21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Infrastructural Futures in Chinese Science Fiction

A city’s ring roads, water lines, telco networks, and public buses and rails are all concrete forms of ideology. Values, conscious and unconscious, are embodied, on display, and at work in such infrastructural objects and systems. As such, infrastructure reveals a lot about past and current ideas and contradictions of a place through both their material manifestations as well as characters’ perceptions of the infrastructures. Furthermore, infrastructure is by its very nature futuristic[i]. Because infrastructure projects typically hinge upon significant investments in anticipation of future conditions manifesting, they are inherently speculative visions in the futurist and financial senses. These attributes apply equally well to infrastructures inside works of fiction, in this case science fiction. This essay explores infrastructural elements as pivotal within two contemporary Chinese SF stories: “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” (2004) by Liu Cixin of Three-Body Trilogy notoriety and “Folding Beijing” (2012) by fellow Hugo Award winner and renowned futurist Hao Jingfang.

Photo: Authors’ Own.

To examine infrastructure in Chinese SF productively expands the reach and poignancy of Infrastructural Criticism’s core concerns. Without essentializing and oversimplifying, it seems justifiable to claim that infrastructure exists very differently in the social imaginaries of Western nations where capitalism has long run as the dominant political economic ideology and in China. Constitutive of this divide are distinct histories, ideologies, economies, ecologies, and so on that shape approaches to public-private dynamics, for example. Who should pay for infrastructure? Who should have access to it, to what ends, and according to what values? Who determines the environmental impacts? What roles can infrastructure building play in regulating employment? What roles should infrastructure have in preparing for climate change? How does infrastructure work as a symbol of national identity and pride? The answers to such questions that are embedded in contemporary Chinese SF often radically differ from those in contemporary US or UK SF; expanding the analytical range, we can expand capacities to imagine infrastructural futures that address massive challenges such as global warming and human migrations.

Contemporary Chinese SF in particular is being created within a unique and  complicated political economy that traverses what  it calls (following Deng Xiaoping) “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”,  the ambitious transnational aspirations of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, and public discourse on climate change sans corporate-sponsored denial campaigns. As such, Chinese SF imagines unique visions of resilience in the face of crises and catastrophes. This is not to overlook domestic social problems such as the continually unfolding Social Credit System or ethnic antagonisms exacerbated by the State. Rather, at a time when tensions are rising between China and the US over trade and techno-futures, it precipitates vital explorations of future visions across borders

The first story this essay will visit is “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” published in 2004 by Liu Cixin[ii], acclaimed in Chinese and international presses as an influential public intellectual. While his Three-Body  trilogy is widely read and recognized, Liu has also published engaging short stories and novellas.

The  story opens with a father, a mother, and Yuanyuan, their daughter, who have moved to Northwest China as part of a national project to reverse desertification in a region that has a history as rich as its subterranean petroleum deposit[iii]. Even as her father continually criticizes Yuanyuan for being too whimsical, she gets a degree in nanotechnology, starts a successful company, and gets rich. She uses some of her profits to create massive bubbles and ultimately she and her father imagine and build an infrastructure of bubbles that transport humid sea air to the arid Northwest and make the land arable.

Exceptional multi-layered history is built into the setting. Like many of his Chinese SF compatriots, Liu infuses his stories with a keen and often explicit awareness of history. Readers of the English translation of The Three-Body Problem (2014) may recall that the prelude to its alien contact narrative is a granular account of an intellectual family’s experience of the Cultural Revolution. Here, in “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles,” Liu subtly alludes to at least three historical strata, each tied to infrastructure. First is the relatively near-future time of the story itself. Climate change impacts, such as post-peak water and desiccation or desertification, have accelerated in Liu’s story along the trend-lines already presently observable in areas of northern China. By setting the story in the near future of Anthropocene ecological crisis, Liu creates a speculative scenario for testing out infrastructural innovations. Readers are prompted to join the characters in imagining alternative hydrological infrastructures that can enable a resilient future.

Reverberating subtly within the near future setting are the Maoist decades. Starting in the 1950s, the Party under Chairman Mao’s leadership conducted a campaign called the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement” , which sent educated youth, as well as other members of the intelligentsia/, to the countryside for labor-based re-education. Northwest China, where Liu sets the story, was among the key destinations for this because the ostensible process of reshaping people into communists could also produce collateral benefits such as developing the natural resources of the region to feed China’s growing energy needs, fortifying a strategic border in the region, and seeding populations of the Han ethnic majority to assert greater control over the various rebellious non-Han ethnic populations. A historically informed reader will perceive  echoes of Mao’s goals in the ‘50s in the assigning of Yuanyuan’s parents to develop this region in response to rising challenges.[iv] By summoning this context, “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” incites consideration of how the near future setting replicates (or otherwise) that earlier project. Subtly, it provokes contemplation of historical models—cyclical, teleological, or progressive, for example—as  encoded here consciously or unconsciously, as well as how they align (or not) with those brought to the story. Models of history, after all, shape attitudes towards how objects and systems of infrastructure from the past contributed to the ecological crises we face right now and how new infrastructural projects might engineer resilience to and perhaps even opportunities for a superior common good in the Anthropocene.

