Science Fiction Universes as a Mirror of a Society Developing at Breakneck Speed

Vous trouverez ci-dessous le texte de ma communication donnée lors du colloque international Worlding SF. Cette communication reprend quelques éléments de mon article « Han Song : pour un retour sur Terre de la science-fiction »1.

Today, I decided to focus on one author in particular: Han Song 韩松, who focuses on a especially interesting topic: the consequences of contemporary China’s unrestrained development. Han Song was born in Chongqing in 1965, and is well-known for his dark and complicated works. He is a journalist by day at the State-owned agency Xinhua and a science fiction writer by night. He is one of the figureheads of the new wave of Chinese science fiction writers. In his works he highlights his own thoughts and worries about the development of technology and modernity, and their impact on humanity.

One of his great concerns, as mentioned above, is the unbridled development of China. “The faster the pace of technological change becomes, the more horrifying a prospect the near future seems”2. That’s why it is the main topic found in several of his novels and short stories, works that I will briefly introduce now: Subway (Ditie 地铁), High-Speed Railway (Gaotie 高铁), “The Passengers and the Creator” (Chengke yu chuangzaozhe 乘客与创造者), “My Fatherland Does Not Dream” (Wode zuguo bu zuomeng 我的祖国不做梦), Red Star Over America (Huoxing zhaoyao Meiguo 火星照耀美国), “Security Check” (Anjian 安检) and Hospital (Yiyuan 医院).

Subway is a collection of five short stories centred around the image of the subway, a criticism of China’s frantic race toward modernization. In the second short story titled “Dreadful Transformations” (Jingbian 惊变), the subway doesn’t stop at the stations anymore, but keeps moving forward endlessly. A young man breaks one of the car’s windows and tries to go to the front to see what’s going on. While he passes through each car, he realizes that the passengers inside experience all kinds of strange transformations: some are lethargic, some grow old very quickly or vanish, some go mad and engage in orgies, others commit acts of murder and cannibalism. Three days and nights pass by, and the young man finally arrives at the first car, only to notice that the passengers have regressed to monkeys and even smaller living organisms. He ends up by being devoured by the other passengers and the subway finally stops at a station where the platform is full of strange living beings. In the novel Subway, Chinese people find themselves as passengers in a society that is developing at breakneck speed, moving forward speedily towards their tragic and inevitable fate.

In High-Speed Railway, the train is a huge, expanding universe that is running at great speed. This is a clear metaphor for Chinese society which is developing quickly on one side and expanding itself on the other, only to end up losing control and transforming itself into a terrifying monster.

Han Song therefore loves to liken Chinese society to claustrophobic confined spaces. It’s also the case in his short story “The Passengers and the Creator”3. Han Song tells the story of Chinese people being born and raised in a universe the size and the shape of an airplane, apparently a Boeing 747. Their knowledge of the world is thus limited to the plane’s fuselage. One day, some revolutionaries find out the real nature of this “universe”, realising that thousands of aircrafts are flying endlessly around the globe while carrying Chinese people. The revolutionaries therefore force the aircraft to land and they are finally confronted by US soldiers. In this story, China’s rise has thus been eclipsed by American technology, consumerism and military might. Indeed, the Chinese are living in a world produced, contained and controlled by an American company. It is also a criticism towards Chinese history and contemporary society, and also towards politics. Allow me to quote a particular line from this short story, where a character states that:

“Who gets to sit where will be discussed in the Business Class cabin, and then decided in First Class. They have a passenger manifest that lists all human beings. A marron velvet curtain always hangs between the First, Business, and Economic Class cabins—though it’s soft, it’s as impenetrable as iron. Economy Class passengers such as myself have no chance of crossing over, and no way of seeing what’s on the other side”4.

