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Chen Qiufan on the Feedback Loop between Tech Innovation and Science Fiction

In this episode, science fiction writer Chen Qiufan (Stanley Chan), author of Waste Tide, discusses the feedback loop between science fiction and innovation, what happened when he went to live with shamans in China, how science fiction can also be a psychedelic, and why it’s significant that linear time arrived from the West and took over ideas of circular or recurring time between Chinese dynasties.


Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) was born in Shantou, Guangdong province. Chen is a science fiction writer, columnist, and online advertising strategist. Since 2004, he has published over thirty stories in Science Fiction World, Esquire, Chutzpah! and other magazines, as well as a novella, The Abyss of Vision (2006), and novel, The Waste Tide (2013). He is also the author, alongside Kai-Fu Lee, of the short story and essay collection AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future. He has won Taiwan’s Dragon Fantasy Award, China’s Milky Way Award for Science Fiction and Nebula Award, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award along with Ken Liu. His fiction has been translated into English and Italian and published in Clarkesworld, Interzone, Fantasy & Science Fiction and other magazines. He lives in Beijing and works for Google China.


Reading List:


The Waste Tide


AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future


Transcript


KERRY MACKERETH:

Hi! We're Eleanor and Kerry. We're the hosts of The Good Robot podcast, and join us as we ask the experts: what is good technology? Is it even possible? And what does feminism have to bring to this conversation? If you wanna learn more about today's topic, head over to our website, where we've got a full transcript of the episode and a specially curated reading list with work by, or picked by, our experts. But until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the episode.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Science fiction writer Chen Qiufan (aka Stanley Chan), author of the waste tide, discusses the feedback loop between science fiction and innovation, what happened when he went to live with shamans in China, how Science Fiction can also be a psychedelic, and why it’s significant that linear time arrived from the West and took over circular or recurring time between Chinese dynasties.


KERRY MACKERETH:

Great. Well, it's really such an honour to have you here. So for the sake of our wonderful listeners, could you explain a little bit about who you are, what you do, and what brings you to thinking about gender science fiction and technology?


CHEN QIUFAN:

Okay, thank you, Kerry and Eleanor for having me here on The Good Robot, I’m Chen Qiufan or Stanley Chan. So I'm a Chinese speculative fiction author, the author of Waste Tide and AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future. So speaking of gender, science, fiction and technology, I started from science fiction, because since I was a kid, I have always been a sci fi fan, I watched all those Star Wars, Star Trek, classic Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein stuff back in the day, and then started to write my own story. And I think that joy drove me to the technology industry. So I joined Google and Baidu and also a tech startup doing VR for over a decade. So which helped me to build up this kind of mindset, how people invented technology from the lab and bring it to the mass audience to the market. So that kind of interesting interaction also gave me a lot of inspiration. So speaking of gender, I would say it started from Waste Tide. We were gonna to unfold it a little bit later. But when it got translated into English, I got realised there are so many gender biases within our language, within our cultural contacts, and even our in our mindsets. So I started to rethink about the whole thing since then. So I think this is something I definitely got into or further explored. Right now, I'm writing a lot of stuff about feminism, about non-binary people in science fiction. So I think this is something like totally putting everything together for now.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Amazing. Yeah, it's so exciting to hear how this plays out in science fiction, because you are our first science fiction writer on the podcast. We’re thrilled to have you. And we're also so excited that you're the first person to answer then, from that profession, our billion dollar questions. So what is good technology? Is it even possible? And how do we get there with feminism?


CHEN QIUFAN:

Right. So from my perspective, I think that good technology is about how to fully unlock the potential of one individual or one society on any possible dimension. So to me it’s totally possible because all this kind of incredible imagination we create in the narrative of science fiction has actually pointed out that humans have an unlimited potential there, no matter our perception, our consciousness or our social construction. So I think there's definitely so many approaches towards that direction, but I think now, because we are living in a patriarchy, a male-dominant society for such a long time. So I think especially in recent years, feminism and going [with non-binary characters] is actually a cure, because it helps us to think and take action out of the box, out of the framework of going binary or towards extremism. I think right now, the patriarchy are treating others as some kind of object that can be exploited. So I think that this is something that fundamentally influences everything on every possible level. So I think the question is whether we can create some kind of generating mechanism on a cultural level, that can fundamentally change the mindset of people, change the structure, change the institution, and also change the technology, how it works, how it shapes [the world]. So I think yes, we definitely need feminism, and further, more non-human centric theories and thoughts to push us forward.


