Tag Archives: William Gibson

Chen Qiufan, garbage, and Chinese science fiction stories

Garbage has been dominating Canadian news headlines for a few weeks now. First, it was Canadian garbage in the Philippines and now it’s Canadian garbage in Malaysia. Interestingly, we’re also having problems with China, since December 2018, when we detained a top executive from Huawe, a China-based international telecommunicatons company, in accordance with an official request from the US government and, in accordance, with what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls the ‘rule of law’. All of this provides an interesting backdrop (for Canadians anyway) on the topic of China, garbage, and science fiction.

A May 16, 2019 article by Anjie Zheng for Fast Company explores some of the latest and greatest from China’s science fiction writing community,

Like any good millennial, I think about my smartphone, to the extent that I do at all, in terms of what it does for me. It lets me message friends, buy stuff quickly, and amass likes. I hardly ever think about what it actually is—a mass of copper wires, aluminum alloys, and lithium battery encased in glass—or where it goes when I upgrade.

Chen Qiufan wants us to think about that. His debut novel, Waste Tide, is set in a lightly fictionalized version of Guiyu, the world’s largest electronic waste disposal. First published in Chinese in 2013, the book was recently released in the U.S. with a very readable translation into English by Ken Liu.

Chen, who has been called “China’s William Gibson,” is part of a younger generation of sci-fi writers who have achieved international acclaim in recent years. Liu Cixin became the first Chinese to win the prestigious Hugo Award for his Three Body Problem in 2015. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Liu, became China’s first science-fiction blockbuster when it was released in 2018. It was the highest-grossing film in the fastest-growing film market in the world last year and was recently scooped up by Netflix.

Aynne Kokas in a March 13, 2019 article for the Washington Post describes how the hit film, The Wandering Earth, fits into an overall Chinese-led movie industry focused on the future and Hollywood-like, i. e. like US movie industry, domination,

“The Wandering Earth,” directed by Frant Gwo, takes place in a future where the people of Earth must flee their sun as it swells into a red giant. Thousands of engines — the first of them constructed in Hangzhou, one of China’s tech hubs — propel the entire planet toward a new solar system, while everyone takes refuge from the cold in massive underground cities. On the surface, the only visible reminders of the past are markers of China’s might. The Shanghai Tower, the Oriental Pearl Tower and a stadium for the Shanghai 2044 Olympics all thrust out of the ice, having apparently survived the journey’s tsunamis, deep freeze and cliff-collapsing earthquakes.

The movie is China’s first big-budget sci-fi epic, and its production was ambitious, involving some 7,000 workers and 10,000 specially-built props. Audience excitement was correspondingly huge: Nearly half a million people wrote reviews of the film on Chinese social network site Douban. Having earned over $600 million in domestic sales, “The Wandering Earth” marks a major achievement for the country’s film industry.

It is also a major achievement for the Chinese government.

Since opening up the country’s film market in 2001, the Chinese government has aspired to learn from Hollywood how to make commercially appealing films, as I detail in my book “Hollywood Made in China.” From initial private offerings for state media companies, to foreign investment in films, studios and theme parks, the government allowed outside capital and expertise to grow the domestic commercial film industry — but not at the expense of government oversight. This policy’s underlying aim was to expand China’s cultural clout and political influence.

Until recently, Hollywood films dominated the country’s growing box office. That finally changed in 2015, with the release of major local blockbusters “Monster Hunt” and “Lost in Hong Kong.” The proliferation of homegrown hits signaled that the Chinese box office profits no longer depend on Hollywood studio films — sending an important message to foreign trade negotiators and studios.

Kokas provides some insight into how the Chinese movie industry is designed to further the Chinese government’s vision of the future. As a Canadian, I don’t see that much difference between the US and China industry’s vision. Both tout themselves as the answer to everything, both target various geographic regions for the ‘bad guys’, and both tout their national moral superiority in their films. I suppose the same can be said for most countries’ film industries but both China and the US can back themselves with economic might.