“My Fatherland Does Not Dream”5 is a short story that has only been published as an online samizdat. It tells the story of an authoritarian State that drugs its citizens in order to optimize their work efficiency. The drugs make them work and give in to consumerism even during the night, thanks to somnambulism provoked by radio waves. This short story gives us a nightmare like vision of China’s “economic boom”. Every citizen, when the night comes, becomes a sleepwalker and contributes. They work more effectively and consume lavishly in order to achieve the country’s “economic miracle” and the “dream” held by “awake” leaders that are part of a mysterious “Committee of Darkness”. By morning, not only do they not witness nor live their own nightlife, they also don’t remember any of their dreams. These sleepwalkers therefore make the “Chinese dream” a reality they themselves cannot see, since we see “every one of them dreaming, but none of these dreams belong to them”6. What is also remarkable is that this story was written several years before the Chinese government actually started to promote the “Chinese Dream” (Zhongguo meng 中国梦). This was a collective dream for the whole nation — something that was quickly replaced by a chilling society in Han Song’s story.

In Red Star Over America, which parodies the title of the famous work by Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China, Han Song doesn’t mind criticising his own country. In this work the Chinese government controls the weather as well as people’s mood, and also allocates to every citizen a task that they must carry out throughout all their life. Work, entertainment and social activities are all managed by a supercomputer that collaborates with the government. Han Song uses the United States as a distorted lens to criticise China. He mentions the mass Chinese language training schools that blossomed in the USA, which refers to the English language training schools that flourished all over China – something Chinese parents love. He also uses Hawaii, a state that became independent, as a mirror of current China. We notice in the novel that Hawaii is the world’s second largest economy, much like China nowadays, and Han Song depicts some events that seems to come straight from current China.

We also find a theme in the short story “Security Check”7 where subways all over the United States are fitted with detector frames, clearly referring to the Chinese situation. As Han Song stated in one of his blogs, this story was inspired by the tightening of security checks at the entrance of Beijing subway stations.

In his novel Hospital, he denounces the arrival of the “medical era” (yao shidai 药时代), in which the life of citizens are limited to only two choices: to accept or refuse medical treatment. The main character, while on a business trip in C Town, suddenly gets sick and is taken to hospital, where he will experience medical examinations, a stay in the hospital, and surgery. He will end up witnessing the arrival of the “medical era” where the whole city, not to say the whole world, is nothing less than a huge hospital. This novel is divided into three parts named: “Medical Examination” (Kanbing 看病), “Treatment” (Zhiliao 治疗) and “Surgery” (Shoushu 手术). These three parts are themselves divided into chapters, some of which have self-explanatory titles, such as: “Whatever we get, we cannot get sick” (De shenme, ye buneng debing 得什么,也不能得病), “To leave one’s life in the hospital’s care” (Ba shengming jiaogei le yiyuan 把生命交给了医院) or even “All the clinical examinations have to be done with a machine” (Suoyou de jiancha bixu tongguo jiqi 所有的检查必须通过机器). This novel is clearly a criticism of China’s health care as it is one of the new Chinese troikas (Xin san jia mache 新三驾马车), meaning the three main social issues facing citizens in China today. These issues are to cover the education fees of one’s children (jiaoyu 教育), to look after one’s parents in their old age (yanglao 养老), and finally to ensure oneself and one’s family’s medical fees (yiliao 医疗).

Since “It is almost impossible to write a work of fiction set in another world — be it some alien place or our own world in another time — which does not make some sort of statement about the writer’s own real world”8, it is not surprising then that numerous of his works openly criticize some aspects of Chinese society, highlighting the difficulties Chinese citizens are facing in their everyday life. His purpose is not only to denounce China’s recent unbridled economic development, which transforms the society so quickly that many Chinese citizens are feeling left behind; but it’s also to express his various worries about the future, to raise some criticisms on past events, or simply to comment current affairs.