KERRY MACKERETH:

Absolutely, that's super interesting and also resonates really nicely with some of the other people we've had on the podcast. I know you're a big fan of N. Katherine Hayles and in her episode she talks a lot about the need to acknowledge how cognition is not just a human property and kind of thinking about these kinds of relationships, and how consciousness and cognition is distributed between human and non-human entities. And it also links a lot to a fantastic queer work that's happening in the field of AI. Eleanor, do you want to chip in? Because I know you're super interested in queer approaches to these technologies? Maybe it's like Q or something like that?


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Yeah, I mean, it's interesting that you talk about non binary approaches, because I don't know whether you saw this, but there was an attempt to create a gender neutral voice, a voice that wasn't gendered in any way. And what they did was they recorded the voices of non binary people. And they changed the frequency, the hertz level, so that it was a sound that they thought wasn't gendered. And that's fascinating, because it turned out that the sound that resulted from this didn't sound human. And so really, if you want to extract gender from humanity, do you also end up making something not human? Also, I found it a really interesting experiment, although I'm not sure whether neutralising gender is the answer either. But I love these kinds of experiments in kind of non or moving beyond the binary and technology.


KERRY MACKERETH:

Thank you. So you're a really popular and well respected science fiction writer, and you wrote one of my favourite recent science fiction reads, a novel called Waste Tide which was referenced briefly in the first answer, and explores the urgent and essential topic of the human impact of e-waste, and I encourage all our listeners to check it out. So could you tell us a bit more about Waste Tide? What is it about for those who haven't read it? What inspired the novel and why did you decide to write it?


CHEN QIUFAN:

Sure, sure. So Waste Tide was written 10 years ago, in Chinese. So actually, it was when visiting Europe and Dublin and all around the place, so I started to write the book. And it's about the electronic waste issue in near future China. So talking about a small island called Silicon Isles, so they're like the biggest centre of recycling all this kind of electronic waste for all around the world. But most of it was shipped in from developed countries, like the US or the UK. So actually it’s just like that kind of ‘not in my backyard’ principle. So people generate all these kinds of e-waste and dump it in someone else's backyard. So my story is actually about a very low class immigrant worker, a waste worker called Mimi, she’s got to do this kind of super toxic work every day with her bare hands. So she got totally polluted. And she even got infected by some virus carrying in waste parts. And she transcendentally becomes a cyborg, which means she can manipulate machines and algorithms that creates some kind of revolution. Like, she's the Goddess. She's the warrior. She's guiding people, the waste workers, fighting against the system. So that's something that very metaphorically reflects the reality nowadays, especially the conflicts between the developed countries and global south countries. So I think that's something from my own experience, because I'm from a small city named Shantou in Guangdong Province, in the Southern East Coast in China. So actually just 60 kilometres away from the city I was born. And there's a small town there named …. Which in Chinese means precious island, but it sounds the same as Silicon Isles in Chinese. So I think that's basically the blueprint, where I came from, and it's actually back in the day in the 90s to 2018, we were doing all this kind of electronic waste recycling, economic stuff. But now it's totally changed because China banned 24 categories of foreign ways from being imported into China, including e-waste. So right now, it seems like it’s being transferred to a further exotic place like South East Asia, or India or Africa. So the problem is still going on. So it's not a local story, but using local narratives, but reflexively projecting a global issue. So I think that's something only science fiction as a genre can do. Right it’s totally amazing, because I got a lot of feedback from readers around the world, even in India, in South Africa. So people totally relate to the issues in the story, and they feel totally the same about how people feel, and that kind of desperation in the story.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

That must have been amazing to get that kind of feedback. Yeah, just to know that science fiction as a genre is so political, there's so much at stake in these futures, that everybody knows that it's not a future, it's really about the present, and it's about their lives and the ways that they exist in this kind of nightmare. But it’s just propelled into out of space. Another thing that I think that science fiction does incredibly well is that it allows you to draw mythology and tradition into high technology. And often these two things are pulled apart, they're extracted from one another as if high tech can only come when tradition is shifted away, is moved into the past. And your work really beautifully shows that ancient tradition also influences how we imagine high technology. And as you said, at the beginning, the way that we imagine technology actually results in specific kinds of technologies being developed at the expense of others. So can you tell us a little bit about how you approach mythology?