Zheng’s article delves deeper into garbage, and Chen Qiufan’s science fiction while illuminating the process of changing a ‘good guy’ into a ‘bad guy’,

Chen, 37, grew up a few miles from the real Guiyu. Mountains of scrap electronics are shipped there every year from around the world. Thousands of human workers sort through the junk for whatever can be reduced to reusable precious metals. They strip wires and disassemble circuit boards, soaking them in acid baths for bits of copper, tin, platinum, and gold. Whatever can’t be processed is burned. The water in Guiyu has been so contaminated it is undrinkable; the air is toxic. The workers, migrants from poor rural areas in China, have an abnormally high rate of respiratory diseases and cancer.

For the decades China was revving its economic engine, authorities were content to turn a blind eye to the human costs of the recycling business. It was an economic win-win. For developed countries like the U.S., it’s cheaper to ship waste to places like China than trying to recycle it themselves. And these shipments create jobs and profits for the Chinese.

In recent years, however, steps have been taken to protect workers and the environment in China. …

Waste Tide highlights the danger of “throw-away culture,” says Chen, also known in English as Stanley Chan. When our personal electronics stop serving us, whether because they break or our lust for the newest specs get the better of us, we toss them. Hopefully we’re conscientious enough to bring them to local recyclers that claim they’ll dispose of them properly. But that’s likely the end of our engagement with the trash. Out of sight, out of mind.

Fiction, and science fiction in particular, is an apt medium for Chen to probe the consequences of this arrangement. “It’s not journalism,” he says. Instead, the story is an imaginative, action-packed tale of power imbalances, and the individual characters that think they’re doing good. Waste Tide culminates, expectedly, in an insurgency of the workers against their exploitative overlords.

Guiyu has been fictionalized in Waste Tide as “Silicon Isle.” (A homophone of the Chinese character “gui” translates to “Silicon,” and “yu” is an island). The waste hell is ruled by three ruthless family clans, dominated by the Luo clan. They treat workers as slaves and derisively call them “waste people.”

Technology in the near-future has literally become extensions of selves and only exacerbates class inequality. Prosthetic inner ears improve balance; prosthetic limbs respond to mental directives; helmets heighten natural senses. The rich “switch body parts as easily as people used to switch phones.” Those with fewer means hack discarded prosthetics to get the same kick. When they’re no longer needed, synthetic body parts contaminated with blood and bodily fluids are added to the detritus.

At the center of the story is Mimi, a migrant worker who dreams of earning enough money to return home and live a quiet life. She strikes up a relationship with Kaizong, a Chinese-American college graduate trying to rediscover his roots. But the good times are short-lived. The boss of the Luo clan becomes convinced that Mimi holds the key to rousing his son from his coma and soon kidnaps the hapless girl.

For all the advanced science, there is a backwards superstition that animates Silicon Isle. [emphasis mine] The clan bosses subscribe to “a simple form of animism.” They pray to the wind and sea for ample supplies of waste. They sacrifice animals (and some humans) to bring them luck, and use local witches to exorcise evil spirits. Boss Luo has Mimi kidnapped and tortured in an effort to appease the gods in the hopes of waking up his comatose son. The torture of Mimi infects her with a mysterious disease that splits her consciousness. The waste people are enraged by her violation, which eventually sparks a war against the ruling clans. [emphasis mine]

A parallel narrative involves an American, Scott Brandle, who works for an environmental company. While in town trying to set up a recycling facility, he stumbles onto the truth about the virus that may have infected Mimi: a chemical weapon developed and used by the U.S. [emphasis mine] years earlier. Invented by a Japanese researcher [emphasis mine] working in the U.S., the drug is capable of causing mass hallucinations and terror. When Brandle learns that Mimi may have been infected with this virus, he wants a piece of her [emphasis mine] too, so that scientists back home can study its effects.