For him, science fiction is a literary genre that has the task of social criticism and world vision design. His writings are not reality, they are another reality that orbits around our own one in order to shed light on it. He gives more space to history, social criticism, and philosophy than to technical and scientific descriptions. His works express his reflections on a society in the process of radical transformation, highlighting issues and worries. Since the topics he tackles are quite sensitive, it is very common that his writings are not published. Even his theoretical writings are very critical towards China’s current society. Indeed, in his collection of theoretical essays entitled Imagination Manifesto (Xiangxiangli xuanyan 想象力宣言), he claims that China’s totalitarianism had stifled creativity, stating that people don’t try to reach excellence anymore, and instead try to avoid mistakes. He summed up his thoughts in these words: “When a society is managed in order to make all possibilities of mistakes disappear, we can be certain that it already lost all possibilities of innovation”9 (Han Song 1999, 33). This comment can be interpreted as criticism of education, social morality and of course, politics. As a result of this, Han Song claims that “Chinese excel in creating in ‘unison’, but aren’t accustomed to create ‘differently’”. He therefore seems to write engaged stories that enable him to fully express his concerns. In Han Song’s own words, “Right now, what [Chinese authors] need the most is to deepen the social dimension of science fiction, and to bring at least one portion of the genre back to Earth from extraterrestrial worlds; mainly because of all the unsolved issues Chinese society is facing”10 (Han Song 1999, 385).


Bibliography

Han Song 韩松, “Anjian” 安检, in Yao Haijun 姚海军 & Ni’er Kelake 尼尔·克拉克 [Neil Clarke] (eds.), Weilai jingxiang 未来镜像. Beijing: Jixie Gongye, 2017, pp. 116-126.
Han Song 韩松, “Chengke yu chuangzaozhe” 乘客与创造者, in Zaisheng zhuan 再生砖. Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin, 2016, pp. 82-115.
Han Song 韩松, Ditie 地铁. Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin, 2010.
Han Song 韩松, Gaotie 高铁. Beijing: Xinxing, 2012.
Han Song 韩松, Huoxing zhaoyao Meiguo 火星照耀美国. Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin, 2011.
Han Song 韩松, “Wode zuguo bu zuomeng” 我的祖国不做梦.
Han Song 韩松, Xiangxiangli xuanyan 想象力宣言. Chengdu: Sichuan Renmin, 1999.
Han Song 韩松, Yiyuan 医院. Shanghai: Shanghai Wenyi, 2016.

  1. Loïc Aloisio, « Han Song : pour un retour sur Terre de la science-fiction », Monde chinois, vol. 51-52, no. 3, 2017, pp. 77-88. []
  2. « Near Future » (Futur proche), in SFE : The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction [En ligne], mis en ligne le 2 avril 2015, consulté le 11 octobre 2017. URL : http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/near_future []
  3. Une traduction anglaise, réalisée par Nathaniel Isaacson, est disponible : Han Song, « The Passengers and the Creator » (Nathaniel Isaacson, trad.), Renditions, n. 77/78, 2012, pp. 144-172. []
  4. Traduction de Nathaniel Isaacson, p. 146 []
  5. Une traduction française, réalisée par mes soins, est disponible gratuitement en ligne : Han Song, « Ma Patrie ne rêve pas » (Loïc Aloisio, trad.), Impressions d’Extrême-Orient [En ligne], 6 |  2016, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2016. URL : http://ideo.revues.org/470  []
  6. 他们每个人都在做梦,但这些梦又都不属于他们 []
  7. Une traduction française, réalisée par mes soins, est disponible : Han Song, « Contrôle de sécurité » (Loïc Aloisio, trad.), Monde chinois, vol. 51-52, no. 3, 2017, pp. 69-76. []
  8. « Satire », in SFE : The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction [En ligne], mis en ligne le 26 septembre 2016, consulté le 11octobre 2017. URL : http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/satire []
  9. 当一种社会管理意欲消灭一切“犯错误”的可能性时,几乎可以肯定,它已丧失掉了创新的可能性 []
  10. 在这个时候,最需要增加科幻的社会深度,让至少一部分科幻从外星回到人间。这主要是因为中国社会的诸种问题并没有切底解决 []

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