically inclined spirit of Mishra, Chakrabarty, and Mahbubani but suggest to understand East-West relations by reading the East (and by extension also the West) through a particular genre of literature, i.e., SF. I argue that this lens lends itself particularly well to studying the future of multicultural relations, as the futures imagined in SF are more often than not shared across a slew of different cultures and species, which are related in various ways. Hence, I question how Asian SF futurism can aid its audiences in better understanding the social and political changes brought about by recent political and cultural transformations. In order to answer this question, I first undertake a short excursion into the history of (political) SF and then highlight the particularities of recent Chinese SF, as they prove particularly helpful to grasp East-West relations.
Science fiction goes east
For many decades, twentieth-century SF was arguably an Anglo-American cultural project, although works emanating from other national contexts had certainly participated in forging the foundations for much of SF before that time, for example through the notable work of Frenchman Jules Verne and others. However, later texts would primarily come from the Anglo-American realm, with only occasional works hailing from other climes. Outside of Europe, the situation was not much different. Things would gradually begin to change—especially in the late twentieth century—as non-Western futurisms and SF arose. These new genres also included Afrofuturism, represented by Sun Ra and his avant-garde musical projects, the Black Panther Marvel comics franchise, the work of Nnedi Okorafor, or that of Tade Thompson, the latter two having their roots in Nigeria. Other non-Western literary futurisms also began to emerge during this period, such as LatinX-futurism and Gulf-futurism; however, it would especially fall to the SF works associated with Sinofuturism to make an impact in SF circles.
The dearth in the production of SF in China had much to do with the reluctance of the Chinese Communist Party to allow such works to be published, as they were thought to be muddling the waters of a clear-cut path to the future. In doing so, Chinese SF authors imagined themselves to be in the best of companies. After all, Karl Marx himself, rejected utopianism and its associated “messianism.” In a letter from 1877 to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, Marx (Marx and Engels 1969, 376) leveled his charge against utopianism in the following way:
Utopian socialism especially which for decades we have been clearing out of the German workers’ heads with so much effort and labour—their freedom from it having made them theoretically (and therefore also practically) superior to the French and English—utopian socialism, playing with fantastic pictures of the future structure of society, is again spreading like wildfire & It is natural that utopianism, which before the era of materialistically critical socialism concealed the latter within itself in embryo, can, now, coming belatedly, only be silly, stale, and reactionary from the roots up.
It is important to be quite thorough in reading this passage. Here, Marx does not condemn utopianism per se; rather, he admits that without utopian thinking, his materialist communism would not exist. What he does charge his contemporary utopists with, though, is that they did not properly evolve politically and instead remained stuck in utopian thinking rather than accepting his own political framework. This would leave them to be “silly, stale and reactionary.” Marx’s text is interesting here on several accounts. Indeed, Marx was not the only revolutionary to feel unease when it came to utopism. Mark Bould, for instance, argued with Lukács that the failed 1849 revolt in Germany ushered in the end of the bourgeoisie as a progressive force and with it the end of the historical novel as a descriptor and predictor of social life. This vacuum would be filled by a new fledgling genre just beginning its rise: SF. However, this new genre would be hard pressed to shed its bourgeois background, as there would always exist a dual strain in SF, i.e., a restorative and a revolutionary strain (Bould 2019, 264-5).
In China, SF long teetered between being classified as mere children’s tales or being banned outright, arguably so because Marx’s dictum on utopianism as bourgeois messianism lingered on. This classification would briefly change in the 1980s and 1990s and especially from the middle of the 2000s onward, as SF’s role in creating interest in newer technologies became more seductive, just as it had been the case with Cyberpunk in the West earlier on. In fact, the production of Chinese SF texts and films has exploded; this development has mostly been associated with the work of one writer, Liu Cixin (刘慈欣, born in 1963) and in particular through his Remembrance of Earth’s Past (地球往事) trilogy, which would go on to gain universal acclaim. Its international success has been astounding, as it won not only the Chinese Yinhe/Galaxy SF award and the Chinese Fantasy Star award but also the 2015 Hugo award—the SF equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Literature—becoming the first Chinese SF book to earn this recognition. Recently, a 30-episode TV series faithfully based on the novel was produced by Tencent Studios, and in January 2023 it aired to much acclaim on Chinese television. The other recent grand achievement of Chinese SF also goes back to Cixin: the two-part motion picture The Wandering Earth (流浪地球, 2019 and 2023) has been said to be the most expensive Chinese film ever made. The material upon which the film is based refers to a 2000 short story by Cixin, and the film became a national—if perhaps not an international—success for various reasons. Overall, in many parts of the world Cixin’s texts and films have thus become a significant counterweight to traditional Anglo-American dominance in SF.