Despite portraying the future of China in a less-than-positive light, [emphasis mine] Waste Tide has not been banned–a common result for works that displease Beijing; instead, the book won China’s prestigious Nebula award for science fiction, and is about to be reprinted on the mainland. …

An interview with Chen (it’s worthwhile to read his take on what he’s doing) follows the plot description in this intriguing and what seems to be a sometimes disingenuous article.

The animism and the war against the ruling class? It reminds me a little of the tales told about old Chine and Mao’s campaign to overthrow the ruling classes who had kept control of the proletariat, in part, by encouraging ‘superstitious religious belief’.

As far as I’m concerned the interpretation can go either or both ways: a critique of the current government’s policies and where they might lead in the future and/or a reference back to the glorious rising of China’s communist government. Good fiction always contains ambiguity; it’s what fuels courses in literature.

Also, the bad guys are from the US and Japan, countries which have long been allied with each other and with which China has some serious conflicts.

Interesting, non? And, it’s not that different from what you’ll see in US (or any other country’s for that matter) science fiction wiring and movies, except that the heroes are Chinese.

Getting back to the garbage in the Philippines, there are 69 containers on their way back to Canada as of May 30, 2019. As for why all this furor about Canadian garbage in the Philippines and Malaysia, it’s hard to believe that Canada is the only sinner. Of course, we are in China’s bad books due to the Huawei executive’s detention here (she is living in her home in Vancouver and goes out and about as she wishes, albeit under surveillance).

Anyway, I can’t help but wonder if indirect pressure is being exerted by China or if the Philippines and Malaysia have been incentivized in some way by China. The timing has certainly been interesting.

Political speculation aside, it’s probably a good thing that countries are refusing to take our garbage. As I’m sure more than one environmentalist would be happy to point out, it’s about time we took care of our own mess.

E-readers: musings on publishing and the word (part 3 of 3)

Let’s add a comment from a writer, notably William Gibson in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) prior to the launch of his latest book, Zero History.

William Gibson in a Sept.6, 2010 interview with Steven Kurutz for the WSJ blog, Speakeasy,

Will you mourn the loss of the physical book if eBooks become the dominant format?

It doesn’t fill me with quite the degree of horror and sorrow that it seems to fill many of my friends. For one thing, I don’t think that physical books will cease to be produced. But the ecological impact of book manufacture and traditional book marketing –- I think that should really be considered. We have this industry in which we cut down trees to make the paper that we then use enormous amounts of electricity to turn into books that weigh a great deal and are then shipped enormous distances to point-of-sale retail. Often times they are remained or returned, using double the carbon footprint. And more electricity is used to pulp them and turn them into more books. If you look at it from a purely ecological point of view, it’s crazy.

Gibson goes on to suggest that the perfect scenario would feature bookstores displaying one copy of each book being offered for sale. Prospective readers would be able to view the book and purchase their own copy through a print-on-demand system. He does not speculate about any possible role for e-books.

For a contrasting approach from writers, let’s take Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and other members of the Mongoliad novel/project which is being written/conducted online.  I’m inferring from the publicity and written material on the Mongoliad website that these writers, artists, and others are experimenting with new business and storytelling models in the face of a rapidly changing publishing and reading environment. I’ve posted about Mongoliad here (Sept.7,2010) and here (May 31,2010).

Edward Picot at The Hyperliterature Exchange has written a substantive essay, It’s Literature Jim… but not as we know i: Publishing and the Digital Revolution, which explores this topic from the perspective of someone who’s been heavily involved in the debate for many years. From the Picot essay,

It seems we may finally be reaching the point where ebooks are going to pose a genuine challenge to print-and-paper. Amazon have just announced that Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become the first ebook to sell more than a million copies; and also that they are now selling more copies of ebooks than books in hardcover. [emphasis mine]

As for more proof as to how much things are changing, the folks who produce the Oxford English Dictionary (the 20 volume version) have announced that the 1989 edition may have been the last print edition. From Dan Nosowitz’s article on the Fast Company website,

The Oxford English Dictionary, currently a 20 volume, 750-pound monstrosity, has been the authoritative word on the words of the English language for 126 years. The OED3, the first new edition since 1989, may also be the first to forgo print entirely, reports the AP.

