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The global and long-standing interest in the genre of science fiction can be explained by not only unbelievable and impressing products of authors’ imagination but also valuable reflections on social aspects of the modern world and psychological analysis of characters. Sci-Fi stories can be seen as stories about our world, not an imaginary one, but told in a manner that sheds new light on society and human nature. Many such stories, such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, became formidable warnings to humanity on what ways not to follow in its development, and science fiction remains a source of inspiration for people who wonder what will happen to humankind in the future. In China today, there are many science fiction writers, and they have been rather prolific, and the diversity of sci-fi in China be quite surprising for a Western reader. I have chosen to explore three sci-fi stories— “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, “The Fish of Lijiang” by Chen Qiufan, and “Tongtong’s Summer” by Xia Jia—for the themes of society, human nature, and technological development in the nearest future. I will argue that these works demonstrate the differences between science fiction authors’ attitudes toward the future: while some are pessimistic and describe how technological development will make social problems even worse, others are optimistic and believe that technologies will make the lives of people easier and more enjoyable.
Jingfang paints a dreadful picture of the future where social inequality has risen to the point where the society is split into three parts, and the differences among them are emphasized in the most vivid way one can imagine: some get to enjoy being on the surface of the planet for a long time, while others are buried underground and only get to the surface for a short period during the night to work and process large amounts of waste. Traveling across Spaces, i.e. the three categories of people who possess strikingly different privileges and are not supposed to interact on the surface are strictly regulated. However, Qin, a student from the Second Space, falls in love with a girl from the First Space (the most privileged part of the society) and pays a worker from the Third Space (the least privileged part) to pass a message to her.
This is an indication of the beautiful human nature that makes it through the boundaries of society even when they are as grotesque as depicted by Jingfang. Another aspect of the story that I found insightful is that this worker, Lao Dao, the novelette’s main characters, ultimately discovers that it is possible to implement new technology and thus reduce the amount of waste and pollution, but even though it would contribute to the common well-being and rid the people of the Third Space of their hard and dangerous labor, it is not done. As it is explained to Lao Dao, if the technology is “implemented, there will be major consequences. Your process won’t need workers, so what are you going to do with the tens of millions of people who will lose their jobs?” (Jingfang 36). Maintaining the inequality, this society has reached a deadlock, and it only multiplies its miseries. Jingfang shows a world where outstanding technological achievements have not helped people create a better society but only deteriorated the existing injustice.
The Fish of Lijiang
Similarly, the future described by Chen Qiufan in “The Fish of Lijiang” is rather not the one you would want to live in. It is a commercialized, soulless world. But most frighteningly, it is a world with no free choice. Or, on the other hand, it can be said that choices a person faces there are too abundant, but they ultimately turn out deceitful and illusory. The main character of the story, while sitting by a channel and staring at fish, gets to think about life and suddenly feels “an intense jealousy of these fish. Their lives are so simple, so pure. There’s only one direction—against the current. They do not have to hesitate, overwhelmed by an endless array of choices” (Qiufan).
However, by the end of the story, the character realizes that the only choice that can be made is to have a soda, a coffee, or a tea. Similarly to Jingfang’s idea, this is a reflection of the incompatibility of human nature with any regulated social system that fails to recognize people as living creatures that have desires and aspirations. The main character wonders if living in a different world would be more satisfying, or a “man is never content with what he has” (Qiufan), but I think it can be said that in some societies a person is yet more content with what they have than in other societies. The society of the future described by Qiufan falls into the latter category, as it is strictly regulated, and technological development has rid it of opportunities for free self-expression, which is a fundamental and necessary condition for a human being to be satisfied with his or her life.
Against the background of these two stories, the story told by Jia looks more optimistic. Perhaps, because it is told by a child who has very warm feelings for her grandfather. More importantly, however, it is suggested in the story, from the perspective of a little girl who is surely predisposed to seeing good things in everything and expecting the best, that the future, as it will bring improved technologies, will help people by alleviating their suffering. Ah Fu, a caretaker robot, is convenient and effective in terms of providing care to people who are injured, feeble, or unable to take care of themselves for a different reason. The story’s main character thinks that having caretaker robots in the future will allow people to live their lives more fully, which is important because, as the little girl thinks, “The summer isn’t over yet. There are so many fun things to do” (Jia), which is an appealing symbol of hope.
Optimism and Pessimism on Technological Development
The issue of the direction of technological development has been one of the main themes in science fiction. Mesmerized by the potential of technologies we can see today, sci-fi authors wonder if this development is a good or a bad thing. On the one hand, technologies are capable of promoting economies, as more goods and services will be produced and consumed, but on the other hand, it is recognized that economic development does not guarantee a better life for people. Even when people learn to fold cities and build gigantic structures to enable this, as in the story by Jingfang, it will not indicate any humanistic progress because some people will still be living in terrible conditions, and inequality will be aggravated. This process will be driven by greed, as described by Qiufan. However, if there is a different driving force, such as helping people who are ill or underprivileged, then the technological development will be associated with the creation of tools for alleviating people’s sufferings and making them happier—this is the hope for beneficial development addressed by Jia.
While some sci-fi authors are concerned about the future, as they predict the worsening of existing social problems, others are excited about it because they believe that technological advancements will make the lives of people easier and more enjoyable. Both perspectives are valuable because they help us gain an insight into what humanity should strive for in its development. I think what many sci-fi authors all over the world are trying to tell us is that the evaluation of technological development should be based not on the measuring of the complexity of tasks that can be accomplished with new technologies (such as folding large cities) but on the consideration of how new technologies address social problems and contribute to the well-being of certain individuals and whole societies.
Reflection on Revising the Essay
This revision was a valuable experience because I got to turn exploration into an argument. I was initially required to reflect on a few sci-fi stories, and then to revise my writing to introduce a position in it, i.e. something I needed to claim and support by the evidence from the stories I read. It was easy to pick a position, as certain thesis statements kept occurring to me when I was exploring the stories, but what was hard is applying the position to all three stories because they are rather different. To find similarities and common themes, I needed to see a bigger picture instead of only regarding the details of the stories. The choice I had during the revision was whether to tell more about the stories or to provide more ideas of my own that supported my argument, and I chose the latter option because I would like the reader, even if he or she did not read the stories, to join the conversation by sharing his or her thoughts on the connections between technological development and the improvement of society.
Jia, Xia. “Tongtong’s Summer.” Clarkesworld, Web.
Jingfang, Hao. “Folding Beijing.” Uncanny Magazine, vol. 1, no. 2, 2015, pp. 7-45.
Qiufan, Chen. “The Fish of Lijiang.” Clarkesworld, Web.