Exploring Chinese science fiction: Ni Kuang

One of the major problems facing me when learning Chinese is finding truly interesting books to read. Sure, I can find books I enjoy, but I have yet to find a book that I really can’t stop reading. Those that I have found so far have been translations from other languages into Chinese. I don’t say it’s bad to read translations, I’m just saying it would be better to find brilliant books originally written in Chinese.

The reason I haven’t found any brilliant books so far is partly because I’m not at a level where I can appreciate books just because of the language use, but it’s also because the kind of fiction I like is very scarce in Chinese. I like literature with cool, interesting or thought-provoking ideas. I don’t like historical novels or novels that are merely after describing historical or personal events. Thus, science fiction is one of my favourite genres.

A quest to find good Chinese science fiction

It seems to me that the Chinese are mostly looking backwards to history when looking for greatness. This is cool if you like Chinese history or historical settings, but not so cool if you don’t. This is just a theory, but I think it might explain why science fiction is much less popular in China than it is in the West. Still, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any Chinese science fiction, it just means that it’s less popular and less developed.

This is the first post of many where I will discuss books I read on my journey towards finding good science fiction in Chinese. It will probably take me many years, but I do hope that I will be able to gradually build up a comprehensive overview that might provide help to other learners of Chinese or to people who are simply interested in Chinese science fiction.

Reading 倪匡 (Ni Kuang)

Having looked online and talked with numerous native speakers about this, one name kept popping up all the time: 倪匡 (Ni Kuang). After having found a number of his books in a used bookshop, I started reading. After having read two novels and as well as having read and heard more about the author and his works, I feel that I’m in a position where I can say something about him in general.

First, here are the two books I read: 犀照 and 茫點:

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This isn’t science fiction

As you can see, it says 科幻小說 (science fiction novel) on both covers. I’ve heard that this isn’t the author’s own idea, but a label that the publisher puts on his books (he prefers 幻想, which means fantasy or illusion and is much more appropriate). In any case, it’s misleading, because neither of these novels (and I suppose most of his other works) is science fiction at all according to most definitions of the genre.

Instead, I would call his books mystery novels with supernatural elements. Sure, these elements are sometimes related to technology, but Harry Potter wouldn’t turn into science fiction just because someone said that his wand was created by an ancient race of star-faring aliens. The point is that it isn’t science fiction and if you start reading these books with the hope of finding good science fiction, you will be disappointed.

That in itself isn’t a problem, though, I like many kinds of novels and I’m not very narrow-minded when it comes to literature (just check my earlier book reviews). The fact that the novels themselves are pretty bad, even when read as mystery novels, is a much bigger problem. Now, you might think that’s because my Chinese isn’t good enough to appreciate the story or the language, but my complaints are of a more basic nature.

Plot summary of 犀照 (spoiler warning)

I don’t want to dwell too much on the actual books, but in case anyone is curious, I will include a brief summary of each book. Note that both summaries include spoilers, so skip this part if you ignore my recommendation and plan to read these books anyway.

In 犀照, the protagonist is contacted by an old friend who is well-known explorer of the South Pole. He has found something astonishing beneath the ice. He has sent blocks of ice for inspection and cautions that they might contain something very dangerous. However, the ice is perfectly clear and seems to contain nothing. Nothing but increasing confusion, gradual insanity and general psychological breakdown, that is.

The actual truth is much less interesting than the above description suggests. Trapped in the ice are microscopic organisms who are so small that they can move in solid ice and float around in the air. The madness comes from not knowing whether or not these organisms have the power to infest human minds.

It turns out that what the explorer has found in the south pole is a very unlikely collection of ancient creatures who inhabited earth long ago. How they were fixed into crystal clear ice in an exhibition-like fashion is not apparent and neither is how this is relevant for anything else.

Plot summary of 茫點 (spoiler warning)

In this story, the (same) protagonist is contacted by the brother of the Antarctic explorer in the above story (although the books were actually published in the reverse order). Since the protagonist is in a bad mood, he doesn’t hear him out, but instead leaves his wife to figure out what’s going on. It takes at least half the book before we learn anything significant other than that it’s related to mirrors and telepathy in some way.

It turns out that a new technology has been developed with which minds can be read, based on the telepathic communication between moths (yes, moths). Similar signals can be used both to receive thoughts (brain waves) and project thoughts (mind control of some kind).

This technology is then used by a go (the game) grandmaster to cheat in high-level go games, but he goes crazy when he (mistakenly) thinks that he’s been found out. Many other people are pulled in and declared insane because of things they see (because of the brain waves) but actually aren’t there. I’ve seldom read about so many people being declared insane and locked up in mental wards so quickly.

The ending doesn’t provide any real explanations, doesn’t leave any interesting questions and is just unsatisfactory in general.

