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    Why Climate Change Is Missing From China’s Sci-Fi Boom

    Despite an uptick in climate-related disasters in recent years, Chinese sci-fi has been relatively quiet on the topic of global warming. Can a new novellette change that?

    This March, Apple released “Extrapolations,” a sci-fi anthology series about climate change from “An Inconvenient Truth” producer Scott Z. Burns. Despite offering viewers an impressive look into a not-too-distant future when the world is gripped by the effects of global warming, the show proved a dud with critics and viewers alike, earning a lowly 6.1 score on IMDb and just a 45% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

    The disappointing reaction to “Extrapolations” makes it something of an outlier in the climate fiction genre. Sci-fi creators and fans have embraced climate-themed stories in recent years, turning what the reporter and activist Dan Bloom once called “cli-fi” into a popular genre in Europe and the United States. Highlights include Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140” and “The Ministry for the Future,” Neal Stephenson’s “Termination Shock,” and Richard Powers’ Booker Prize-shortlisted “Bewilderment.”

    The rise of cli-fi makes sense: As global warming wreaks havoc around the world, it’s only natural that speculative fiction writers would integrate it into their imagined futures. Curiously, however, climate change has yet to become a prominent theme in China’s ongoing sci-fi boom. Although the climate has played a role in a number of well-regarded Chinese sci-fi works since the 1990s, including “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” by Liu Cixin, “Waste Tide” by Chen Qiufan, “The Azure Tragedy” by Hui Hu, and “The Moon Summit” by Wu Ji, global warming is far from a mainstream concern within Chinese genre circles, as creators appear more focused on the techno-utopian possibilities of fields like AI and the life sciences.

    That’s what makes “City of Choice,” a new novelette by Chinese sci-fi writer Gu Shi, such a pleasant surprise. Penned while Gu was a climate imagination fellow at Arizona State University and published in the July 2023 issue of “Beijing Literature,” “City of Choice” represents an attempt to close the climate imagination gap between China and the rest of the world. (An English edition translated by Ken Liu is tentatively scheduled for release at the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference in the United Arab Emirates.)

    Set several decades in the future, as rising sea levels and relentless floods test the cities that now house most of the world’s population, “City of Choice” centers on Tushan Jiao, who, like Gu herself, is an urban planner. Responsible for planning the construction of “integrated compounds” in urban clusters capable of withstanding floods and other climate-related disasters, Tushan eventually faces a difficult decision that will affect the lives and deaths of millions of people.

    That choice gives the novelette its title, but there are actually two dilemmas at the center of Gu’s tale.

    The first, more in keeping with Chinese science fiction’s interest in artificial intelligence, regards the legitimacy of AI in governance. The AI-powered Da Yu escape system is designed to improve residents’ overall escape efficiency and “reduce casualties and economic losses” to climate-related events. Its algorithm is a black box, but it appears to use big data to screen for high-value individuals and prioritize their escape. (Like many of her peers, Gu has a fondness for references to Chinese mythology — in this case, legendary emperor Yu the Great, who tamed north China’s rivers.)

    It’s an embodiment of the classic sci-fi paradox between efficiency and equality. At the end of the story, forced to decide whether or not to shut down the Da Yu system, Tushan hesitates. She knows the shutdown will come at the price of millions of lives, but can passing our choices over to AI really allow decisionmakers to escape their own ethical responsibilities?

    The second, more unique dilemma in “City of Choice” concerns cities’ ability to adapt in the face of a “soft apocalypse.” Catastrophes brought about by climate change, such as rising sea levels, extreme weather, and mass extinctions, can feel both sudden and agonizingly slow. In between explosive incidents like heat waves or floods, they’re gradually eroding humanity’s spirit and will to fight.

    For all the recent steps taken to mitigate climate change in urban planning, policymakers and planners around the world still resemble the proverbial frogs in slowly boiling water. Rather than radically upend society — a choice that might shake the foundations of their own power — they only have the courage to make small adjustments and hope it’s enough to avert the impending climate disaster. Meanwhile, the younger generation, which has more at stake, lacks the political power to affect change.

    The story portrays this conflict through a clash between Tushan and her younger rival, Dan Zhu. Whereas Tushan prefers incremental progress, Dan calls for the construction of a whole new urban development paradigm. As in real life, the choice is rarely simple, but Dan’s bold ideas seem to be a commentary on the importance of speculative fiction and other forms of boundary-pushing thought in humanity’s struggle against complacency.

    “City of Choice” is excellent cli-fi, but it’s also something more: a work of science fiction with the potential to push the genre in a new direction in China. If the recent floods in and around Beijing weren’t warning enough, the future is changing. Our sci-fi should change along with it.

    Translator: David Ball; editor: Wu Haiyun.

    (Header image: Shijue/VCG)