CHEN QIUFAN:

Absolutely. I think yes, partially because of my childhood experience, because the place I was born and raised actually is quite mixed. So because we can share all this super advanced technology, like electronics from the West, it’s kind of simultaneously introduced to our society. But meanwhile, we still preserve all this kind of superstition and rituals, ceremonies about our ancestors. So you can see all this kind of stuff co-exist at the same time. So I think this totally shaped my perspective, since I was a kid. So I think in my story, I was intentionally put all these pieces together because in many ways we have the ritual of expelling the ghost from a kid which trapped him in a coma. So there's a witch lady actually singing and dancing, all this kind of stuff. But actually, there's some technological mechanism beneath, she’s a cognitive scientist operationalizing the therapy. So I actually put them into different layers and make them coherent together. So I think because right now in science fiction there is the new myth of the technology era. So I think that they totally do the same thing as mythology operated back in the day, they both had the same function in society, like technology also helps people explain things and builds up this kind of understanding of the world and how things work. And we then get to predict something in the future using mythology, which is unusual because everything's supposed to go in a rational, comprehensive way. So I think that's totally something we're doing now in science and technology. During the previous two years of the pandemic, I couldn't travel abroad. So I spend a lot of time visiting indigenous minority people in China, like Inner Mongolia, and also Southern, southern West, mountainous areas. So I visited a lot of minority villages to visit their shamans. I joined their ceremonies, rituals, etc, to understand more about their mindset, their perspectives. So I think that's totally something fascinating because you can see all these kinds of philosophies, it's about creating these kind of mediums to connect different phases of our material world. So even going beyond that, because there is a spirituality, a dimension there, right? So it's about connection. It's about coexistence. It's about harmony. So I think that's something we totally need in the current status quo. Because in the previous version of technology, we were actually divided in two between subjectivity and objectivity, like the human-centric perspective vs. other species. So I think that's totally causing a lot of problems. So I think right now, we should bring back mediums like shamans. So that's how I created the word technoshamanism. So yeah, so that's something I tried to explore in my storytelling as well in the future.


KERRY MACKERETH:

That's really fascinating. And, you know, it almost reminds me of this beautiful Afrofuturist idea that technology is a form of magic like Ytasha Womack, and the number of other fantastic scholars and activists and writers and creatives kind of work very much that concept. And you know, that scene you describe from Waste Tide is one of my favourite scenes, where you have a fusing of the technological and the magical, I think is wonderful. And I was also really struck by you saying kind of, you know, science fiction, like in this particular era, like it is the new myth and, and I think your journey of going from a child who loved to read science fiction to someone who worked in the tech industry is a very common journey, right. Eleanor and I spend a lot of our time chatting to people who work in computer science, who work in the tech industry. There's a driving factor behind what is included in science fiction. I want to turn to one of your most recent releases, which is the book AI 2041, which was co-authored with Kai-Fu Lee, the ex-head of Google China, also the writer of AI superpowers. And it's for our readers, it's structured in a really interesting way where it's half essays, and it's half short stories. And so I want to ask you, sort of in the context of the contemporary tech industry, why do you think science fiction is really important when it comes to imagining or thinking about technology and innovation? And could you also talk to us a little bit about the process of writing this particularly interesting collaboration?


CHEN QIUFAN:

Right? So yeah, Kai-Fu and I used to work for Google back in the day. So we had an overlapping time there. So he used to be the boss. And he reached out to me two years ago and brought out this idea about how we could write a collaborative book on science fiction and I. I have to admit, I was a little bit hesitating, because he's the boss. And no one wants to work with your ex-boss, like, whatever it is, but after while I thought that this is something really urgent and important for everyone because, like, we can see all this kind of misunderstanding and, and, and cliché in science fiction about AI and robots, always hostile and we wanted to break this kind of imagery. I think we need to create some positive and more neutral images of technology, otherwise, there's no way we can leverage them for good. So I think this is something I definitely want to do. So we spent two years building them up from scratch. Nobody knew what it was gonna be like because it’s a totally unusual format. And it's a totally unusual collaboration. So we visited so many scholars, researchers, and those who are doing the real stuff in the lab and in startup companies, so we could understand how technology really is going to develop. And then we sat down together and Kai-Fu, using his expertise and experience to map out the roadmap of how AI technology can evolve over the next 20 years. And we packaged different technologies, for example, natural language processing, facial recognition, computer vision, and attached each package to different stories. And then I came up with this idea, like, where different stories were being sold in different countries in different societies, because AI in the future is supposed to impact all countries around the world. So it's not supposed to be about only those AI superpower countries like China and America. So especially for those developing countries like Nigeria and Sri Lanka, etc, etc. And then we decided that each story should have this kind of historical and cultural context, which might tap into the field, which might have different layers, because fundamentally, like ultimately, technology will unreveal all those hidden realities that are deeply embedded in our social structures, even in our consciousness structure. So I think that's how we can build up the whole holistic perspective of each story in the book. So this is how we collaborated. And also I think this is so important, because as you understand, in the tech industry, mostly, the tech was invented and generated by men, so back in the day, and even white dudes, back in the day, right. So that basically shaped the whole tech world. I think this is totally wrong, because we can witness all this bias and discrimination within the algorithms and everything. So that's basically it - from the starting point from scratch, it was already there. So we need to change everything. So that's why I put so many female characters, even non-binary characters in the book. So because I think from scratch, we need to reshape everything on this basis. So that's how I think about why we need more diverse perspectives, we need more interdisciplinary, we need more multi-gender perspectives on the tech industry. But beyond that, because we also bring in some humanities perspectives, as well. So I think this book not only speaks to those who care about tech, and policymaking or, or whatever, but also to those who feel that it is urgent to understand what it is going to be like in the future, about the world, and what their children, what their offspring, are going to face in the way of challenges, and even risks brought by technology in the future. So I think that's our intention.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Yeah, that's amazing. And it probably will have a big difference, because we know that there's this interference between how we imagine the world and the kind of world that we live in. And it's wonderful that we can think positively with science fiction as a vehicle for bringing this better world about. And you know, as you said, there is that positive thing that you're doing when you're writing this. I’m really interested in an idea of the planetary, you talk about planetary intelligence or thinking with the planetary. And interestingly, it's something that I've been thinking about for a while, because science fiction does encourage us to think beyond this world, to imagine new ones, new horizons. And imagine a place that doesn't have polarizations and divisions like this one has. And there's two philosophers that I love a lot, Gayatri Spivak and Paul Gilroy, who call this thinking with the planetary (planetary thinking). And this is really interesting, because you can see how science fiction does something that philosophy is doing kind of in a more complicated way by imagining beyond worldly divisions, beyond globalisation. So what does the planetary mean to you? Does it mean de-familiarising familiar space, which is what science fiction does so well, making our familiar world unfamiliar. Like you were talking about at the beginning with, when you were showing what it means to live alongside trash. So what is planetary intelligence?


CHEN QIUFAN:

Right. So I actually got this idea from the book The Stack by Benjamin Bratton. So he is the one we have a collaboration with on different projects. So I think this is something definitely amazing because we have this kind of tradition of human-centered thought for such a long time, for centuries, I think. So it's kind of like a framework, a limit in our imagination and also our perspective on everything. So think about avatar as actually quite a stunning movie, no matter on a visual level or philosophical level. So I watched that, like, during the pandemic, and I started to realise actually, it's about shamanism. So they introduced a lot of shamanism, the dragon lady from the Navi people. So actually, they're doing all this kind of Shamanic ceremony to connect the people's consciousness to the whole planet. So I think that's totally something so, so profound, that meets us at the reality level. So now we're talking about like, non consciousness, intelligence, even our cell phone, even our like electronics, I think they're all sitting on a certain position in this spectrum of like, consciousness or intelligence. So, to see it in a broader way like, I think everything beyond humans, they are all part of it. So this is why I’m so in love with the Gaia hypothesis, brought by the British scientist, James Lovelock. And also his recent book, Novacene is actually a brilliant one talking about like, why human or anthropocene is just a transmission towards the new genre, towards the new era of like, a cyborg, totally silicone base, and maybe even digital base species and civilization will be the ultimate goal of evolution. So I think all this kind of idea actually show us like the history of civilization, even like, science and technology is actually a human-centric process, this helps us to think beyond ourselves, and realise that we need to respect and appreciate the existence and intelligence of other species, even those, maybe a chair or desk of rock, the mountain, they all have some kind of ability to do the computation. So I think that totally makes sense, because that's how everything works. So the problem is how we can turn all this kind of philosophical, metaphorical thinking into the real stuff. So that's why I think science fiction as a storytelling has this kind of mobility, to open up a little bit of headspace for the people, especially those from younger generations, they're quite passionate, they're curious about what's going on out there. And this might trigger something in the future of their life path. So they might come across or create this kind of synergy. Like, an emergence from from nowhere, there will be some new signs that will totally blow us away. So think about how The Left Hand of Darkness (by Ursula Le Guin), challenged the fluidity of gender. And also think about the Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang, which challenges your sense of time. So it's all about how we use different kinds of narratives to challenge and to reshape the fixed mindset of people because we all know how stubborn we are. Right? You are trapped. We are all trapped. But science fiction to me is like some kind of psychoactive substance, it’s gonna kick you out for a period of time. But the after effect is going to linger there, it keeps you thinking about it reflexively, it makes you have all these kind of suspicions and speculations about your own existence. So I think that's totally the strongest psychedelic in the world in my opinions.