Beneath the 50s-70s span, there is one more layer of historical strata. Yuanyuan’s family lives in a place named Silk Road City, and her father at one point compares their city to the ancient city of Loulan, which was a major stop along the original Silk Road trade route but then devastated in  mysterious circumstances by a  hydrological/climatological catastrophe:

Liu’s invocation of the Silk Road does the double duty of alluding to that early infrastructure of globalization as well as Xi Jinping’s current Belt and Road Initiative. Xi regularly references the Silk Road to characterize his infrastructural blueprint for a newly connected Earth. Of course, when Liu wrote the story Xi wasn’t yet talking about the Belt and Road Initiative, so the story has taken on this additional resonance later.

Yuanyuan was astonished. “What do you mean, Silk Road City is a soap bubble? It’s right here, rock solid. There’s no way it’s going to vanish with a pop, right?”

“It’s about to disappear. The central government has approved the province’s report and suspended all new projects to divert water to Silk Road City […] Silk Road City will be the first city in today’s world to disappear due to water shortages, a modern Loulan.” (380)

In an adjacent bit of historical sediment, the once vibrant but now dead city of Loulan was already invested with climatological significance well before Liu’s story. The desertification of places like Loulan were studied in the late 1800s by British scientists, thus generating nascent theories of climate change. As Mike Davis has recently shown, that work, which ultimately influenced Marxist thought, was itself influenced by science fiction;  Robert Cromie’s 1890 SF novel A Plunge into Space suggested that the so-called canals then-recently observed on Mars were built as infrastructure to stave off the planet’s intensifying desiccation[v]. Loulan is enmeshed in the history of climate science, particularly as this intersected with proto-anthropological research into infrastructure objects to discern correlations between human civilizations and environmental changes. In light of how its regional setting and  literary genre are important to the history of climate change science, “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” turns out to hold highly complex potential within its deceptively simple surface,  literary-critical potential resembling world-changing bubbles that Yuanyuan was chastised for loving.

Photo: Authors’ Own

Liu uses this sophisticated historical setting to deliver a plot that hinges on a dialectical approach to contradictions that arise when private enterprise and the state converge, and different generations collaborate to solve a problem. To examine the intergenerational dynamic first, an initial contradiction in the story existed between the single-minded mother and the laid-back father, a situation that seemed to open the space for Yuanyuan to grow as both an excellent student and whimsical lover of bubbles. After the mother dies and the father decides he must assume her single-mindedness, the contradiction is relocated to him and Yuanyuan as the years pass by. For most of these years, the father represents an older generation of Chinese cadres who approach problem solving through engineering and science, while Yuanyuan represents a younger generation who embraces the spirit of play and joy as part of problem solving. It’s only when Yuanyuan has preserved her love of bubbles alongside her capacity to grow a high-tech business and her father, who is the mayor of Silk Road City, faces the imminent closure and evacuation of his city that they collaborate. By putting their differences together for the collective good, Yuanyuan and her father transcend their limitations as individuals and as members of particular ideological generations, paraphrasing Marx. The story’s hopeful ending appears to validate and encourage this mix of disciplines, attitudes, and multi-generational lifespans as a means for imagining the infrastructures that will facilitate life in the Anthropocene, particularly in China. It’s salutary to consider this aspect of Liu’s story in light of the Central Committee’s recent recomposition – members now come from Humanities backgrounds instead of strictly hailing from Engineering.

Similar to Yuanyuan and her father, the story depicts the  dialectical capacity of private enterprises working with directive states. “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” offers a compelling model of public and private dynamics to innovate and deploy new infrastructures for the Anthropocene, a model that is already being realized by Chinese public-private collaborations on telco networks and space exploration. Especially intriguing is that, in its dependence upon dynamics such as two generations, this model seems a transient opportunity. As such, the short story synchronizes its deep historical resonance with an emphasis on ephemeral opportunity. It thus constitutes an excellent narrative tool for bolstering speculation on infrastructures for Anthropocene futures.

 While Liu’s story explores infrastructures in remote regions, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” provides a crucial urban complement. Appearing originally online in 2012, Ken Liu’s English translation of the novelette was published in 2015 on the online platform Uncanny Magazine.

