Han Song: Reality has become increasingly science fiction-like
China's premier science fiction writer & senior editor at Xinhua News Agency on living in the Age of Science Fiction.
In the face of rapidly changing technology, how should we imagine the future? Science fiction is becoming a new means of doing so. Today, Pekingnology shares a speech by 韩松 Han Song, a premier science fiction writer in China. I have the great fortune to know him while I was working at Xinhua News Agency, where Han is a widely-respected senior editor. - Zichen
Han Song is a senior editor with Xinhua News Agency and one of China’s leading science fiction writers. A native of Chongqing, Han earned an MA in journalism from Wuhan University; he began writing in 1982 and has published numerous volumes of fiction and essays. His novels include The Red Sea, Red Star over America, the Rails trilogy (Subway, High-Speed Rail, and Orbits), and the Hospital trilogy (Hospital, Exorcism, and Dead Souls), which has been described as a new landmark in dystopian fiction.
Han is a six-time winner of the Chinese Galaxy Award for fiction and a repeat recipient of the Xingyun Award. His short fiction has appeared in the collections Broken Stars and The Reincarnated Giant and the anthology Exploring Dark Short Fiction: A Primer to Han Song. Han Song is also an avid reader and traveler, having traveled to the Antarctic and the Arctic. He’s even searched for bigfoot in the forests of central China.
Han’s dystopian Hospital, translated by Michael Berry, Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Director of its Center for Chinese Studies (CCS), has been published in March 2023.
The following speech was made in January 2022 at the Tencent Technology Innovation Week for Good hosted by Tencent Research Institute and Tencent Sustainable Social Value Organization and included in the book Future Habitat.
I would like to discuss the world from a science fiction perspective. This may be incorrect, as science fiction is often considered as a toy for putting children to sleep. However, more and more people are paying attention to science fiction at present. For example, some real estate developers have said that they want to build communities in a science fiction style. Some people have suggested incorporating science fiction elements into urban transportation cards, and owners of stone factories even enlisted the help of science fiction writers to design exhibitions. Science fiction questions even appeared on the high school entrance exams. Some entrepreneurs and even government officials have said that they are science fiction fans. Steel plants in Beijing have been transformed into science fiction industrial parks, a science fiction festival has been held under the Buddha statue in Dunhuang city, and people in Nanjing are busy making science fiction films to popularize the ancient city.
Moreover, today you have all sacrificed valuable time to listen to me talk about science fiction, which was previously unheard of. Of course, in my opinion, this is somewhat related to the fact that no new topics could be found in reality, as is the case with the metaverse.
However, there may also be another reason, which is that reality is becoming more and more like science fiction. Many of the things described in science fiction novels are happening in reality. For example, you can call out when you arrive home, and a robot will come to sweep the floor. When you arrive at a hotel, a robot will greet you and provide service, even soothing your emotions to make you relaxed. You can navigate to a distant and unfamiliar place with your phone, and your child can watch astronauts teach physics from the comfort of your home.
For example, overnight we found ourselves living in a world made up of masks, having to constantly undergo nucleic acid tests, and everyone being treated as a potential patient. Ten years ago, in my science fiction novel Hospital, I wrote, "Not only has our city become a hospital, but the whole world has become a hospital." "What kind of world would it be if one day we were treated as patients no matter what we were doing?" This scene seems to be becoming a reality.
In the past year, many unbelievable things have happened. For instance, a flood in the subway of a provincial capital city killed many people, a marathon resulted in a group of people freezing to death, over a billion people had never seen drone-enabled live-streaming broadcast of elephants entering a city, millions of people experienced power rationing for the first time, and someone sold over ten billion yuan worth of goods in one night through online live streaming. E-sports seems to be replacing sports events and movies and becoming a new species.
Therefore, sometimes I feel like I am living in a future world, where things that should happen tomorrow are happening tonight.
Why is this happening? Some people turn to science fiction for answers. In the 19th century, science fiction emerged in the UK, the birthplace of the technological and industrial revolutions. Science fiction was called the myth of the technological age and focused on the future of humanity. It corresponds to a new geological era, the "Anthropocene", in which humans have become the primary factor influencing the historical process of the Earth, rather than nature. Humans are changing the trajectory of the future, and the future is no longer arriving gradually along old paths. Humans are causing ecological destruction and mass extinction, and the possibility of human extinction is increasing. Based on the mastery of atomic energy, subatomic structure, and genetic codes, humans have created the means that will destroy themselves and the Earth for the first time in the last hundred years.
Out of concern for the future, humans have found a new means, science fiction, to reflect on their fate. As the name suggests, science fiction includes both science (representing logical rationality) and fantasy (representing imagination); moreover, it is expressed in artistic forms such as novels and movies (representing sensibility), rather than formulas and papers, but artists are often "mad." Therefore, science fiction metaphorically represents that we live in an era where rationality and sensibility, normalcy and madness, reality and the future are interwoven most intensely. The hallmark of our era is science fiction, and technology has become the first reality, full of unprecedented illusions and even disillusionment.
