Fate in Historical SF

Note: This piece was originally posted at ZHWJ on 3 July 2004.

Reviewed in this article:
A Step into the Past
Huang Yi 黄易
Hong Kong[1]

Qian Lifang 钱莉芳
Sichuan Science and Technology Press, 2004

The establishment of the Qin dynasty is a popular subject of historical dramas, and for good reason — aside from the oft-mentioned propagandistic uses of the unification story, the end of the Warring States era offers the intrigue surrounding Ying Zheng’s rumored illegitimacy, his rise to become king of Qin, the annihilation and subsequent unification of the six kingdoms, various assassination attempts, and the emperor’s infamous ruthlessness as ample fodder for the screen. Television serials and large-scale epics, such as Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin (荆轲刺秦王), Jiang Wen and Ge You’s The Emperor’s Shadow (秦颂), and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (英雄), offer interpretations with varying degrees of historical and psychological fidelity. More fantastic renditions stray further from the historical record; Zhang Yimou himself had previously acted alongside paramour Gong Li in A Terracotta Warrior (古今大战秦俑情), a romantic fantasy about a Qin general who, sentenced to death for his affair with the emperor’s concubine, reawakens in the twentieth century to fall in love with a movie star who resembles his lost love. Chinese science fiction, as expected, contributes its own perspective on this time period.

Huang Yi reverses the time-traveler concept in A Step into the Past (also translated as The Search for Qin), a science fiction flavored historical adventure. This sprawling novel of nearly two million characters tells of the experience of the special-forces officer Xiang Shaolong, who accepts a mission to test out an experimental time machine. He is sent back to record the coronation of the king of Qin on video, but an error drops him five years earlier than his intended arrival date, leaving him to fend for himself in an unfamiliar culture. With his modern outlook, he fits uneasily in the social framework of the state of Zhao, where he lands, but he quickly captures the interest of the elite by displaying his tactical knowledge (from his special forces training) and inside knowledge of major court affairs (from half-remembered historical novels and texts he studied back in school).

Future Qin king Ying Zheng is still being held captive in the state of Zhao at the time Shaolong lands, so his mission is to return him to Qin and protect him until the coronation, after which he can pick up the time signal and return to his own time. Huang Yi brings a twist to the illegitimacy story — because Ying Zheng’s mother feared that growing up in the Zhao court would lead him to turn against his homeland, she secretly sent him to live in among peasants in a small village, taking another child to be kept under house arrest with her. When Shaolong eventually finds him, the real Ying Zheng has been killed fighting in one of Zhao’s wars. To preserve his chances of getting home, he makes the choice to have his orphaned student Zhao Pan act the part of Ying Zheng and return to Qin. This decision to live a lie leads to the Qin emperor’s later ruthelessness.

Although A Step into the Past became quite popular, Huang Yi was criticized for the historical errors and anachronisms that were littered throughout the novel. The term “emperor”, for example, is used in an era when it didn’t exist, and characters are called with names they only received after their deaths. There is also a question as to whether the novel can be accurately characterized by the label “science fiction.” Although Xiang Shaolong makes use of modern technology in an ancient setting, it plays a fairly minor role. His use of modern slang and foreign terms, confusing the other characters, is played to comic effect, but the whole issue of the radical differences between Qin-era Chinese and modern dialects is dismissed in the second chapter. Shaolong meets a woman beside a river, and finds that after a short time of conversation he can understand her fairly well, although her accent is a little strange. And the story drops him in the past and leaves him there; no reconnection is made with the present; when he is finally given the chance to travel back to his own time, he refuses. Since there is no confirmation in the present of his experiences in the past, the time machine could just as easily be explained by death, or a dream from which he does not wake up.

In fact, it is Huang Yi’s view of time travel that constrains the science fiction content in the novel. He has commented that western science fiction places too much emphasis on technology and the scientific method; Chinese SF ought to explore humanity’s interaction with the unknowable mysteries of the universe. In the concept of history in A Step into the Past, fate is pre-determined, and history cannot be changed since it already happened. What convinces a scholar, for example, that Shaolong is actually from the future is not any of his technical knowledge, but the fact that his historical “predictions” concord with the scholar’s astrological readings. The popular television adaptation, starring Louis Koo, expresses this idea explicitly in its theme song, with lyrics starting off “The ages only listen to the command of the universe / Destiny — who can change its track?”

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Terrorism on the Frozen Seas

This review was originally published at ZHWJ on 14 June, 2004.

Reviewed in this article:
Cold Ice, Hot Blood
Zheng Jun (郑军)
350 pages / 275,000 chars

Obtaining fresh water has become a pressing problem in many parts of the world, including China. Agriculture, industry, and larger society all compete for a dwindling supply of water. There have even been predictions that wars in the next century will be fought not over oil or mineral rights, but over access to fresh water. In Cold Ice, Hot Blood, author Zheng Jun spins the fact that 70% of the Earth’s fresh water is trapped in the Antarctic ice into a techno-thriller set on an iceberg floating in the Indian Ocean.

The Berg Express company (it has a Chinese name but is called “BE” throughout the novel) is in its fifth year in the iceberg transport business. The founder, Qin Yu, is a self-made billionaire from a large, poor family in China’s northeast, who originally had scrapped his way up to become the owner of a small shipping company. He came across some articles by a university lecturer, Sun Yiran, who had developed a way of propelling icebergs using hydrogen fuels. Qin Yu financed his research, and in 2005 they shipped their first iceberg to the Arabian Peninsula.

In the four years since, the company continued to expand, shipping icebergs to parched areas, and landing Qin Yu on the cover of Time as Man of the Year. Iceberg water turns out to be cheaper and better tasting than desalinized seawater, and the sheer volume of fresh water now available to regions like the Middle East holds forth the promise of an end to territorial conflict. BE ships eight icebergs a year, with plans to expand to a maximum of about twenty-six.

The immense scale of the operations, as well as the scientific and technological heroism involved in transporting such massive objects, might recall the scientism of early American SF (and recent Chinese SF). Zheng Jun dispenses with that early on, however, when he mentions the motives of BE’s founders:

Although all of the technological wonders were built alongside a wariness of nature’s greatness, the two great heads of the BE company did nothing to refute the charge of attempting to “conquer nature.” Qin Yu craved greatness and reveled in this wording. He knew that in the eyes of westerners, nature was God’s creation, so to conquer nature was to wrestle with God. “I don’t believe in God–so what if I want to wrestle with him a bit?” Qin Yu once boasted at a company party.

Sun Yiran talked of his own attitude in a smaller setting: a person needs to conquer something; putting more attention on “conquering nature” means less attention on subjugating other people.

Cold Ice, Hot Blood, page 84

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Science Fiction World, July 2007

Science Fiction World for July, 2007, is a special issue devoted to Beijing-based writers — Xing He (星河), Ling Chen (凌晨), Xia Jia (夏笳), Stanley Chen Qiufan (陈楸帆), and Yang Ping (杨平).

Xing He is probably the most well-known; he contributes “Your Many-Colored Life” (你形形色色的生活), a fable of two people from two different societies, one pampered by robots and one enslaved by them, each of whom believes people are better off elsewhere.

Yang Ping is known as a cyberpunk writer, and here he contributes “Freezing Point” (冰点), a soft cyberpunkish story of a man who’s chosen as the subject of a chip-implantation experiment after a near-fatal accident.

Ling Chen’s is the best of the bunch. She tells the story of a family who’s expecting a child while working on a top-secret search for life on Jupiter’s moons in “A Titan Story” (泰坦故事).

The translated stories in this issue are Dick’s “Rautavaara’s Case” and Robert Reed’s “Pills Forever”.