The story takes place in a future Beijing where radical urban design, architecture, and infrastructural engineering were deployed to address population and ecological pressures. The city space goes through foldings on a forty-eight hour cycle. The wealthiest class, five million people, gets First Space for a first twenty-four span each cycle. Then they enter assisted sleep and the city folds. Twenty-five million middle-class people inhabit the same area, now called Second Space, for sixteen hours. Then they sleep, the city makes its last fold, and fifty million lowest-class people get eight waking hours in the ultra-dense city. This last class performs physical labor and infrastructural maintenance. The protagonist, Lao Dao, is part of this class, and he performs manual labor in Beijing’s waste processing systems. We meet Lao Dao just after he’s been offered money to travel, illicitly, to First Space with a letter to facilitate a romance across class lines. He takes on this precarious job out of desperation for money to pay the outrageous kindergarten enrollment fees for Tangtang, a girl he adopted after finding her abandoned outside his workplace[vi]. The story ends with Lao Dao assessing his earnings from the journey and the cryptic narrative phrase, “He checked the time. It was time to go to work.”

The folding infrastructure is central to Hao’s world building, and featured among passages providing technical descriptions she incorporates aesthetic glimpses of the city through the eyes of laborers. Two early examples invite analysis. The first one is a memory of Lao Dao’s father who worked on the crews that modified Beijing into a folding city:

Like termites swarming over a wooden house, they had chewed up the wreckage of the past, overturned the earth, and constructed a brand-new world […] Dust had obscured their views, and they had not known the grandeur of their work. Finally, when the completed building stood up before them like a living person, they had scattered in terror as though they had given birth to a monster. But after they calmed down, the workers realized what an honor it would be to live in such a city in the future. (231)

Here the story depicts with formal complexity the city’s transition through the eyes of those who dismantled the old infrastructure and built the new. While the termites and monster analogies imply dehumanization, the brand-new world and honor of living in the new city seem redemptive. With the dust-obscured view, Hao captures the challenge of comprehending a significant phase change from inside, and she sets up the laborers to experience a gradual move from resistance to embracing the new infrastructure. Despite this eventual approval of the folding city, however, wealth inequality and class separations remain firmly intact, formally articulated. Thus, in place of depicting this infrastructural phase change as a utopian break, Hao casts it as a necessary step to making structural inequalities tangible, visible, and therefore available for critique and change.

Hao complements this perspective through transition with a passage of the folding city years later, again through laborers’ eyes:

Every morning an observer at some distance from the city—say, a truck driver waiting on the highway into Beijing—could see the entire city fold and unfold…In the early dawn the city folded and collapsed. At six in the morning, the truck drivers usually got out of their cabs and walked to the side of the highway, where they rubbed their eyes, still drowsy after an uncomfortable night in the truck…The break in the highway was just outside the Seventh Ring Road, while all the ground rotation occurred within the Sixth Ring Road. The distance was perfect for taking in the whole city, like gazing at an island in the sea. (229)

This passage deploys aesthetic proximity as a means to perceive totality, albeit fleetingly. As with the pyramids in Kant’s sublime, this view of Beijing is available only at just the right proximity to the city. In this case, the drivers are positioned just beyond the city’s periphery, atop the seventh ring road (officially known as the G95 Capital Area Loop Expressway), a 580-mile infrastructure that connects Beijing with the city of Tianjin and the surrounding areas. All these bewildering and frenetic systems confound what Fredric Jameson has called “cognitive mapping”; nevertheless, the city’s flows suddenly appear to those on the margins at times of transition as a single logic, comprehensible and therefore open to analysis and alteration. Hao reinforces the aesthetic power of infrastructure here; such totalizing view of the folding infrastructure is itself made possible via another piece of infrastructure, the ring road. As such, she reminds us that to read a city one must attend to infrastructure, where abstract ideologies become concrete.

