Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction (Xueting Christine Ni) – Book Review

Science fiction is a genre that has been used to explore the possible futures of humanity, normally using the fears and culture of the time and place it was written to do so. From what is widely considered to be the first science fiction story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which explored the fears around advancing medical technology and teachings, to something like 1984, which examined the dangers of authoritarian regimes in response of fascism in the 1940s, and All The Birds in the Sky, which focuses on epidemics, climate change, and mass starvation.

However, as much as science fiction has been used to explore themes relevant to our times, it has often done so through the lens of western creators and western cultures. Xueting Christine Ni, who compiled the stories collected together in Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction talks about this in the book’s introduction, and how looking at the literature of a country can give an insight into the everyday concerns and considerations of a people. But she also notes that when exploring books shops in China she noted a lack of genre fiction, and the fact that science fiction is more often than not filed away alongside science text books.

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At first this might seem like someone’s making something of a mistake in their stocking of books, or that science fiction itself might not be recognised as works of fiction and given the respect it deserves. But it’s very quickly clear through the kinds of stories being told in this book, as well as the people telling them, that science fiction isn’t necessarily seen simply as fiction. Chinese science fiction seems to take a very different approach to the genre, and it’s a shame that it’s not more widely circulated around the rest of the world. Luckily, this is is something being rectified by Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction.

All of the stories collected for this book, all from the late 20th Century and onward, have been specifically picked out by Xueting Christine Ni not just because they’re decent stories, but because that all have something uniquely and intrinsically Chinese about them; something that you don’t normally find in western science fiction. The stories focus on themes such as identity, history, culture, and legacy in ways that normally get overlooked in this genre, and as such, for someone who doesn’t get to read much Chinese fiction, it all felt so different and new.

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There are a lot of stories in this collection, and I simply don’t have the space to cover all of them, but there are some that immediately stand out to me when I think back to reading this book, that speak well to why this is such as good read. ‘Flowers of the Other Shore’ by A Que comes about midway through the book, and is one of the longest stories in this collection. It also stands out from the others on offer here because its a story about the zombie apocalypse. But rather than being focused on the horror side of things, or following human protagonists, the story is told from the point of view of a zombie, someone who has becomes infected and lost themselves, only to reacquire their memories and fight against their urge to hurt people.

‘The Last Save’ by Gu Shi looks at a future where people are able to record moments in time, to save a specific event that they might want to go back to one day. These people have the ability to give up on the timeline they’re currently living through and return to their saved point, allowing them to make other choices and live life another way. The problem with this is that it doesn’t erase the time you’re living in now, simply removes you from it as you essentially create a new reality based upon your saved state. The story raises questions about choice, about the consequences of your actions, as well as the fear of suddenly losing someone forever as they abandon you to try and make a new life.

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Zhao Haihong’s ‘Rendevous: 1937’ is one of the darker stories in the book, focusing on a cat-and-mouse chase through time as one person travels back in time to the Nanjing Massacre in 1937, whilst another travels back to stop her. This is easily one of the most hard hitting and impactful stories in the collection, as it sheds some light on the events that happened in Nanjing, and the thousands who lost their lives in the atrocities there. The story challenges the idea of thinking you’d be strong enough and brave enough to stand up for yourself and others when faced with something so repugnant, yet that when faced with that reality even the hardiest of people can become overwhelmed by the sheer scale of human evil.

‘Qiankun and Alex’ by Hao Jingfang is a complete opposite in tone, and explores a future where an AI is tasked with learning from a young boy as he acts as guardian, carer, and teacher for the child whilst his parents are away all the time. The story looks at the changing usage of AIs, and how they’re evolving and changing in their integration into society, as well as how much technology and people can learn and grow from each other.

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There are a lot of stories on offer in Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fictionand they range is scope and style; some are light and fun, whilst others are darker, but all of them bring something new an interesting to readers, especially those who don’t often get to read Chinese fiction.

Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction is out on 11th November from Solaris.

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