To Community and Beyond: Chinese Sci-Fi’s Next Giant Leap
For 40 years, Science Fiction World has been the center of the Chinese sci-fi universe. By shining a light on works from a wide range of innovative and thoughtful authors — from ice giants like Liu Cixin to fiery comets like Hao Jingfang — the influential magazine has played a crucial role in Chinese sci-fi’s rise to acclaim.
As the author of the best-selling, Hugo Award-winning novel “The Three-Body Problem,” the abovementioned Liu is probably SFW’s best-known alum. When the magazine put out a call for submissions in 1999 for so-called hard sci-fi — a subcategory of the genre that prizes scientific accuracy — the then 36-year-old Liu submitted five short pieces for consideration. His stories hit SFW’s editorial department like a bomb and left readers stunned and hungry for more. Although he’d been an amateur writer for over a decade by that point, it was the vital exposure Liu got from publishing in SFW that launched his career.
The same is true of many other well-known Chinese sci-fi authors, including award-winning and popular figures like Wang Jinkang, He Xi, Zhao Haihong, Chen Qiufan, Jiang Bo, and the abovementioned Hao Jingfang. Ever since SFW released its first issue in 1979, writers looking to break into the industry have dreamed of one day seeing their work published in its pages. But after decades spent introducing strange and unknown worlds to its curious readership, it’s now SFW’s turn to feel stranded in an unfamiliar landscape, given how the recent shift toward novels and the internet have upended China’s sci-fi industry.
In the 1980s and ’90s, mainstream Chinese publishing houses had little appetite for sci-fi. According to my own research, between 1991 and 2010, domestic publishers put out a total of just 151 original science fiction novels, or less than eight per year. It’s hard to imagine, but less than a decade ago, Hao Jingfang struggled to find anyone willing to publish her debut novel, “Stray Skies.” Even Liu Cixin tried and failed for years to publish his early novel, “Supernova Era.” And when it finally did hit bookstores in 2003 — a full four years after his SFW breakout — it was saddled with a crudely designed cover that did nothing to boost sales.
SFW, along with occasional competitors like Science Fiction King and World Science Fiction Expo, was therefore the primary — and sometimes sole — arbiter and tastemaker in Chinese sci-fi for decades. But as it generally published no more than 70 stories a year, competition for spots was fierce, and young authors had a hard time breaking through.
Meanwhile, since SFW and its peers only published short stories, even many established authors felt they had no choice but to compress the expansive, novel-length tales they wanted to tell into a shorter format. Liu Cixin has admitted that he turned some of his grandest ideas — including the original concept for “The Wandering Earth”— into novellas, because he wasn’t sure they’d be published otherwise.
All that changed in late 2010, however. After the publication of the final installment in Liu’s “The Three-Body Problem” trilogy, word-of-mouth and recommendations from well-known business figures and intellectuals propelled Chinese sci-fi to new heights. Belatedly recognizing the genre’s potential, publishers rushed to expand their sci-fi portfolios. In 2018 alone, publishers released 382 book-length works of sci-fi, a nearly five-fold increase from 2011. Of these, 41 were by first-time novelists.
Even in the realm of short stories, the emergence of new competitors has eroded SFW’s market share. Popular science, children’s, and literature magazines have all published special sci-fi supplements in recent years, and dedicated genre offerings like Science Fiction Cube are taking on SFW. By 2018, SFW only accounted for about one-fifth of sci-fi short stories and novellas published in China that year — a far cry from its former dominance.
However, the magazine’s biggest competition isn’t print media, but online outlets like Non-Exist Daily and the state-backed Kedo, which are similar to Clarkesworld Magazine or Tor.com. Together with writing contests like the Light-Year Awards and the Morning Star Awards, these new platforms accounted for over half of the 431 sci-fi short stories published in 2018.
In many ways, the relative decline of SFW has coincided with a golden age in Chinese sci-fi. Genre authors today enjoy more platforms, shorter publishing cycles, larger readerships, and more avenues for monetization than at any time in the past 40 years. Young writers should count their lucky stars to be working in such a friendly publishing environment. But at the same time, there are reasons to question how long the good times will last.
To begin with, I wonder whether the current publishing boom is sustainable. Aside from Liu’s novels, sales of science fiction books have generally remained flat across the board, and most online short stories never find an audience unless they’re given exposure through channels like the annual SF New Year Gala. Even stories published on Non-Exist Daily, the most popular of the online sci-fi sites, rarely generate more than a few thousand clicks.
More importantly, there’s a dearth of reader engagement. SFW used to generate discussion among fans and critics whenever a new issue came out, which in turn helped up-and-coming authors hone their craft. When Liu’s short stories were first published in 1999, online forums buzzed with comments from die-hard sci-fi enthusiasts, and the contemporary sci-fi fanzine Nebula covered them extensively. Liu’s progression as a writer owes much to his early interactions with editors, readers, and reviewers.
However, such discussions have become rare. Recently, an author complained to me that, although he’d been writing for seven years and had even gotten several of his works published, he’d never received any feedback from readers or critics. This isn’t just a matter of reader indifference. The real problem is that, while China has a robust sci-fi publishing industry, the country lacks an effective review system capable of giving authors direct feedback and helping readers identify which works are worth their time.
That’s why I’m currently working to set up an industry review platform, like Locus in the United States. A healthy publishing ecosystem depends on interaction between authors, editors, reviewers, and readers. Thanks to the recent flood of publisher money, we have an abundance of the first group, but there’s still an acute shortage of editors and reviewers.
When SFW launched 40 years ago, the industry was still a small, tightknit circle. But as that universe has expanded ever outward, it’s become clear that SFW can no longer work alone. The next generation of sci-fi authors stands ready to explore new worlds. It’s up to the rest of us to help them get there.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: An illustration of a scene from the novel “The Three-Body Problem.” Courtesy of COLTZ/Studio Surgical Scalpels)