Sci-Fi Writer or Prophet? The Hyperreal Life of Chen Qiufan

By Yi-Ling Liu

When Chen Qiufan took a trip to the southwest Chinese province of Yunnan 15 years ago, he noticed that time seemed to slow down as he reached the city of Lijiang. Chen was a recent college graduate with a soul-sucking real estate job in the ­pressure-cooker metropolis of Shenzhen, and Lijiang was a backpacker’s refuge. Wandering through the small city, he was enchanted by the serrated rows of snow-capped mountains on the horizon and the schools of fish swimming through meandering canals. But he was also unnerved by the throngs of city dwellers like himself—burned out, spiritually lost, adrift. He wove his observations together into a short story called “ The Fish of Lijiang,” about a depressed office worker who travels to a vacation town, only to discover that everything is artificially engineered—from the blue sky to the fish in the streams to the experience of time itself.

Chen has since gone on to pen many more stories, win virtually every sci-fi literary award in China, and establish himself as a leading voice among the country’s growing roster of acclaimed writers in the genre. But unlike Liu Cixin, the lionized author of The Three Body Problem, who grapples with the faraway grandeur of outer space, Chen is drawn more to the interior lives of characters struggling to anchor themselves in a moment of accelerated change—much the way nearly anyone in China struggles to anchor themselves today. His work is often described as “science fiction realism.”

At the beginning of his writing process, Chen says, he often tries to act like “an anthropologist conducting fieldwork.” Before writing his debut novel, The Waste Tide, a 2013 eco-thriller about a workers’ uprising in a futuristic dump called Silicon Isle, Chen spent time in the southeastern city of Guiyu, one of the world’s largest dumping grounds for electronic waste, observing migrant workers toil in the toxin-laden trash. Once he has a feel for a given landscape in the real world, he transports the scene into what he calls the imagined “hyperreal”—a zone where the fantastical and factual are so blurred it is unclear where one begins and one ends. (In the novel, one of his main characters transforms into a cyborg, having become subsumed into the world of waste.) He wants his writing to provoke a sense of both wonder and estrangement, like a “fun-house mirror, reflecting real light in a way that is more dazzling to the eyes.”

But in the past few years—a period that has seen China’s sci-fi authors elevated to the status of New Age prophets—Chen’s own career has become an object in the fun-house mirror. After The Waste Tide garnered widespread attention at home and abroad, reviewers began praising Chen as the “William Gibson of China,” and the tech industry has embraced him as a kind of oracle. An institute run by AI expert and venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee’s company has even developed an algorithm capable of writing fiction in the author’s voice. (Chen’s recent short story “The State of Trance,” which includes passages generated by the AI, nabbed first prize in a Shanghai literary competition moderated by an artificially intelligent judge, beating an entry written by Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mo Yan.) In China, it is the place of science fiction itself—and the status of writers like Chen—that have taken a turn toward the hyperreal.

Born in the ’80s, in the wake of China’s opening up and reform movement, Chen grew up during a moment of exhilarating upheaval: The market economy was introduced, state control over culture loosened, and Western ideas flowed freely into the country—from McDonald’s to rock ’n’ roll to Star Wars. He lived in the city of Shantou, in the culturally diverse, coastal region of Chaoshan, Guangdong, close to the Hong Kong border, with easy access to foreign entertainment. As a teen, he would devour ­golden-age sci-fi classics by Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov that his father, an engineer, brought home for him, and he would watch a movie a day, buying bootleg DVDs of Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I was a young boy who liked to ask, ‘Why?’ and so I turned to science for answers,” Chen says. “But when science couldn’t explain everything, I turned to science fiction.”