Partly due to what might be called the “Cixin Effect,” in 2021 China’s SF industry reported 82.96B yuan in revenues, making it one of the few burgeoning genres in an overall stagnant literary market. Furthermore, an announcement in 2022 electrified the Chinese SF community even further: the SF World Congress (SF WorldCon) would be held in October 2023 in the new Chengdu Science (Fiction) Museum, designed by Zara Hadid and due to open its doors for the first time for the WorldCon. A short excursion into the history of Chinese SF is necessary in order to properly contextualize this emerging cultural phenomenon.
Contemporary social issues addressed in Chinese science fiction
Aside from Cixin, other Chinese SF writers who had already been quite successful in China would gain an additional boost from the translation of their works. A good example is journalist-by-trade Han Song, whose texts revolve around near-future Chinese society and the place of China in the world. He often uses satirical approaches to his subjects, and his short stories collection, Subway, arguably his most critical of authoritarianism in any guise, includes alien abductions and cannibalism on a never-ending train ride. He sees technology as a way to reign in human aggressiveness, but, time and again, the technological veneer breaks down, revealing the dark truth. He is certainly critical of the US in many of his stories, but he also criticizes overreaching state officials anywhere in the world, for instance in the story My Homeland Does Not Dream, in which the state delivers drugs to people so that they continue working even when they are sleeping, thus heightening labor efficiency. He has won the Chinese SF Galaxy Award multiple times and is a stout advocate for localized SF that tells the Chinese story. He believes he has a role to play in enhancing global understanding:
I hope to prevent tragedy in China, and in the world, with my writing. I don’t think humans have rid themselves of their innate evil. It’s just suppressed by technology. If there is a spark of chaos, the worst will happen. That goes for all people, whether Chinese or Western. (in Zhao 2011, 43)
Hao Jingfang is another writer whose short story Folding Beijing was the first Chinese entry to win the Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 2016. The text tells the story of a Beijing separated into three different layers, with a hierarchical society sharing the same place, but not the same time frames. A Hermes-like figure passes through all three layers in order to deliver a message of love. While at first sight a fantasy story, the novel also speaks to overcrowding, estrangement between different parts of society, and people’s longing for a more homogeneous society. Another writer, Chen Quifan, author of The Waste Tide, maintains that his chosen medium, SF, gives him a degree of freedom. He points out that “the most popular film made about Beijing’s pollution problem, a documentary called Under the Dome, was banned by the state four days after its release early in 2015.” And again, “if I write something in science fiction,” he says, “it’s fiction. It’s an imaginary narrative.” The success of his Waste Tide clearly shows how true these words are, as it seems that the quality of Chinese SF work is increasingly playing a role in promoting people’s acceptance of the genre outside of China.
