Chen Qiufan, also known as Stanley Chen, is a man of many talents and interests. Primarily, he is an award-winning science fiction writer, whose long-form and short-form prose has been widely praised for addressing topics such as the environment, Chinese identity and human behavior in a time of emergency. He’s also lent his hand to discussions of art, teaming up last year for an exhibition with The Tara Ocean Foundation at Galerie Dumonteil, while he also worked on the Shenzhen & Hong Kong 2019 Bi-City Biennale at the end of last year.
We meet Chen on an overcast weekday afternoon for a coffee and a chat near his home in Xuhui district, Shanghai. He’s just put the finishing touches on the first draft for his next novel that morning. It is, in his own words, “crap,” and needs a lot of work. But, to paraphrase American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes in the world of literature.
The novel sounds complex and sophisticated, and takes in topics such as a drug war, an alternative history and impending crisis. Chen only started the draft in November of last year, and at the peak of his productivity was churning out 10,000 words per week.
“It was kind of like I was pushing myself to the limits. I did not think through all of the settings, characters and plots. I just allowed whatever came to my mind to be put down, so I have this kind of material,” he says of the process.
“[Writing this new novel] was kind of like I was pushing myself to the limits”
Work, fortunately, has been flowing for Chen of late. The shutdown of restaurants, bars and businesses in Shanghai, which accompanied the outbreak of Covid-19, has meant more time for knuckling down on his writing. The majority of the draft for the novel, which comes to around 180,000 words, was written over the past couple of months, though he says there’s still plenty to be done before it’s ready for publishing. “I need to restructure the whole thing. Right now, I know what it is really like. The whole structure is there, but I need to craft it, as if from stone.”
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Stanley Chen grew up in Shantou in Guangdong province, fascinated by science fiction stories in the form of films like Jurassic Park and Star Wars. The southern city also proved to be integrally influential for his first novel, Waste Tide, which was initially published in 2013 and helped establish Chen as a major new voice in Chinese sci-fi. Hugo Award-winning author Liu Cixin called the story “the pinnacle of near-future science fiction.”
The novel is based around ideas of electronic waste, class war and the story of Guiyu Island, an infamously polluted island off the coast of the Chaozhou region near Shantou. Speaking to the ecological through-point of the book and recent developments around environmental awareness in China, Chen says, “Now, I can see from the state level to the individual level, everyone has this perception that environment is important and that we have to build up this kind of sustainable way of economic growth and lifestyle.”
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Not only did the book continue to highlight the plight of Guiyu Island, once known as the largest e-waste site in the world, it also delved into the regional culture, using local dialects such as Teochow and Cantonese.
Speaking to his depiction of China, Chen says, “That’s something I tried to put more effort into, maybe by using more dialect. I use this kind of thing to explain that there is so much diversity in China. Right now, I am positioning myself as a world writer using Chinese. I will think about how people outside of China can easily accept this kind of authenticity of Chinese… Chinesenese. That’s very important to me.”
“Right now, I am positioning myself as a world writer using Chinese. I will think about how people outside of China can easily accept this kind of authenticity”
Chen has recently found himself a champion of diversity in another, very different way, after he became briefly embroiled in an idol-related fan war. As part of the April cover story for fashion magazine GQ, he helped create the character W1Bo-805, an android version of popular actor and singer Wang Yibo.
The GQ campaign for The Untamed co-star proved successful, with fans responding well to the idol’s blue hair and the environmental message behind the project.
However, fans of Xiao Zhan, Wang Yibo’s co-star in the hit show, attacked Chen for something he posted previously amid an online fan war over fan fiction site A03, also known as Archive of Our Own.
For background, A03 was reported by Xiao Zhan fans for hosting homoerotic pictures of the actor. The site was then blocked in China, leading to a backlash from its followers against Xiao Zhan, who was apparently dropped from several lucrative marketing campaigns as a result. Chen defended the website, and slammed Xiao Zhan fans for attacking A03.
“They tried to attack me about that. It’s nonsense. Totally. But it is interesting,” says Chen. “In this kind of young person’s mind, you have no idea. But it is kind of influential. These fan groups are so big that it is kind of dangerous.”
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Chen seems largely unbothered by the controversy. And besides, he has more important projects to work on than responding to trolling idol fans. Earlier this month, his short story Debtless was published in English in leading sci-fi publication Clarkesworld, for example, while his story State of Trance also came out in English for the first time in early April, two years after it was initially published in Chinese.
Based around the concept of the Last Evening on Earth, the collection of short stories by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, the latter story has proven to be somewhat premonitory, as it talks about an apocalyptic pandemic. The tale, which appears in Book of Shanghai, a group of short stories based in the Chinese city, delves into ideas of communication breakdown and a state of emergency, as the main character tries to return a library book.
Speaking about the relationship between current events and this plot, Chen references a line from State of Trance — “The most lethal threats often come from the self” — before adding his thoughts on the geopolitical fallout of Covid-19. “We try to build up this false enemy. We’re not thinking that we are from the same source, we are from the same species. I think this mindset is really driving us apart, especially at this moment.”
“We try to build up this false enemy. We’re not thinking that we are from the same source, we are from the same species”
He wrote the story, in part, with the help of artificial intelligence. On the surface, the idea of AI writing a short story may strike fear into the heart of writers everywhere. For Chen, however, in order for him to make use of the nonsensical poetry that the AI returned based on his own writings, he was forced to create a very distinct context, something only a writer could do.
“I built up this image of Others who talk like someone using AI, trying to imitate humans. It makes senses, because it does not sound 100% like a human talking. But you can get some interesting ideas from using AI, and you can play around with it.”
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His time working at Baidu and Google when he was younger left him with connections working in AI. One of those friends, Dr. Kai-Fu Lee is the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures and the president of Sinovation Ventures Artificial Intelligence Institute; he’s also the former President of Google China. He hooked Chen up with AI code through which he fed his own writing. With key words, Chen was able to trigger automatically-generated paragraphs.
While Chen is planning a book of short stories based around the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence, his willingness to embrace the use of AI in writing has already borne some accidental fruit: State of Trance was recently awarded a literary prize — by an AI judge.
“At the very first stage of the award, the Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s short story was ranked first. So, everyone thought the algorithm really worked because a Nobel Prize winner won, what could be wrong?” he smiles as he tells the story. “But on the last day, Science Fiction World, where I published the State of Trance, submitted my story, and I finished 0.001% ahead of Mo Yan’s story and finished on top. So I am the one who beat Mr. Mo Yan.”
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While Mo Yan is perhaps the best-known Chinese writer internationally, Chen’s fellow sci-fi author Liu Cixin has also made waves in the English-language sphere thanks to his break-out series Remembrance of Earth’s Past (often referred to by the name of the first novel, The Three-Body Problem) and the massively successful film adaptation of his book The Wandering Earth.
As Chen continues discussions to adapt Waste Tide into a TV show, he’s well aware of the impact Liu has had, but is also wary of cautionary tales such as the epic cinematic flop, Shanghai Fortress.
“I think there is certainly huge potential here,” he says. “The Chinese market obviously is quite fond of blockbusters with sci-fi elements, for example, The Marvel Universe. It’s a huge success in China.” However, Chen is dubious when it comes to the unfettered pace with which the market moved towards sci-fi products after the wild success of The Wandering Earth. “I think for the Chinese film industry, there is still a long way to go. Because you can see after The Wandering Earth, there was another film, Shanghai Fortress, it was an epic failure. You have to build up brick by brick — it’s not an overnight thing.”
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