Five common problems

I think these two novels have five problems in common, roughly sorted according to how serious I think they are:

  • Predictability – The plots of both these novels have been very easy to predict. This makes reading them boring, because it all feels like waiting for the main character to figure out what I figured out long before. There are two versions of this problem. The first is major plot elements that have predictable outcomes, the second is scenes that are predictable. The first kind is sort of okay because it can be argued that the way to that conclusion is the point rather than the conclusion itself, but when this happens for most of the scenes in the book it becomes seriously annoying.
  • Surprise inflation – Considering the fact that Ni Kuang uses the same main character in most books, it’s hard to understand why that character feels surprised whenever something slightly out of the ordinary happens. He feels surprised, stunned and dazed quite a lot (呆 and 愣 are very common characters in these books). You would think he’d grown used to encountering weird things, but no. In any case, this is a bit tedious to read, especially in light of the above complaint about predictability. An author should rely on surprising the reader to convey this kind of feeling, not writing about how surprised the main character looks or feels, especially when what’s supposed to be surprising is actually obvious to the reader.
  • No food for thought – I like science fiction because it makes me think. It shows me new possibilities and it sheds light on modern society, human existence and other topics I find interesting. Ni Kuang doesn’t really do any of this. There are some interesting things going on, but they aren’t discussed more than at a superficial level (what actual characters are thinking about a particular situation). It should be mentioned, though, that he does bring up madness, reality and normality in both novels and does it reasonably well. However, since the related phenomena are always fantastic or completely unrealistic in nature, they don’t feel very relevant to me.
  • Lack of internal logic – One of the most important concepts when writing science fiction is internal logic. For instance, it’s fine to say that faster-than-light travel is possible (even if it isn’t according to modern physics), describe some principles for how it works and then write books about it. But if you do, you need to follow your own rules, you need to provide your story with internal logic that makes sense and you need to show your reader that even though there are some fictional elements, the rest of the setting/story is rule-bound in some way. Just because you can break some rules doesn’t mean you can break all of them at once. Science fiction isn’t about letting the imagination run amok, it’s about letting it roam freely within certain restraints. In these two novels, however, there is no internal logical structure. In short, it feels like anything can happen for any reason. In my opinion, this is what places these novels firmly outside the science fiction genre.
  • Forced thrill - The author often creates situations which are supposed to be exciting without anchoring them in the plot. For instance, in 茫點, much of the suspense in the first one hundred pages comes from lack of communication between the main character and his wife. She tries to convey something important to him in a limited time using only hand gestures, but he fails to understand. A painful amount of text is spent on him trying to figure out what she actually meant. There is a phrase in Chinese that catches this pretty well: 故弄玄虛, or deliberately making something very mystifying and/or confusing. Mystery novels obviously need mysteries, but they should be real mysteries and not minor inconveniences blown up out of proportion by the author.

The quest goes on

Before I end this article, I’d like to point out that Ni Kuang is an extremely prolific writer and that I might simply have picked the wrong books. However, based on what I’ve heard from other people and read online, I don’t think that’s the case. I probably won’t read any more books written by Ni Kuang. The two I have already read seem very similar and have the same kind of problems.

That said, I don’t regret reading these two books. They did contain some cool ideas and some interesting parts, but they failed to give me something more than a brief moment’s escapism. I want something more from literature. I’m still looking for good science fiction in Chinese. My next project will be 劉慈欣’s 三體, which I’m quite sure is actually science fiction. If it’s good or not remains to be seen.

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  1. Sara K.’s avatar

    Re: Ni Kuang

    I’ve also read a couple of the Wesley stories, and was not enthralled by them. However, I’ve read that the quality of the Wesley stories varies greatly, and that some of them are really good, so I plan to give them another shot some day. Did you pick these two randomly, or were these two specifically recommended?

    I’ve also seen some of the movies Ni Kuang wrote screenplays for (when did the guy find time to be with his kids?) I can say that the quality of Ni Kuang screenplays ranges from terrible to good (though obviously the director and editor can interfere with this). If you want to see a movie with a *good* Ni Kuang screenplay, I suggest ‘The Flying Guillotine ???’ (which is kind of timely, since a new guillotine movie recently came out).

    I know the first Chinese ‘science fiction’ story was ??????, first published in 1903, which was inspired by a story which had been translated from German via Japanese. There is an academic article about the story called ‘From a German Tall Tale to a Pioneering Chinese Sci-Fi Short Story’ by Hua Li which discusses, among other things, how the language and grammar were influenced by translated fiction.

    I have generally found that genres in Chinese fiction generally do not map out exactly against English-language fiction (I’m not going to say ‘European-language-fiction’ since I don’t know enough about non-English European-language fiction). For example, ???? are often described as ‘romance’ novels, but based on the half-dozen or so ???? I’ve read, I wouldn’t exactly call them ‘romance’ novels. That’s good for me, since I strongly prefer ???? to the ‘romance novels’ I’ve read in English, but I suspect my mother, who reads a lot of romance novels, would have the opposite opinion.