Particularly influential pieces from the anthologies of Chinese SF also include The City of Silence by Ma Boyong (1980-), a story that underwent several editing rounds before its publication was allowed in China. The story it depicts revolves around the creation of white lists of admissible words to be used in communication by a remote administration—a list getting ever smaller. Other stories include drones used for surveillance and brainwave monitoring people at work to increase their productivity. However, it is important not to read these stories as simple explicit political commentaries, although some of them indeed are meant to be just that. Ken Liu states: “We do the works a disservice…when we focus on geopolitics alone.” Chen Quifan would agree: “There are universal feelings in science fiction, across all different cultural backgrounds.” Readers on several continents have emailed Chen to say that his stories about anxiety, social divisions, and pollution are as resonant in the American Midwest as they are in Guangdong.” Ma Boyong’s other influential story, The Great Migration (2021), anthologized in Sinopticon, tells the story of people who try to leave Mars during the biannual migration from Mars to Earth. Informed by Ma’s experience traveling on a bus during the annual Chunyun (春运) Spring Festival migration in China, the largest annual travel migration in the world, the book details travel issues very familiar to all who have tried to travel in China during that time of the year. Although transposed to a Martian setting, for every Chinese reader it is a strong reminder of their own holiday travel and a good example of how earthly cultural narratives can be successfully transferred into the cosmos, offering a skillful commentary on both cultural and political realities. Other successful Chinese SF writers include Koonchung Chan (born 1952) and Li Jun (李峻; 1980- ), whose pen name is Baoshu (宝树).
Most of the writers mentioned above have a large following of Chinese readers. Thanks to the publication of translations, they have also begun to garner a fan base abroad. Of course, for Chinese readers, there exist many venues to consider when searching for SF. Given the great interest in Chinese SF globally, this genre stands to reason that many other works are still undiscovered and will achieve an international exposure in the future as well.
Many of the more recent SF texts published in the collections highlighted above can be classified under the “Sinofuturism” label and its subgrouping “Silkpunk,” as the former shares a number of traits with the SF sub-genre of Cyberpunk. The term “Sinofuturism” was originally coined and exemplified by Lawrence Lek in his seminal 2016 film by the same name, which by now has gone on to be seen as the founding event of this very popular movement. In the film, Lek defines Sinofuturism in the following way:
Sinofuturism is an invisible movement. A spectre already embedded into a trillion industrial products, a billion individuals, and a million veiled narratives. It is a movement, not based on individuals, but on multiple overlapping flows. Flows of populations, of products, and of processes. Because Sinofuturism has arisen without conscious intention or authorship, it is often mistaken for contemporary China. But it is not. It is a science fiction that already exists. (Lawrence Lek, Sinofuturism, 2016)
In many ways, this is a very apt description of how China views itself at the moment, as it sits on the verge of the future. Today, it is the country in the world that registers the largest number of patents annually, is leading AI research, and is the world leader in electronic payments and general online services with the uber-APP WeChat. Just as Cyberpunk before it, Sinofuturism registers these developments with amazement—willingly seduced by this brave new world—but also charts the dangers associated with the rapid technologization of society. Many of the settings in Chinese SF are dystopic worlds or scenarios, against whose backdrop pressing present or near-future issues are negotiated. The movement itself registers this increasing polarization between its dys- and utopic poles. Perhaps also due to its success, Sinofuturism has become a contested terrain. It is not surprising, therefore, that there exist a number of SF practitioners and theorists who feel the need to deconstruct the term. Thus, in 2020, SFRA Review published a special issue, which expressed the fear that Sinofuturism’s originally intended social critique was being lost as the movement becomes stronger and runs the danger of being essentialized and affirmative rather than critical.
In the same issue of the SFRA Review, Dino Ge Zhang’s intervention, while expressing a criticism of Sinofuturism, also favors a more nuanced approach to it. He proposes to redesign the term as “Sino-no-futurism.” which would come closer to the no-future dictum of the 1970s UK punks than to the supposedly bright future promised by high tech corporate advertisements. Such a re-definition would sit well with the fact that dystopias, unlike utopias, express a non-essentializing critique of the status quo already present as a core of the genre. Zhang furthermore states that this interest in the “immiscible condition of a Sinofuture itself seen from the not so glitzy urban-rural fringe” (Zhang 2020, 177) is an alternative to both the skylines and the undersides of Shanghai or Shenzhen. An example of such a location is Silicon Isle and its inhabitants, the “waste people” in Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide, supposedly located just off of Shenzhen in the South China Sea. Therein, it is reminiscent of J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973) and its thematization of the dystopic M25 circumference of London or the urban sprawl between Boston and Atlanta on the US Eastern seaboard used as a setting in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Gibson, Chen, and Ballard all eschew (future) city life, which features so prominently in Cyberpunk; instead, they focus on contested social hotspots and develop versions of Futurism applicable to the Global South, in which a glittering urban future has given way to much less glamorous locales, to places where the claims of utopian promises have broken down to reveal their ugly underside.