In such a new era, it is necessary to pay attention to the logic of science fiction. This is because, when technology and the future become keywords, focusing solely on the logic of Wu Xia/martial arts is no longer enough, since that was the theme of the agricultural era.
Science fiction has several logic:
The first is to create new concepts. The inventions and creations in our modern life originated from science fiction concepts. Science fiction predicted the existence of mobile phones, the internet, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles. The concept of the Metaverse was first proposed in science fiction novels. The concept of post-human also comes from science fiction, which refers to the integration of humans and machines, or genetic engineering to modify humans. Mobile phones have become a new organ of the human body, like the eyes, trachea, and liver, that cannot be separated for a moment. Genetic technology can modify human bodies, enabling people to live longer and even become supermen/superwomen. New concepts derived from relativity and quantum mechanics have become tools that lead or shape the future.
Facing the reality presented in science fiction, it may be necessary to establish two laboratories, one for technology and the other for ideas. I believe this is also part of the efforts for technology to do good. Doing good means being able to think independently and propose new concepts that others do not have when drastic changes occur.
The second is to create new wonders. Old wonders may include the clouds over Mount Everest and the aurora borealis in the Arctic. But new wonders are man-made, such as metal machines that are billions of times faster than the human brain, integrating tens of billions of transistors in a space as small as dust, supersonic aerospace vehicles, star chains that can replace the starry sky, and bases on the Moon and Mars.
The most impressive wonder is the one called dreams, and science fiction has always been about the ability to create dreams. Lu Xun introduced science fiction to China by saying that the difference in dreams determines the difference in the future. This means that imagination is now more important than ever, as Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge.
When we went to schools in cities and rural areas, we found that there is a gap in dreams between urban and rural teenagers, not just a gap in knowledge. Whether or not we can create new wonders depends on what kind of magical dreams we have, which is the power to define and speak about the future. The answer to the question "what is the future of humanity" will determine everything. It is more important than ever to cultivate curiosity, a "playful" mind, and imagination in the next generation, and to encourage them to open their minds, which is the secret of innovation and a greater kindness.
The third is to create new worlds. Science fiction has created four new worlds:
First, a world of time freedom, where time can be accelerated or compressed, and even time travel can be possible. Technology can also create a sensation directly in the nervous system, making people feel like they have lived for centuries in just an hour, experiencing many lifetimes.Second, a world of space freedom. We have the ability to travel to distant interstellar space, create new spaces at the nanometer level, or transform traditional human spaces. For example, imagine that we can fold cities, enabling people of different classes to live together, or split Planck space and move excess population there.
Third, a world of digital freedom, where people can freely move around in virtual space, and their digital avatars can do anything, giving birth to new lives.
Fourth, a world of will freedom, where technology unleashes the potential of the brain and self-awareness, and enriches people's spiritual world like never before.
All science fiction takes place in these four new worlds, and all creations and inventions are fragments of these four new worlds. Essentially, people seek four types of freedom while creating new aesthetics. Sir Arthur Charles, the British science fiction writer, said, "Why should people go to outer space? It's not just about mining on alien planets, but fundamentally to see how beautiful the universe is, and to inspire our desire for survival and potential." The best products are works of art, like Steve Jobs' iphone, and then comes technology. The premise of goodness is beauty. Therefore, having the ability to construct alternative worlds is crucial. It is said that some companies have already established a new profession or position called "worldview constructor". But the question is, can we create a fifth new world beyond these four worlds? What is it? Currently, there are no answers or clues.
New concepts, new wonders, and new worlds are the utopias that are emerging. Capital, technology, products, and flow are all moving towards these three directions. The reason we are restless day and night is to desperately search for traces of new concepts, new wonders, and new worlds in reality and quickly capitalize on them.
However, there are other aspects to consider in the era of science fiction:
Firstly, there is a delay. One thing that sets science fiction apart from pure fantasy is the potential for its depictions to come true, albeit often with a delay. For example, while it was once predicted that humans would navigate the solar system freely by the beginning of the 21st century, this has yet to become a reality. Similarly, a world full of intelligent robots remains far off. Despite science fiction's portrayal of the Internet of Things, 3D printing, and flying cars, these technological advances have not arrived as “scheduled” or met our expectations. In the years ahead, our primary concern is still likely to be the survival of our physical bodies rather than virtual existence. As such, people’s demand for basic necessities rather than cutting-edge technology continues to grow. It is therefore important to exercise caution in pursuing dreams, particularly those that are loudly proclaimed. Sometimes, refraining from taking action or proceeding slowly can also be a benevolent choice.
The second aspect is uncertainty. Future worlds depicted in science fiction are uncertain and unstable, similar to the world of Jurassic Park, which is governed by chaos theory and non-linear principles. A minor malfunction can bring the entire system crashing down. Science fiction portrays a future of infinite possibilities, where nothing can be taken for granted. That is why science fiction writers keep imagining "what if" scenarios and exploring the most extreme possibilities.
Science fiction often features science freaks because, when new things are first introduced, they tend to attract a lot of "fools," "frauds," and "madmen." While many of these "madmen" will fail and suffer consequences such as bankruptcy, imprisonment, or even suicide, a few will persist and ultimately become the winners.