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  2. Cak Mok’s avatar

    I agree with you on certain things you discussed, but also disagree on the “common problems” you pointed out. First, there are stories that I considered boring when reading them, mainly because they don’t fit my taste. I think everyone has his or her own unique taste when it comes to reading, it’s reasonable that you do not like these two. Maybe you can try the other ones which give a stronger “SF feel”, such as .

    In most situations, his novels are soft SF, so you can’t expect to see a story with strong scientific evidence or explanation. As you mentioned, it’s more appropriate to consider it ?? novel (even the author said so), and more importantly, ?? comes first (and SF isn’t necessarily in there). In fact, it’s not a good idea to call the series mystery novels either; most people who read at least 80+ of his novels will know this. It’s actually more like an “adventure” type.

    I don’t know when you read these two books (is it this year?). You mentioned that the two books are very easy to predict, I believe that’s true, not only for you, but for any typical readers nowadays, mainly because many of his books are written two or three decades ago, it’s reasonable that they’re predictable, and the ideas discussed in the book had already been explored in today’s media so many times, to the extent that you would think those ideas suck. However, those ideas were already explored in this series long before many today’s novels and movies did.

    For the “surprise inflation”, I have nothing to say, for it’s more of a writing style, I notice such a difference between American authors and Chinese authors.

    For “no food for thought”, I somewhat disagree with you on this. The stories actually triggered a lot of thinking (even though not all the stories). But of course, you may not think so (and today I will not think so) because we have seen a lot more of them being mentioned and explored in books, on TV, and movies.

    About the “internal logic”, I believe we just have very different ideas on how books can be considered entertaining. If the author backed his novels by providing strong scientific explanation, I would feel it’s a textbook instead of a fiction. This is the reason for why I have been trying to avoid “Hard SF”. I found them interesting, but not entertaining (personally). Though from your discussion, I can see that you favor “Hard SF”. (Please note that I am not saying it’s a negative thing, it’s just a different taste.)

    About “Forced thrill”, is it really ????? Probably. But on the other hand, why can’t the protagonist “fail to understand”? He’s human, and things like that could happen. Maybe it’s not necessary for the author to spend so much time on that part, just like I would feel it’s painful to read when Stephen King went into details on things that weren’t important to the story (he did that a lot). But I would say this could be a good thing in a novel, but definitely not good in academic writing (which needs to be concise), as well as movies (which needs tension to keep audience’s attention).

    I want to make it clear that what I said above is solely personal opinion, and I hope nothing has offended you in any way. And just like Sara K pointed out, genres in Chinese novels “do not map out exactly against English-language fiction”. Many novels are multi-genres, and some novels can hardly be classified into any genres. If you are to read more Chinese novels in the future, keep this in mind, and try not to judge a novel based on how well a novel falls into its advertised genre, doing that not only would reduce the level of entertainment, but would also prevent you from seeing the good things that are hidden in the books.

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    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      Thank you for your comment! I agree with some things you say, but not all. For instance, I think you’re right that “mystery” isn’t a good word, mostly because the word has different connotations in Swedish and English. In English, “mystery” sometimes refers to detective or crime fiction, which wasn’t at all what I meant. I’m not sure how to convey what I want in English, but the Chinese is pretty close.

      However, I don’t agree with you about the soft SF part. Obviously, this isn’t hard SF and I was very clear about that even before I opened the first book. I used to like hard SF when I was twenty, but not so much now; all my favourite authors write soft SF (or at least relatively soft). However, soft SF also needs internal logic. Note that I didn’t say that he had to back up his plots with science, I said that they needed internal logic and consistency. That’s something completely different. I maintain that most novels need this, except perhaps for post-modernist novels that make a point of not following conventions, but that’s not the case here.

      Furthermore, I don’t buy the argument that the reason I find the books easy to predict or boring in other ways is because of when they were published. I have read many, many books that were published much earlier than these books that weren’t predictable at all. Really good fiction (including science fiction) is worth reading long after its publication. Also, when I review books, I write about my own experience. Reading fiction is a very subjective experience anyway and it simply doesn’t make sense to me to evaluate books on some kind of imagined objective basis. I read the books now, therefore I review the books as I perceive them now. It might be unfair to the author, but that doesn’t concern me.

      These two books were recommended to me by friends. I could of course try yet another recommendation, but reading a third book by an author I don’t enjoy doesn’t make much sense to me, especially in Chinese which takes considerably longer than reading anything in English or Swedish. There’s so much out there to read that I’d rather try something else. Can you recommend any other authors and/or novels?

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    2. Anonymous’s avatar

      Here is an essay on chronology of Chinese science fiction:
      http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/abstracts/a119.html#yan

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