Chinese SF and its Sinofuturism sub-genre are thus proving to be good examples of the diversification of SF. Authors mentioned above share the belief that SF and science can work hand-in-hand to make the world a better place, although SF authors must question the direction the genre is taking. Such internecine struggles are nothing new; indeed, American SF, for example, was greatly affected by the divisive role of the American war in Vietnam. One might also think of the divisive work conducted by groups such as Sigma, in which prominent right-wing American SF writers congregated to support Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—popularly referred to as the Star Wars Program. However, the overwhelming majority of writers believe that, along with scientists, they can help provide a perspective for solving some of the greatest problems the planet faces. For instance, since 2012, SF writers and scientist have met to discuss their work and search together for planet-wide and space-based solutions at the Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination.
This effort is also well demonstrated in the 2021 book, AI 2046: Ten Visions for our Futures, by Kai-Fu Li, former president of Google China, and Chen Qiufan. Providing an understanding of the near-future world, this book contains ten science- and technology-based plausible scenarios. Among them is the story of the San Francisco “job reallocation” industry that emerges as deep learning AI causes widespread job displacement. Another chapter, staged in Munich, tells the story of a rogue scientist who draws on quantum computing, computer vision, and additional AI technologies to take revenge on the world. These riveting stories show that people across the world are united in their struggle to comprehend rapid changes caused by an evolving technology. The stories also offer a glimpse of hope that this kind of Looking Backward (Bellamy) will make it clearer for people that they need to work together to solve inequalities arising out of their chosen technological course.
Thus, Sinofuturism has a role to play. As flawed as the current strain of Sinofuturism might be, it has begun the welcome processes of mainstreaming Chinese SF, as evidenced by an ever more diverse field of narratives, which have been critical or at least critically-acclaimed. Its diverse forms of embodied and non-essentialist future projects provide compelling examples of future Eurasian constellations and of a world built on positive differences, expressing the fact that the present is indeed malleable and can best be lived when viewed from multiple future perspectives.
Holger Briel is Professor of Media at Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University-United International College in Zhuhai, China. His research centers on intercultural and transcultural studies, vision research, comics, science fiction and critical new media studies. He has published widely on these and related topics in journals and academic monographs. He is also the long-standing Editor-in-Chief of the IAFOR Journal of Cultural Studies and co-organizer of the annual Futures in Media conference series.
Anon. 2022. Fox5NY. “Fictosexual man who married hologram says he can’t communicate with her anymore.” https://www.fox5ny.com/news/fictosexual-man-married-hologram-cant-communicate
Auerbach, David. 2017. “The Sci-Fi Roots of the Far Right—From ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’ to Newt’s Moon Base to Donald’s Wall.” The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/from-lucifers-hammer-to-newts-moon-base-to-donalds-wallthe-sci-fi-roots-of-the-far-right
Ballard, J.G. 1973. Crash. London: Jonathan Cape.
Besher, Alexander. 1994. Rim. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Besher, Alexander. 1998. Mir. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Besher, Alexander. 1999. Chi. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster,1999.
Bould, Mark. 2019. “Science Fiction.” In Critical Terms in Futures Studies, edited by Heike Paul, 261- 267. Cham: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Chen, Pingyuan. 2022. The Change of Narrative Modes in Chinese Fiction (1898–1927). Singapore: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-16-6202-7_1
Chen, Quifan. 2019. The Waste Tide, New York, NY: Tor.
Clarke, Neil, Regina Kanyu Wang and Xia Jia, eds. 2022. New Voices in Chinese Science Fiction. Stirling, NJ: Clarkesworld Books.