As a final note on the story, Lao Dao returns to his home and work with enough money for at least a year or more of kindergarten tuition for Tangtang. Critical responses to this ending range from deriding it as conservative and/or fatalistic to casting it as endorsing Lao Dao as a figure of revolutionary courage, with various and often laudatory interpretations within this continuum. Not only do the speculative narratives from different countries and contexts themselves generate robust insights, but the distinct critical-readerly responses bring ideological presumptions and limitations into view so that these might be registered then dismantled or transcended. Furthermore, the power of the ending not from portraying Lao Dao translating perspectives directly into either heroic revolutionary acts or heinous betrayals. Instead, “Folding Beijing” helps teach readers how to analyze current infrastructures through a framework of viability when society is not a ‘dry autumn prairie just waiting for a spark’, to paraphrase Mao. The story demonstrates how people might navigate the horrific conditions of their moment and avoid grasping at soothing catharsis or lapsing into defeatism. After all, the spark to Lao Dao’s own prairie fire was the exuberant joy of music and dance that he observed in the little girl he adopted and is doing his best to raise in a city whose structures mediate the availability of such pursuits for his socio-economic class. Perhaps this tale of social analysis without an obvious outlet to channel revolutionary energies is a necessary aesthetic for Anthropocene fiction. Stories of climate changed futures dilate temporal and spatial scale; a literature accommodating  new perspectives on enormous ecological totalities without positing viable revolutionary counteracting projects echoes the experience of being alive right now. With the latest IPCC report and new model bringing the promise of catastrophe closer and closer to tomorrow, hope’s valences only function within acknowledgement of apparent hopelessness. [vii]

Just as new perspectives appear when a city street map is juxtaposed with its subway water, sewer lines and property zoning maps, so new perspectives when juxtaposing an array of alternative speculative fiction approaches to climate changed futures. The limits to any given social imaginary loom into view, but so do positive visions of what ought to be incubated to confront and survive the planetary changes already being registered by every Earthling.

Cite this article

Andrew Hagman. “Infrastructural Futures in Chinese Science Fiction”. Alluvium, 7.3 (2019): n. pag. Web. 1 July 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.3.01

About the Author

Andy Hageman is an Associate Professor of English at Luther College. He teaches courses for the English department, Environmental Studies program, and Paideia first-year experience and capstones on ethics. Regular courses include American literature surveys and a course on the novel, film studies, and Paideia; his courses on EcoMedia and Science Fiction have been popular.  researches the intersections of ecology, technology, and ideology. He publishes on subjects that range from ecology and infrastructure in science fiction from around the world (China, Iceland, etc.) to Twin PeaksStar Trek, and the poetry of Gary Snyder.  

Works Cited

Davis, Mike. Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory. New York City: Verso, 2018.

Gupta, Akhil. “The Future in Ruins: Thoughts on the Temporality of Infrastructure.” The Promise of Infrastructure. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2018. 62-79.

Hao, Jingfang. “Folding Beijing.” Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. edited by Ken Liu. New York City: Tor Books, 2016. 219-262.

Li, Hua. “Manufactured Landscapes in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction.” Forum for World Literature Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3 (September 2014): 443-456.

Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem. translated by Ken Liu. New York City: Tor, 2014.

 —. “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles.” Touchable Unreality, edited by Neil Clarke. Beijing: China Machine Press, 2017. 373-398.

Miéville, China. “The Limits of Utopia.” Salvage. < http://salvage.zone/mieville_all.html>


Notes

[i] As anthropologist Akhil Gupta puts it, “Borrowing from Arjun Appadurai’s work on the future, we can say that infrastructures tell us about aspirations, anticipations, and imaginations of the future: what people think their society should be like, what they want it to be like, and what kind of statement they wish to make about that vision of the future” (63).

[ii] Furthermore, Hua Li points out in her essay “Manufactured Landscapes in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction,” alongside writing, Liu has been an Electric Power Plant computer engineer, so he’s steeped in infrastructure inside and outside of fiction (446).

[iii] Early on, the hyper-focused scientist mother dies in a plane crash while experimenting with aerial reforestation techniques. After the accident, the previously jovial father grows singularly focused on his government work. All the while, Yuanyuan does extremely well in school, though her passion resides in making bubbles, loving their contrast with the desiccated land she inhabits

[iv] The 50s-70s saw this region developed to expand petroleum energy infrastructures, border and internal security infrastructures, political organization infrastructures, and what was then considered an educational infrastructure–outside of universities–fundamental to building the communist state.

[v] The idea of infrastructure on Mars in that novel chimed with public discourses: US scientist Percival Lowell’s public lectures warned about Earth following the same trajectory as Mars, advising that people would need to transcend national and other boundaries to build infrastructure to survive; Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington’s proto-climate change theories emerged from his observations on a 1905 expedition to this area ( then known as Chinese Turkestan) (186-191).

[vi] Lao Dao insists that Tangtang will go to a school that includes dance and other arts in its curriculum because he sees the spark in her eyes when she hears music and dances. Lao Dao delivers the message only to find out its female recipient is already married, though she pays him a lot for his efforts. He also overhears an official discussion about replacing waste processing workers, like himself, with automation. After a harrowing escape from First Space, Lao Dao chooses not to dash the hopes of the man who hired him.

[vii] As China Miéville put it in “The Limits of Utopia,” “Pessimism has a bad rap among activists, terrified of surrender. But activism without the rigor that pessimism should provoke is just sentimentality”.

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