ELEANOR DRAGE:

That's so wonderful. My mom who's really anti-drugs would love that idea. I really like what you're saying about time because especially with Lovelock, and the different kinds of creatures that he talks about, humans and non-humans are no longer these distinct entities, but are actually kind of bound up within each other. But obviously, humans occupy a really precise moment in time in the globe, the universe's history, we suffer from great amnesia, we are really self-centred, we always think with this shortermist perspective. And then science fiction is like, Oh, well, here are these creatures that have lived for 1000s and 1000s of years and that means that we can modify our way of thinking as well. So I also wanted to ask you about which kinds of manipulations of time are deemed to be okay in science fiction and which are not, because we know that it's really acceptable for science fiction to have time machines, like TARDIS in Doctor Who, but then the kinds of manipulations of time like that are based on kind of non-Western prophecies and Oracleism these are less acceptable ways of ascertaining the future, which is kind of horrific. But I want you to talk a bit more about how you're trying to change that.


CHEN QIUFAN:

Right, I think we have created this kind of linear sensation of time that has derived mostly from Western culture. So because back in the day in China, we actually didn’t have this kind of evolutionary historical perspective. So everything is just like recycling. So one dynasty after another is just like repeating what's gonna happen again. So it's a totally, different kind of perspective on time. But I think that it was after the Industrial Revolution, that all these kinds of concepts relating to time alongside science and technology were introduced to China and Asia. So people accepted a standardised concept of time. But I think it's not necessarily the only version of our comprehension about time because there's so many different mythologies and, and, and fairytales about time, so it might not all be linear. Especially those actually embedded in our language. For example, when Waste Tide got translated into English by Ken Liu, the editor of Tor Magazine asked us questions because he was a bit confused, the timeline here is a little bit chaotic, because it's not strictly aligned with Western readers’ habits. For them, present and future are not simultaneously occurring, they’re not permanently entangled with each other. Then I started to realise it’s because we don't have tenses in Chinese languages. And people have been thinking this way for many thousands of years, and it creates these very bizarre expressions and ways of thinking about time itself. So yeah, I think definitely, there must and there are supposed to be different narratives on time itself. And I think that modern science proves that there are so many versions of reality, so even time is actually not fundamental. So I think this is something very recently that blew me away because what if time and space is not fundamental, what is the mechanism beneath that, and it means like that time is an illusion, right? It just helps us put things in sequence, in order to make it sensible and logical, but it's not necessary. So everything is helping us to think beyond that, and to create something new in a narrative, how can I make it nonlinear but still comprehensive? So that's totally challenging, but I love to explore. So I mean, Chinese, there's some science fiction by Han Song, Red Ocean is actually exploring that because he put the historical mythology part in the future, but the futuristic part in the first bit so it kind of creates a perspective. So it seems like we are shaping towards the past, towards the pre-modern time by actually, the present is the future. So that's something very interesting to trigger even more possibilities in the genre.


KERRY MACKERETH:

That's so fascinating. And thank you so much for like, such rich thoughts for us to end our interview with, you know, and I, I'm always you know, so fascinated by how language also shapes understandings of time. I sadly don't speak Cantonese, but certainly the members of my family who are native Cantonese speakers definitely frame things and the different tenses in different ways in terms of references to time. So I always think, wow, our perceptions of time are also, you know, fundamentally shaped by that as well. So yes, I want to say thank you so much for such a rich and interesting conversation. I've got all sorts of fireworks going off in my brain to go away and think about after this, and so we just want to say thank you again. It's been really great.


CHEN QIUFAN:

Thank you so much for having me here.

ELEANOR DRAGE:

This episode was made possible thanks to our previous funder, Christina Gaw, and our current funder Mercator Stiftung, a private and independent foundation promoting science, education and international understanding. It was written and produced by Dr Eleanor Drage and Dr Kerry Mackereth, and edited by Laura Samulionyte.


Image Credits: Tor



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