Conn, Virginia L., ed., 2020. “Alternative Sinofuturisms.” SFRA Review, Special Issue, 50, no. 2-3 (2020).
Cox, Alex.2014. “American Science Fiction Writers and the Vietnam War.” https://alexcoxfilms.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/american-science-fiction-writers-and-the-vietnam-war/
Dunn, Will. 2019. “How Chinese novelists are reimagining science fiction.” New Statesman, 3 February. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2019/02/chinese-science-fiction-dystopia-liu-cixin-triology
Franklin, H. Bruce. 1990. “The Vietnam War as American Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Science Fiction Studies 52, 1 no. 3 (November): 341-59. https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/pioneers/franklin52.htm
Freedman, Carl. 2000. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
Gibson, William. 1984. Neuromancer. New York, NY: Ace
Hageman, Andy. 2019. “Infrastructural Futures in Chinese Science Fiction.” Alluvium (July 1). https://www.alluvium-journal.org/2019/07/01/infrastructural-futures-in-chinese-science-fiction/
Han, Song. 2018. “Regenerated Bricks.” In The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First-Century Chinese Science Fiction, edited by Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters, 3–44. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Han, Song. 2019. “Submarines”, in Liu, Ken, ed. Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited by Ken Liu, 113-122. New York, NY: Tor.
Hao, Jingfang. 2016. “Invisible Planets.” In Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, 199–218. New York, NY: Tor.
Levitas, Ruth. 1990. The Concept of Utopia, Hemel Hempstead: Philip Allen.
Li, Kai-Fu and Chen Qiufan. 2021. AI 2046 – Ten Visions for our Futures. New York, NY: Random House.
Luckhurst, Roger. 2005. Science Fiction. Cambridge: Polity.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1969. Selected Correspondence, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
Nathan, Ganesh. 2010 Social Freedom in a Multicultural State: Towards a Theory of Intercultural Justice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nathan, Ganesh. 2015. “A non-essentialist model of culture: Implications of identity, agency and structure within multinational/multicultural organizations”, International Journal of Cross-Cultural Management, (February 23). https://doi.org/10.1177/1470595815572171.
Ni, Xueting, Christine, ed. 2021. Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction. Oxford: Rebellion Publishing.
Nevins, Jess. 2011. “Where did steampunk come from?”. Gizmodo (April 4). https://gizmodo.com/where-did-steampunk-come-from-5788742.
Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Sen, Amartya. 2017. Identity & Violence; The Illusion of Destiny. London: Penguin Books.
Webb, Darren. 2021. Marx, Marxism and Utopia London: Routledge.
Zhao, Echo. 2011. “The Three Generals: They Talk to the Future.” The World of Chinese (May): 37-43.
 Especially in relation to the chances and limitations of Said’s approach, cf. the very helpful discussion on Sen and Said in Amitabha Gupta’s Is There a Correspondence Between “Orientalism” and The Orient? – Said, Dyson and Sen in IAFOR Journal of Cultural Studies, 6,2 (2022), https://iafor.org/journal/iafor-journal-of-cultural-studies/volume-6-issue-2/article-2/
 In this context, one might further refer to the works of Sen and Nathan, which describe differing and liberal roles for Asia in the development of the future.
 Cf. the discussion of this revealing quote in Webb, p. 19ff.
 Cf. here also Freedman (2000) who argues that due to its filiation, for most of its history, traditional SF is involved in creating reactionary worlds and emits ‘historicizing literary tendencies’ (p. 54). This would only change with a new batch of SF writers in the second half of the 20th century and he singles out the revolutionary work of Stanislaw Lem, Ursula LeGuin, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany and Philip K. Dick as examples of this new kind of writing.
 It also won the 2017 Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis for Best Foreign SF work, the 2017 Premio Ignotus Award for Best Foreign Novel, the 2018 Premio Italia Award for Best International Novel, the 2018 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society, and several others, an unprecedented haul.
 In Dunn 2019.
 Cf. Franklin 1990; Cox 2014; Auerbach 2017.
Published on September 12, 2023.