The third aspect is incompleteness. In science fiction, we are presented with rich and colorful visions of the future, but also with great scarcity. For example, some may think that having access to big data means that everything is within our grasp, but this underestimates the complexity of the universe. As portrayed in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” was calculated by a supercomputer to be a mysterious "42", which no one could understand. Therefore, the unknowns we face far outweigh what we know.
As a result, we will long endure tremendous information asymmetry, and it is possible that whoever with more information will become more vulnerable, as others see them as a threat. Even the god-like civilization in science fiction cannot have complete control over the production chain of the universe. Instead of trying to create and control everything, we must strive to maintain a balance among the environment, other individuals, and some ineffable forces, and build a chain of trust. This requires greater benevolence and a reduction of hostility wherever possible.
The fourth aspect is fragility. As depicted in the science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem, nothing is truly invincible. You could be replaced, disappear, or evaporate at any moment. The unexpected can penetrate seemingly impenetrable fortresses, and a single virus can transform all our human habits. Science fiction has long predicted the fragility of smart cars, as evidenced by recent real-world simulations where hackers effortlessly infiltrated automatic control systems, raising questions about how to classify future traffic accidents.
The same problem will arise in all areas related to intelligent machines, from drones to medical equipment. In this new era of survival where machines are progressively resembling humans, and humans are becoming more like machines, “benevolence” entails staying humble and alert in all circumstances.
The fifth aspect is transience. On the one hand, it appears that immortality is within reach, but on the other hand, the lifespan of many things seems to be getting shorter and shorter. This trend applies to everything from perfect celebrity personas to large-scale technology or real estate enterprises, from single technologies to entire industries, and even to civilizations. In He Xi's science fiction novel 《异域》, everything is in fast-forward mode, creating new things while also producing monsters. The biggest challenge for technology is its short-livedness, and sometimes it is more important to take care of the aftereffects than to create new things. The Metaverse is more like Rome, where eternal life is just a delusion. As the Metaverse arrives, its replacement is already brewing on the horizon.
In my opinion, delay, uncertainty, incompleteness, fragility, and transience constitute the characteristics of the science fiction era. Benevolence is to be prepared for the drastic changes of the times. William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, which inspired The Matrix, famously said “the future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed yet.” Now we can modify that to say, the future is already here, while it is just “currently” in vogue.
For millennia, the way we live today has been shaped by what happened yesterday. Therefore, understanding what to do in the present meant looking to the past, through works like Records of the Grand Historian and Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance. However, times have changed. Today is no longer solely influenced by the past, but also by the future. In order to stay in control of the present, it is crucial to have insight into the future. With that said, I have some exciting news to share: just at the end of last December, Chengdu in China beat cities like Nice in France, Memphis in the U.S, and Winnipeg in Canada to win the bid to host the 81st World Science Fiction Convention. This marks only the second time in the Convention's history, founded in 1939, that it will be held in Asia, with the last time being in Japan in 2007. It will be the first time the most imaginative minds on Earth will gather in China to discuss the fate and future of humanity in the technological age. Some non-Chinese observers have even suggested that understanding China's science fiction is key to understanding its future, and in turn, the future of the world as a whole.
However, I do think that there are challenges emerging. In recent times, reality has become increasingly science fiction-like, and even surpasses some of the predictions made by science fiction. This is something that is worth paying attention to.
The challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic is actually a challenge to human imagination. I suspect that "future" may have become an independent life form that operates independently from human control. It will not follow our schedules but rather accelerate its invasion of reality in its own way, fundamentally altering and even upending our understanding of the world. Similarly, technology is evolving into another form of independent life, breaking free from human manipulation and gaining the ability to autonomously evolve.
While technology has always been intended to shape the future, it is not guaranteed that the future desires to be changed. In many ways, the ability for humanity to survive in the future hinges on whether a relationship of mutual benevolence can be cultivated between technology and the future. This represents a significant challenge to human ingenuity and luck. (Enditem)
“The kind of science fiction I write is two dimensional; but Han Song writes three-dimensional science fiction. If we look at Chinese science fiction as a pyramid, two-dimensional science fiction would be the foundation, but the kind of three-dimensional science fiction that Han Song writes would be the pinnacle.” ―Liu Cixin, author of The Three-Body Problem
“[T]his dystopian tale skillfully balances delusion, disillusionment, and disdain. Readers are in for a dark, difficult trip down the rabbit hole.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Fans of Haruki Murakami and Cixin Liu will enjoy Song’s writing style and inventive narrative scope.” ―Booklist
“Demented, delirious, and one of a kind…Kafkaesque doesn’t begin to describe this cunning labyrinth of a novel. Nothing I have read has captured so incisively (and searingly) the unrelenting institutional brutality of our contemporary world.” ―Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“The darkness contained within Hospital expresses the author’s desperation with mankind’s attempts at self-treatment and salvation. The novel’s completely unbridled narrative path sets out in the direction of science fiction but ultimately arrives at the spiritual abyss lurking in the reality of today’s China…and the rest of the world.” ―Yan Lianke, author of The Day the Sun Died and Hard Like Water