Chen Qiufan – also known as Stanley Chan – discusses Shanghai, speculative fiction, AI, and threats to humanity.

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Stan, your story, ‘State of Trance’, is featured in The Book of Shanghai – a wide-view, yet highly focused collection of contemporary literature from the city. What is it that makes Shanghai literature Shanghai literature?

Shanghai is one of the most international, inclusive and diverse cities in China. It’s been so for a long time: a hundred years ago, it was the centre of culture and finance in the Far East. So I wouldn’t simplify the characteristics of Shanghai literature down to the linguistic or landmark level, but rather, much deeper, to the spirit of Shanghai. This spirit is reflected in Chinese character ‘海’ in the name of the city, which means, at once, the ocean, fullness of possibilities, inclusiveness, wide openness. I think that’s what makes Shanghai literature Shanghai literature.

Is there something inherent to Shanghai that lends itself to sci-fi or speculative fiction? Does its particular reality allow you to imagine unrealities that might in the future become truths?

Shanghai has all the elements we usually expect in speculative fiction: mega-sized metropolitanism, LED screens growing skywards into the air, skyscrapers co-existing with mean back-streets, natives and foreigners living side-by-side. But deep down I think it’s the collision and mixture of culture from the West and the East that makes it so imaginary. Just as Bladerunner, in 1982, imagined Los Angeles in 2019, full of geisha simulacra, when I walk the streets of Shanghai I wonder what it could be like in 2149. The city might be under the water, or it might be totally, autonomously governed by AI. All is possible, and all has something to do with the collision of the West and the East.

You have said you haven’t been particularly touched by censorship. Do you think this is related to what you write about, and how you write about it, or is it more to do with fortune?

If we don’t know why and how we are censored – if its logic remains unclear and silent – then we cannot know why and how we aren’t censored. It’s not only happening in China; as I’ve always said, impingement on freedom of expression is universal and, more and more often, it blurs the line between the protection and invasion of people’s value systems – which is greatly harmful.

There are AI-generated passages in ‘State of Trance’, created by a machine that has learnt your style and crafted work from it. I want to ask what the results make you consider/question more: the capacity of AI to write, or your own capacity in writing?

It’s both. As computation power grows, AI approaches the ability of humans on all levels, including creativity. Now it might sound fanciful or surrendering, but the real question is how to leverage AI for  our own self-improvement. I’ve been greatly inspired by AI-writing, and I don’t think this relationship will be one of mastery and subservience; more likely it will be one of partnership.

‘The most lethal threats often come from the self’ is a line that stayed with me. Perhaps I am wresting this phrase from its framing but, how do you think this idea relates to our current context?

Well, our current context isn’t War of the Worlds. COVID-19 doesn’t come from a world external to ours to beat us; coronaviruses are always there, co-existing with us, and all the species of the earth. It’s our system, our beliefs, our lifestyles, our arrogance, our human-centrism that beat us. If not this time, in the future, when this happens again, we may be beaten if we do not change. Self-reflection is crucial for everyone – that’s what that line means. And so, yes, it’s of great relevance to our moment, and what might follow it.

More broadly, what role does literature have to play in this moment and its aftermath – both in China and globally?

Literature resonates and connects – connects people to history and to each other. It connects us to those who are living in totally different conditions, cultural contexts, faded dynasties, exotic planets, but all the while holds on to belief in humanity. It allows us to gain love and strength when we need it, and to give it away to others when they do. 

Your protagonist spends their (we only know this character as ‘you’) apocalyptic time trying to return a book. Do you think they would have the same urge if they were under lock-down at the moment?

Ha – I think for us who live in reality, the urge should be to stay safe and keep on distancing, while we read the books that comfort our anxieties and release our depression. I guess, though, that the librarian would give you a ‘lock-down extension’.

Chen Qiufan (born 1981), also known as Stanley Chan, is a science fiction writer, columnist, and scriptwriter. His first novel The Waste Tide, (originally published in 2013) has been translated into English by Ken Liu and published by Tor & Head of Zeus in 2019. His short stories have won three Galaxy Awards for Chinese Science Fiction, and twelve Nebula Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy in Chinese. “The Fish of Lijiang” received the Best Short Form Award for the 2012 Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards. His stories have been published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, MIT Technology Review, Clarkesworld, Year’s Best SF, Interzone, and Lightspeed, as well as influential Chinese science fiction magazine Science Fiction World.

Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.

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