Nigel Portwood, chief executive of the Oxford University Press (isn’t that the perfect name for him?), says online revenue has been so high that it is highly unlikely that the third edition of the OED will be physically printed. The full 20-volume set costs $995 at Amazon, and of course it requires supplementals regularly to account for valuable words like “bootylicious.”

Meanwhile the Shifted Librarian weighs in by comparing her Kindle experience with a print book in a September 7, 2010 posting,

I knew my desire to share con­tent was the prime dri­ver of the for­mat I was choos­ing, but I didn’t real­ize how quickly it was shift­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion. I now want to share one-to-many, not one-to-one, and I just don’t have the time or resources to tran­scribe every­thing I want to share. It makes me sad to look at that long list of print books I’ve read over the past year that I likely won’t share here because I can’t copy and paste.

Jenny (The Shifted Librarian) ends her essay with this,

Of course, your mileage may vary, but I think I’ve finally crossed over to the ebook side. I’ll have to go to book­stores and the library just to touch new books for old time’s sake. Only time will tell if there’s a “fea­ture” of print books that can draw me back. My rea­sons for con­vert­ing are def­i­nitely an edge case, and I haven’t been a heavy user of print resources in libraries in quite some time, but I can’t help but won­der how this type of shift will affect libraries. I see more and more eread­ers on my com­mute every day.

I was on the bus today and was struck by how many people were reading books and newspapers but I’m not drawing any serious conclusions from my informal survey. I think the lack of e-books, tablets and their ilk may be a consequence of the Canadian market where we tend to get digital devices after they’ve been on the US market for a while and when we get them, we pay more.

Despite all the discussion about e-books and tablets, I think what it comes down to is whether or not people are going to continue reading and, if we do , whether we”ll be reading the same way. Personally, I think there’ll be less reading. After all, literacy isn’t a given and with more and more icons (e.g., signage in airports, pedestrian walk signals, your software programmes, etc.) taking the place that once was occupied by written words then, why would we need to learn to read? In the last year, I’ve seen science journal abstracts (which used to be text only) that are graphical, i.e.,  text illustrated with images.  Plus there’s been a resurgence of radio online and other audio products (rap, spoken word poets, podcasts, etc.) which hints at a greater investment in oral culture in the future.

These occurrences and others suggest to me that a massive change is underway. If you need any more proof, there’s Arthur Sulzburger Jr.’s admission at the recent International Newsroom Summit held in London England (from the Sept.8, 2010 article by Steve Huff in the New York Observer Daily Transom),

During a talk at the International Newsroom Summit held in London, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. admitted that “we will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future,” but, said Sulzberger, that date is “TBD.”

In the foreseeable future, we might need to read (although we may find ourselves moving to a more orally-based culture) but not as extensively as before. We won’t spend quite as much time learning to read and will better use the training time to learn about such topics as physics or coding computers or something. Knowledge, scientific and otherwise, is going to be transmitted and received via many channels and I don’t believe that the written word will be as privileged as it is today.

In the meantime, there are any number of avenues for writers and readers to pursue. One that I find personally fascinating is the subculture of literary tattoos (from The Word Made Flesh [Thanks to @ruthseeley for tweeting about the website.]),

It says “It rained for four years, eleven months and two days.” in portuguese. The illustration and phrase are from “100 years of solitude” by G.G. Márquez. That book means a lot to me. This picture was takes the same day i got the tattoo, so it’s a little bloody. It was very cold that day.

Given that I live in an area known for its rainy weather, this particular tattoo was a no-brainer choice.